In my neighborhood in Beer Sheva, the streets are named after the Negev region of Israel. Places, people and animals are prominent and serve as a monument to the city and the area. One street name stands out from the others – it is neither place nor person nor animal. This street is named after a road.
Maale Akrabim (Scorpions’ Ascent) is mentioned in the Bible as the southern border of the Promised Land: And your border shall turn from the south to the Ascent (Maale) of Akrabim….Numbers 34:3
The Romans paved the road and the Nabateans used it to bring spices to market through the port of Gaza. They built fortresses and way-stations for the caravans which traversed the route bringing eastern spices from Yemen to markets in Europe. These stately structures, abandoned since the 7th century and the arrival of the early Moslem dynasties, still hold a silent court above the road. In this land of little rain, roads that worked remained. So too, Maale Akrabim. It survived without any major settlements along its length and became the most convenient way to get from the central area of the Bedouin tribes, the wells of Beer Sheva, to the southern Jordan valley, the Arava, and points south and east.
The road continued to serve the British who paved the modern road in 1927. They, too, strove to control this passage by constructing their 2 dessert police stations at the termini of the Maale Akrabim road.
In the nascent Jewish state which spread south to Eilat, there was a need to maintain the road to stitch the country together. And so, an Egged bus winding its way back to the center of the country, filled with people returning from work and pleasure in Eilat, started the ascent of Maale Akrabim on March 16, 1954.
As the bus chugged and sputtered up the hill, it was attacked. Because it was traveling so slowly, it was not difficult for the attackers to board the bus on one of the bends and open fire on the passengers and the drivers. After the driver, Ephraim Fuerstenberg, was killed the bus rolled to a stop and the attackers continued. Ephraim had been on vacation with his family in Eilat. He did not live to hear his wife, Hannah, trying to escape from the bus, being raped and murdered.
His children survived the initial barrage. Chaim, his eldest child, called out to his sister, “Miri, where are you? Are they gone?” The murderers followed the sound of his voice and pulled back the body of the dead Israeli soldier on top of him before firing at Chaim at point blank range. Miraculously, Chaim was not killed but spent the next 32 years in a state of paralysis and partial recognition before dying. Miri, aged 5, remained silent and so saved her life. She was one of only 4 people to survive.
The Israeli army trackers tried to find the killers the next day, but when they got within 2 km of Jordan, they lost the track. Jordan never took responsibility for the tragic event and the perpetrators were never found.
The massacre at Maale Akrabim spurred the Israeli government to find an alternative for the ancient road. The goal of building a road which is in the center of the Negev, not too close to Jordan and not too close to Egypt, was completed in 1957. In order to accomplish this goal, a road was cut through the Ramon crater, including a pretty harrowing serpentine road down the northern rim of the crater. Today, this road – Route 40 – exists as a major thoroughfare for those traveling by car to Eilat.
Few make the journey through Maale Akrabim anymore; Route 40 is more modern and time efficient. My street in Beer Sheva is named after the old road, Maale Akrabim; like its namesake, it is twisting and hard to navigate. This street was planned not too long after the massacre and I’m sure that the city sought to honor the memory of those who were killed on the roads in the Negev, simply because they were Jews. May their memory be a blessing.