Jerusalem — The building stands at the centre of the city, its curved façade looming like a question mark. Older than Israel itself, and with a history nearly as tormented and complicated, the Sansur Building will witness the celebrations unfolding on the adjacent Zion Square this week as the Jewish state celebrates its 60th anniversary.
But if the grimy pedestrian shopping plaza that is Zion Square – at the heart of the newer, western half of this ancient city – is synonymous with Israel, the three-storey Sansur is a reminder of why Palestinians refer to Israel's birth on May 15, 1948, as the naqba, the catastrophe. And of why the fighting for this land has never stopped since that day.
A small plaque on the outer wall tells passersby that the three-storey edifice with the neoclassical touches was erected by the Sansur Brothers of Bethlehem in 1929. Like much of the history here, that's a matter of opinion. The building's real story mirrors that of a country still wrestling with both its past and its modern identity. The tales of those who built it, those who lived and worked in it and even those who were merely passing by all follow the tragic, violent course that this country and its peoples have taken.
Lives ordinary and extraordinary – Arab and Jew, Holocaust survivors and suicide bombers – have been colliding here since the moment the Jewish state was born. They crashed, clashed and left each other changed – and almost always for the worse. Together, their stories pose an existential question that Israel, on the eve of its 60th birthday, has yet to answer.
Sixty years ago, a young woman named Batya Bornstein was among the hundreds of revellers who surged onto Zion Square to celebrate Israel's declaration of independence. The 24-year-old watched gleefully as dozens of youths danced the hora and sang as they spun around a bonfire in the middle of the plaza.
Even then, tensions were high. War was clearly on the horizon and in a sense already under way. Ben Yehuda Street, which meets Jaffa Road at Zion Square, still bore the scars of a triple car-bomb attack carried out by Arab fighters just three months earlier, killing 52 Jewish civilians.
Ms. Bornstein had served as a medic in the Haganah militia that was one of four main Jewish paramilitary organizations battling Arab fighters in the run-up to Independence Day. All four would soon be folded into the Israel Defence Forces to combat the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, which invaded immediately after the declaration of independence.
The war was to last a year, and Israel not only survived, but expanded its territory significantly beyond what it had been allotted under the United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish halves.
Ms. Bornstein had arrived in what was then the British mandate of Palestine in 1934, after her father decided that the rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe – and neighbouring Germany – meant that their native Poland was no longer a safe place to raise a family.
“We left Lvov on a stormy day, it was December, and when we came to Israel it was still December, but the sun was shining. I remember seeing a lot of oranges,” the frail but sharp-minded 83-year-old says, recalling the day she and her family landed in Haifa.
Today, she lives in a photograph-cluttered apartment in Katamon, an Arab neighbourhood that was seized by Israel – and emptied of its former inhabitants – during the fighting of 1948-49.
For Ms. Bornstein's family, Israel provided a refuge from the horrors that were unfolding in Europe. Her beloved grandmother and most of her extended family disappeared into the Nazi concentration camp of Belzec in eastern Poland. Her husband, Shmuel, whom she married in 1951, emerged from years of internment in both Belzec and Bergen-Belsen, racked with diphtheria, but alive.
Like many Holocaust survivors, he went straight from Europe's war to Palestine's. Mr. Bornstein served in the Haganah unit that fought first in the Galilee and then later in the battle for the southern port of Eilat that was the last major combat of the war.
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