This is the amazing story of how an architect from Tel Aviv was sent to Damascus to improve the city in 1916, at the behest of the Ottoman military governor, Jamal Pasha. The memoirs of Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz, who had been responsible for a number of public works in Palestine, were unearthed by his grand-daughter last year, reports Ofer Aderet in Haaretz. But Aderet fails to give the context to this extraordinary story: while Wilbushevitz had a cordial relationship with Jamal Pasha, the First World War was raging and 10,000 Ashkenazi Jews like him, suspected of disloyalty to the Turks, would be deported from Palestine in the following year. (With thanks: Boruch)
Djemal Pasha would often visit the workplace, take an interest in its progress, and would urge us to complete the work as soon as possible. He asked me to come to him whenever I encountered difficulties and allowed me to come to his residence even in work clothes, as long as I wouldn’t lose time,” Wilbushevitz wrote. “The group of government officials treated my demands and orders with all seriousness,” he added.
Pasha, he noted, “would take every opportunity he had to enhance my reputation in the eyes of the officials.” For instance, he would invite the engineer to festive parties, “and when I entered the party, he would greet me with a handshake in front of everyone. Under such conditions, I was able to overcome many difficulties I encountered in executing the work,” he wrote.
Along with the soldiers, he enlisted about 300 craftsmen – including quarriers, stonemasons, builders, plasterers, carpenters and blacksmiths. “With these experts I myself created all the materials I lacked,” he wrote. Among other things, he built quarries and workshops, where they worked limestone, chiseled stones and more. When he needed means of transportation, he commandeered empty carts and mules from Damascenes, with the aid of soldiers on the main streets.
One of the chapters from that period is devoted to a confrontation with German officers and soldiers who were posted in Syria at that time as part of the wartime alliance between Turkey and Germany. “It was easy for me to arrange my business with Turkish officialdom and with the residents of Damascus. But it was not so easy for me to manage when I encountered Germans. Antisemitism typified the Germans even in those days, and the toxic hatred of Jews welled up in them already then.”