On the Brink of Extinction: The Murder of Yair

בנימין זרעוני

Binyamin Zaroni

sop-resize-200-אברהם אמפר

Avraham Amper

sop-resize-200-גפרי מורטון

Geoffrey J. Morton

sop-resize-200-זליג זק

Selig Jacques

חנוך סטרליץ

Hanoch Kalai (Sterlitz

sop-resize-200-אברהם שטרן מבוקש

Avraham Stern, wanted

sop-resize-200-יעקב אליאב לבינשטיין

Yaacov Eliav (Lebstein)

sop-resize-200-משה סבוראי

Moshe Savorai

sop-resize-200-שלמה שיף

Solomon Schiff

sop-resize-200-תומאס וילקין-1

Thomas James Wilkin

By Nechemia Ben-Tor                                                   
 

With the “German connection” a failure, Yair decided to initiate a number of acts not dependent on outside aid. The first targets were the CID detectives, Thomas James Wilkin first and foremost, but they had no success in tracing his movements. They tried to confiscate funds from the Arab Bank of Jerusalem, but this failed. The next target was British Minister of State in the Middle East Oliver Lyttelton, founder of the Arab League; at the same time, a huge escape of members of the orgnaizations from the Mizra detention camp was also planned, but they remained only on paper.

These failures and the felling of impotence had an impact on the mood of the fighters, including two members of the command staff, Hanoch Kalai and Binyamin Zaroni, who started criticizing Yair’s tactics and challenging his fundamental ideals, which had been accepted by everyone at the time of the schism, e.g. defining Britain as an enemy and foreign ruler. These two wanted to put an end to anti-British activities for the duration of World War II and go back to Raziel and IZL. Yair, of course, rejected this out of hand. The debates and disputes were not confined to headquarters, and the senior commanders also started hearing about them.

The organization was frozen. In such a state, they could not initiate activities and continue to establish the organization, and it was necessary to choose a way to proceed. The senior commanders held a conference, and there the decision was made to follow Yair’s path and to continue fighting Britain; they expressed their dedication to him personally and to his political and philosophical views. Kalai and Zaroni abandoned Yair and went back to IZL.

This caused great confusion in the frontlines, until they reached a difficult emotional crisis, expressing qualms and doubts about the future of the movement and its prospects. The riven underground was overwhelmed by a wave of members deserting. The one point of light in those hard times was the arrival in Eretz Israel of Dr. Israel Eldad (Scheib), who soon became a member of the central committee of Lehi and declared his desire to dedicate himself to the work of the underground. Yair wanted to integrate him in the public-relations work.

Yair dedicated a lot of time to meeting people and to forging personal connections in order to persuade them to agree with his views. He constantly moved his address for security reasons. He did not go out during the day to the street; he always held his meetings at night. Throughout 1941, he was unable to find a permanent residence, so he constantly moved from one place to the next, with no break. In early Decemebr 1941, the underground suffered another great setback. Five senior commanders were arrested by the CID: Yehoshua Zatler, Yitzhak Jeziernicky (Shamir), Yosef Broshi, Daniel Masri and Yitzhak Siman-Tov reorganized the command staff.

In the Mizra detention camp, dozens of Yair’s men were imprisoned. He was very optimistic about what might happen when the escape plan was put into motion. “You must do everything so that at least some of you may escape imprisonment and direct the work,” he urged them.

Yair continued to switch his residence frequently. Generally, he would not go to the same place twice. As he could not find a place to sleep, he would hide in deserted shelters throughout Tel Aviv, carrying with him a small suitcase, prayer shawl and phylacteries. From January 1st, 1942, until he was murdered, he stayed with the Savorai couple, Tova and Moshe, who were both members of the underground. They lived at #8 Mizrahi Bet Street, in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

The searches for Yair and his men intensified. The CID men, Thomas James Wilkin, Commander of the Jewish Division, and Geoffrey J. Morton, head of CID in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, told their subordinates not to arrest Yair’s men, but to bring them back dead. The underground decided to eliminate them. January 20th, 1942, was chosen as the day to assassinate them, in a residence at 8 Yael Street in Tel Aviv, in which a booby trap had been set up. Unfortunately, it was not Morton and Wilkin who showed up, but two Jewish policemen, Deputy Superintendent Solomon Schiff and Inspector Nathan Goldman, along with a British officer, Inspector E. Turton. When the bomb exploded, all three were killed. Meanwhile, Morton and Wilkin, who arrived there late, were spared.

This failure shocked Yair. Killing the two Jewish officers inspired a great deal of fury among the members of the Yishuv. Yair and his men received many condemnations, and they were labelled thieves, Jew-murderers, a fifth column, etc. Their blood was forfeit. The CID intensified the siege on Yair and his friends. The danger to Yair’s life gathered more and more energy. The organization was hit with one setback after another. The radio station was discovered; the printing press was seized. On the 27th of January, a group of policemen, led by Morton, burst into an apartment at 30 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, in which there was an accelerated weapons course taking place, in preparation for the escape from the Mizra detention camp. Bursting into the apartment, Morton ran in shooting, seriously wounding the four boys there: Moshe Savorai, Yaacov Eliav, Avraham Amper, and Selig Jacques. They were transferred to the government hospital in Jaffa, where the latter two died of their wounds. Savorai and Eliav were put on trial and sentenced to life in prison.

After Moshe Savorai was arrested, Yair left the couple’s apartment, but he later had to return, as he had no other options and no other place to rest his head. On January 30th, Yair’s picture was circulated in public, with a bounty of one thousand lira for anyone who could bring about his capture. After four days, another four photographs were circulated, including Kalai and Zaroni, who turned themselves over at the end of the day.

The siege became tighter and tighter. It was only a matter of time as to when he’d be captured. In his heart, he knew that his decree was sealed. Yair felt that the war of liberation would demand a personal sacrifice of him, his own life offered for the sake of the homeland; this thought occupied him constantly He could have saved his life, had he wanted to surrender. The Revisionists offered him shelter, while the leftists were ready to hide him on a kibbutz—on the condition that he would stop fighting. Yair rejected these proposals. “Only death frees one from the frontlines.” The truth of his poetry was the truth of his life.

The fateful date arrived: the twenty-fifth of Shevat, 5702, on the Hebrew calendar—the twelfth of February, 1942. It was late morning on Mizrahi Bet Street in Tel Aviv.

The quiet of the street was shattered suddenly, as brakes shrieked and a car stopped in front of house number eight. Out of the car burst eager British and Jewish policemen, charging into the house and up the stairs all the way to the top floor. Wilkin was at their head, and there they found Yair. After he was identified, Morton was summoned. He dragged Yair, handcuffed, to the window, where he was shot to death.

How was Yair discovered? There were different accounts. Morton claimed that Moshe Savorai had incautiously revealed the information in the hospital, as he testified at the trial of Savorai and Eliav. Fifty years later, this account was disproven when Moshe Savorai brought a series of libel suits against various groups and individuals who blamed him for Stern’s death. Morton was summoned, but he refused to come and testify.

Yair had been murdered. The British and their collaborators breathed easy. But the war did not come to an end. Yair’s blood nourished the flame of the war against the foreign occupier, until the Hebrew nation was finally liberated.


    

 

Banai, Yaakov, Hayalim Almonim, Tel Aviv: Yair, 1989

Ben-Tor, Nechemia, Sefer Toledot Lohamei Herut Israel, Tel Aviv: Hotzaot Yair, 2010

Eliav, Yaacov, Mevukash, Jerusalem: BaMahteret, 1983

Gilboa (Polani), Yaakov, Be-lekhtekha Bi-sdot Eima, Tel Aviv: Hotzaot Yair, 1986

Savorai, Moshe and Tova, Me-IZL Le-Lehi, self-published, 1989

Zaroni, Binyamin, Gaon, Nadiv Ve-akhzar, Tel Aviv: Millo, 1992