During the years when England was given the mandate to administrate the Holy Land (1920-1948), the suites of offices from which they governed were in Jerusalem, in the luxurious King David Hotel.
One week, a wave of nervous excitement permeated the offices. An important high-ranking official from the Foreign Office was due to arrive from London on an inspection tour, and all the employees were expending great effort in preparation for the diplomat's visit.
One of them was Esther-Frumet Koenig, a young Jewish woman who served as the chief secretary in the department of the British High Commissioner of "Palestine."
Her parents, Rabbi Shmuel-Yaakov and Gittel Weinberg, were born in Russia, but after the Communist Revolution emigrated from that country at their earliest opportunity. Although they had been enchanted with the idea of joining the burgeoning Jewish settlement in the Holy Land, in the end they decided to move to England.
One of the main factors in their decision was a concern for their precocious young daughter's general education. Childhood testing within the British educational system had confirmed that Esther-Frumet had great intelligence and abilities. Different schools with solid reputations for excellence offered the parents full scholarships if they would enroll Esther-Frumet in their institution.
Rabbi Weinberg realized that to pursue that stream would seriously endanger if not destroy the possibility for his daughter to receive a full and undefiled Jewish education, a goal which he had always considered to be crucial. The family abruptly decided to make aliyah to Israel and to live in Jerusalem. The Weinbergs established residence in Givat Shaul, which at that time was one of Jerusalem's newer neighborhoods where many recent immigrants lived. Esther-Frumet was eleven years old when they arrived in Israel.
After a few years a serious problem arose for them. The Arab men of the nearby village of Nifta were heard speaking about a plan to kidnap the prettier Anglo-Jewish girls of Givat Shaul and force them into marriage and conversion to Islam.
Rabbi Weinberg realized that the only guaranteed way to protect Esther-Frumet, who was then a young teenager, was to arrange for her to get married immediately. Very soon after that Esther-Frumet willingly married Eliezer Mordechai Koenig, a young man a decade older than her.
Esther-Frumet spoke and wrote English at a near fluency level. She was also skilled and exceptionally smart. It is no wonder that she easily landed a job in the department of the High Commissioner, where she quickly rose to a position of prominence.
One of her assignments was to accompany the commissioner to his official meetings. She would bring with her a large stenography machine and on it type accurately the content of all the statements and discussions. The participants learned that they could rely on her completely.
Her position was powerful. All the correspondence sent to the High Commissioner passed first through her hands. Whenever a letter from London would purport to enact an oppressive measure against the Jews of the land, she would make every effort to cancel it and send a brief response in the governor's name, giving the impression that the purpose of the letter had been attended to properly. She well knew that such deeds were endangering her job, but her concern for her people was greater than her worries for herself.
One example was when a series of letters arrived urging that Sunday be legally established as the official Sabbath day off from work, also in the land of Israel. Esther-Frumet shredded every one of these letters, thereby preventing the topic from even arriving for discussion in the government departments.
Eventually her activities "somehow" became known to the Jews of Jerusalem and a few began referring to her as "Queen Esther." The honorary nickname quickly stuck and became known in other Jewish population centers as well.
On Monday, July 22, 1946, a woman member of Etzel ("Irgun") telephoned the King David Hotel, warning that they had infiltrated the hotel and concealed in it a massive amount of explosives, and therefore it was imperative to evacuate everyone.
Whoever had answered the phone did not take the warning seriously, either believing it to be a prank call or that the ragged Jewish resistance movement was not capable of such a sophisticated operation. As a result, the warning never circulated, despite two follow-up phone calls.
Twenty-five minutes after the first warning, at 12:37pm, a tremendous explosion destroyed a major portion of the hotel, especially the southern wing where the British offices and suites were located. The final death toll was 91, plus 46 more injured.
Photo of the King David Hotel on August 6, 1946 after the bombing of the British offices (See the right side to see the deadly damage)
Esther's family was terrified that she had been caught in the explosion and G-d forbid killed.
A short time later the door opened and Esther strolled in. She explained that at work an important parcel needed to be delivered to the post office. The simple Arab employee whose job was to take care of such menial tasks had not come in that day, and Esther had unhesitatingly volunteered to take it in his stead. The explosion occurred mere minutes after she had left. Her humbleness and her generous caring nature had saved her life.
Like the rest of the workers in her office, Esther had been involved in the preparations for the visit of the British official and the delegation that accompanied him. At last, the day arrived. The office was sparkling clean and neat, with everything in its place for the anticipated inspection. The employees waited with baited breath for the arrival of their distinguished guests.
When the diplomat finally arrived all the staff was gathered to greet him. In response he announced that he wanted to express his appreciation for their exceptionally dedicated work in preparation for this day and he would do so by presenting each and every woman in the room a special gift. Then he began to circulate around the room giving each woman a valuable gold necklace with a pendant-a dangling cross!
The women were deeply moved by his attention and generosity. Each in turn formally bowed to him, including the Jewish women among them, and accepted the gift with expressions of gratitude.
The sole exception was Esther. When the honored dignitary extended one of the necklaces to her, she thanked him gracefully for his good intentions, and then said, "I apologize, but I cannot accept your generous gift, because I am a Jew."
The dignitary was perplexed for a moment, but then he apologized and continued to the next woman.
Everyone in the room felt confused by what had just happened, and the other Jewish women among the female staff were upset with Esther as well. Afterwards, they reprimanded her for being so demonstrative in her refusal.
"Don't you know that such behavior can arouse even more hatred against the Jews?" they scolded. "If you didn't want it, you should just have taken it and later on you could have sold it."
(Not true. Jewish law also forbids benefitting from objects of worship in other religions-y.t.)
Esther did not bother to respond. She was confident that absolutely she had done the right thing.
The next day there was a surprise notification that the British dignitary would once again visit their department. They couldn't imagine why, but the mystery was quickly solved. As soon as the man entered the room, he walked directly over to Esther and, much to her amazement and everyone else's too, said that he wanted her to have a gift from him too. He presented her again with a gold necklace, identical to the others, but the pendant on this one was a Jewish star.
Some of the other Jewish women workers gathered their nerve, approached the official and said; "We too are Jewish."
The gentile British official looked at them with a steady gaze and replied, "This was given to someone who is Jewish at every instance."
Source: Translated and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from an excerpt in the Hebrew weekly Sichat Hashavua (#1376) from the book Derek L'Kotel ("On the Way to the Western/Wailing Wall") by Leah Weg, granddaughter of Esther-Frumet Koenig.
Connections: 1) Purim-"Queen Esther"; 2) Weekly Reading: Golden garments and ornaments of the High Priest.
Reprinted from KabbalaONline.org, a project of Ascent of Safed.