18th of Tevet, 5668 – 25th of Shevat, 5702
December 23, 1907 – February 12, 1942
“You can have nothing more noble and sacred than a national war, the war of a nation to safeguard its dignity, liberty and life. The life of a nation without dignity and without liberty is no life at all. That is why any self-respecting nation, either big or small, is willing to take its destiny into its own hands and wage a national war, the course of which will be determined by the nation’s readiness and its determination to fight against all odds – to be killed rather than to surrender.
“Even if these ‘immeasurable values’ do not always predict the outcome of the war, they nevertheless determine its historical significance, its value to the fate of the nation, whatever the outcome may be… It is not the war’s success that determines the future of the nation for generations to come but the war itself – its character and the people’s resistance, in the face of danger, against the enemy…
“Today, as on any day before or after, here in our own homeland our lives emulate those of our brethren in exile. Like them, we keep to the sidelines to escape from the glare of the sun and the wrath of the police. Torn and ragged, chilled to the bone, almost barefoot and absolutely famished… lacking a pillow on which to rest our weary heads, in attics with dilapidated roofs, in muddy basements, in remote shacks… and, as cruel as the fate of freedom fighters wherever they may be, as bitter as betrayal by one’s brethren, numberless days like these await us – until the coming of the day of revenge and battle, the day of the sacred Hebrew Revolution.”
Yair, from a (missing) note he wrote shortly before his assassination for an issue of
In the Underground, Kislev, 5702.
I was not personally acquainted with Yair…but there is no doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest and most honourable of men who lived during the British Mandate. I wholeheartedly respect and esteem both the poetry and the steel of his tempestuous spirit and his utmost dedication to the redemption of Israel – though I unreservedly reject his political methods.
David Ben-Gurion, from a letter to Ge’ula Cohen, 15th of Shevat , January 20, 1962.
Avraham Stern was born on the 18th of Tevet, 5668, December 23, 1907, the elder son of Mordechai and Leah Hadassah. His mother was the daughter of Raphael and Pessya Grushkin of the Lithuanian Jewish intelligentsia. Her father was a Zionist philanthropist and the author of the book Hadassah and a book on Proverbs. Avraham’s birthplace, Suvalk (Suwalki), was a border town in north-eastern Poland near Lithuania, a former part of Imperial Russia. Mordechai and Leah kept a secular Jewish home, heavily influenced by the combination of the traditional rejectionist and educated Lithuanian Jewry, and the Russian language and culture. Avraham’s father, a dentist, was known as an introverted man who kept very much to himself while the mother, a midwife and the dominant figure, was brave and courageous. Suvalk was a multinational city with a community of ten thousand Jews. It was a crossroads for trade, wars and invasions – peoples, cultures and armies. Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians, Germans, Tatars, Russians, the armies of Napoleon and the armies of Russia, Germany and Poland all passed through there during wars of conquest, revolts and battles.
Three historical events in Avraham’s childhood and adolescence influenced his future path, his personality and his worldview: Firstly, the First World War (WW1); the collapse of Empires and the awakening of repressed nations; the great social and political revolution in Russia – the February and October Revolutions, their literature and great romantic poetry with all its vigour and emotion and the reports and expectations that surrounded them. Secondly, Poland’s resurrection with its literature and romantic poetry, its tradition of revolt and defeat and its relentless spirit. Thirdly, and most important of all, the movement of liberation and resurrection of the Jewish nation and its dream of redemption in the homeland of its forefathers. In all of these events he was emotionally affected, not as an outside observer but as an actual participant through childhood to adolescence, and as a greatly involved person in adulthood.
Suvalk was conquered by the Germans at the onset of WW1 and his mother escaped with her children to her father’s house in Wilkomier and from there to the heart of Russia, to her sister Veira’s family. His father, who at the time had undergone surgery and was lying in hospital in Köningsburg, Eastern Prussia, was delayed and later arrested as a foreign national and so remained out of touch with his family for the rest of the war. Avraham was only seven when he began his journey into the Russian wilderness with his mother and his five-year-old brother David. The family spent most of the duration of the war in the remote village of Romadnovo by Sernsk, the land of the Bashkirs, in Central Russia.
The parents instilled in their sons the values of education and study. Avraham kept to these ideas throughout those turbulent times while experiencing the burdens of the Great War as he migrated from country to country in a world torn apart by revolutions, the collapse of Empires and the rise of nations and national states. His education was shaped by the melting pot of the revolutionary and cultural events of the period.
The first years of his studies were conducted privately with his aunt and uncle in Romadnovo. He began his regular schooling during the February Revolution of 1917. At the age of ten he passed the entrance examinations and was accepted to the first grade of the Russian Gymnasia in Sernsk, where he excelled at lessons. In addition, he received private tutorship in Hebrew. With the conclusion of the war at the end of 1918, his mother and David returned to Suvalk to reunite with the father of the family, leaving Avraham for three more years in Russia. He continued with his studies there in spite of hardships, hunger, despair and wandering in days of revolution and of civil war.
He completed his studies in Russia in Petrograd, while living with his revolutionary uncle Abrasha Grushkin, who resided there as a student. He graduated with honours from the fourth grade of the gymnasia, learned to play the piano in a musical academy and absorbed everything that Petrograd, a city suffused with the wonderful cultural renaissance of the revolution could offer in the fields of art, literature, theatre and music. He even joined the so-called Pioneers of the Communist Party Youth. It is very likely that this period of his life gave him the impetus to develop as an artist, actor and poet.
On his return, at the age of fourteen, to his parents’ home in the summer of 1921 he continued his studies in the Hebrew Gymnasia in Suvalk. It was during the following few years that he received his education in Hebrew literature and in the origins and history of Israel. The Hebrew Bible was to be found constantly at his side from that point onwards. In Suvalk he also absorbed the spirit of Polish Romantic Literature, and was heavily influenced by the great poets of tormented Poland fighting for its liberty. To the list of influences that had already shaped him, including the traditions of the revolution, the spirit of great Russian literature, the history of Israel and the New Hebrew literature was now added the influence of Polish Romanticism and of the greatest of its poets, all of which inspired his youthful spirit. This diverse and unusual cultural combination is the key to understanding his personality, his spirit, his poetry and his thought. During those formative years Avraham was also an active member of Shomer Ha’tsair in Suvalk and became one of its instructors, as the head of the Cubs (Kfirim) age group. When the sixth grade of the Hebrew Gymnasia in Suvalk was closed down before he had completed his studies, Avraham decided to continue his schooling in Eretz Israel.
On January 10, 1926 he arrived in Jerusalem, with a special emigration visa, to complete his studies there in the Hebrew Gymnasia and was lodged in a nearby boarding school. It was here that between the years 1926-27 he studied, was filled with the spirit and culture of the land, became attached to its landscapes and was consumed with his love for the homeland. He graduated from school on August 9, 1927 and at the end of that very same year began his studies in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The years 1927-1933 were ones in which he stood out as an exceptional student, as a humanist, and as a man involved with political and organizational activities. With special permission from the university, he undertook concurrent studies in three streams: New Hebrew Literature as the primary stream; Hebrew poetry in the Middle Ages, and Greek Language and Literature as well as Greek and Roman History as secondary streams. Those few years were ones of great productivity during which he wrote most (and also the best) of his poems; excelled in his studies; deepened and widened his knowledge of the Cultures of Israel and of the Classical World; and conceived and developed his vision of and strategy for the war for the liberty of Israel.
At the beginning of his academic education he formed a loving relationship with Roni Borstein, a fellow student at the university, a relationship that endured through many challenges, tumultuous times and fortunes, and lasted right up to the bitter end – his death. They married on January 31, 1936 and she stood by him faithfully all the way. She became the mother of his only son, Yair Avraham, who was born after his father’s death and named after him.
He began his political activity by founding the student union Hulda, named after the settlement whose residents bravely defended their homes during the riots of 1929 and managed to repel the Arab attacks. Special emphasis was given in the group’s program to “The resurrection of the Hebrew Nation in the reborn state, without subjection to any one partisan ideology or another.” The adoption of this principle clearly indicated the direction he would take in the future.
During one of his activities he met David Raziel, who was active in the El Al student union, and the two quickly became close friends. Avraham was three years older than David. The two of them came from different backgrounds. Avraham came from a secular home, his education was broad and influenced by diverse world cultures as well as by Jewish history. He specialized in Classical studies in the Hebrew University and was considered one of the most brilliant students in Classical Literature – both Greek and Roman. He was inseparable from his Bible and totally inspired by it, as well as by Hebrew poetry and literature. This of course fails to mention the rich cultural baggage, which he acquired during his travels. David Raziel, on the other hand, came to the university from a religious background, after completing two years at a Jerusalem Yeshiva. He struck one as a combination of a religious and a pious man who saw himself as both a commander and an army leader.
Despite their apparent differences the close friendship that they formed endured for many years. They complemented one another in their common dream. The friendship with David – Razi as he was nicknamed by Yair and Roni – considerably changed the course of Yair’s life. David’s influence also changed Yair’s attitude towards religion: Yair started eating at kosher restaurants and decided that once he established a family he would maintain a traditional household and, indeed, remained faithful to his decision. Ariel (rhyming with Raziel), the name that he adopted at that point as his underground nom de guerre, as also Azariya (in the lions’ den) that he adopted in the days of havoc and persecution that followed the split of 1940, evince a shift in his attitude. His previous connection to the writings of Israel was deepened and was reflected in the library of books he read during his student days at the university. Apart from Hebrew literature it included an impressive representation of the best of Russian poetry and prose as well as the poetry of the Revolution, some Polish romantic literature, the literature of revolt and of yearning for freedom by the best Polish poets, and also general literature – each book in its original language. The thread running through those books stands out clearly in his poetry, his vision, and his strategy. Russian more than any other was the language of his childhood and youth. Even after his arrival in Israel, he continued to use Russian when corresponding with his family and Roni and when writing his poems, the first collection of which comprised seven poems published in 1928.
Yair possessed many additional artistic talents – drawing, painting, and acting. He excelled at reciting poetry in its language of origin. His theatrical abilities stood him in good stead when he was later forced to conceal his involvement in underground activities. During 1927-1928 he had hoped to study acting in the Habima theatre whilst still a student in the Jerusalem Gymnasia, but his parents vehemently objected and eventually, after leaving school and before entering university, he gave in. The nature of his aspirations had changed dramatically due to the circumstances and the times.
The riots of August 1929 – where in cold blood, with much cruelty and savagery and frequently accompanied by looting and raping, 133 Jews were murdered and 339 were injured during the course of one week – proved to be a crossroads for Avraham’s political and military involvement. The resonance of those turbulent days was echoed in his poem “Unknown Soldiers”. Yet the riots were also the scene of acts of sacrifice and bravery. The Haganah, commanded by Avraham Tehomi and Avraham Keritchevsky, displayed especially great heroism in Jerusalem. In those days Yair and Raziel worked within the Haganah framework under the leadership of those two men. But the1929 riots made it abundantly clear how weak the Haganah really was and this became a subject of heated debate amongst its leaders. Led by Avraham Tehomi, a group demanded the transformation of the semi-legal Haganah from a civil militia into a trained, disciplined and well-armed underground army independent of any political parties or institutions. In the Spring of 1931 Tehomi informed the National Convention that he and nineteen other commanders were resigning from the Haganah to form another organization which would be called Haganah B and would be under their supervision. In early 1932 the name was changed to Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation – also known as Etzel or The Irgun). Tehomi became its first leader and adopted the nom de guerre of Gid’on. David Raziel and Avraham Stern were among the first to join.
Avraham was one of the most prominent members of the group of students who were recruited from the Hebrew University into this new organization by Dan (Keritchevsky), the Jerusalem commander. Also included were H. S. Heller, Hillel Cook, Binyamin Cohen Aharonov and Hayim Lubinski, among others. This group, which was to become the core of Etzel leaders who would eventually split from Tehomi’s organization in April 1937, was nicknamed The Camaraderie. At this stage, they were mainly occupied with organizational procedures, training, tactics, symbols and ranks, as well as the publication of an underground newspaper by the name of Hametsuda (The Fort), for exchanging ideas. Avraham, who was prominent in the group, was one of the editors of the paper and wrote many of its published articles. The group proposed naming the organization The National Military Organisation in Eretz Israel, and it was approved by Tehomi. The Camaraderie also composed the draft of The Oath of Allegiance, in which they emphasized a total allegiance to the Path. In early 1932, Avraham participated in the second Etzel Lieutenants course. At the graduation ceremony the anthem “Unknown Soldiers” that he composed was sung for the first time. It was published in Hametsuda’s second edition and became the official Etzel anthem and later that of Lehi.
In 1933 Avraham completed his studies with distinction, receiving an MA degree in Humanities, and was awarded a prestigious scholarship to complete his Doctorate in Florence, Italy. This was a marvellous opportunity for him to commence a brilliant academic career. On December 11, 1933 at the age of twenty-six, Yair left the country in order to complete his doctorate on The Eros in Ancient Greek Literature. Before his departure he authorized David Raziel to accept the summa cum laude degree on his behalf. Apart from working hard on his research during his short stay in Florence, he decided to edit the poems he had written while at the Hebrew University and to write new ones, too. Over forty-five of the total of fifty or sixty poems by Yair were written in the years 1932-1934, during his university studies and his stay in Florence. These poems include: “Unknown Soldiers”, “Mother of Life Are You, Mother of Death”, “Workers of the Underground Are We”, “Blessed Are You Son of Enmity, Father of Death”, “Stricken With the Madness of Resurrection”, “The Greatest Day of All Will Come, Indeed it Will”, “Simchat Torah”, “I Know There’ll Come A Day, or Evening”, “As my Father Clutched his Briefcase with Fear”, “The Oath”, “Behold Thou Art Consecrated Unto Me”, “Be As the Sons of God”, “Yes, I Too Am a Soldier and a Poet”, “A Hymn To Youth”, “For Poets”, “The Messiah”, and more (see Yaira Genossar: “Not for Us Sang the Saxophone” (Hebrew), pp. 51-55, Ibid, full list, appendices 2-6; pp. 455-458). The poems expressed his deep personal involvement in the underground and the turbulence of his spirit. The temptation of an academic career lying ahead of him was not enough to lead him astray from the sense of duty that was strengthened “On red days of pogroms and bloodshed”. He was spiritually attracted to the “most noble and sacred” ideal of all.
The change in direction from an academic career to pivotal activity in the underground took place during the second half of his stay in Florence. In May of 1934, five months after he had begun work on his doctoral thesis, Avraham Tehomi (Gid’on), the Etzel leader, paid him a visit in order to recruit him to the position of chief undercover agent in charge of the purchase of arms in Poland and their delivery to Eretz Israel. Yair accepted this role and thus commenced a new chapter in his life. He abandoned the academic career envisaged for him by his teachers, relinquished his personal dreams, and dedicated himself body and soul to carrying “Heavy luggage…/ heavy as iron, precious as gold. /…Holy weapons for the nation, for revenge and for battle.” Yair, who was very close to Tehomi, the Secretary of the Central Command during those years, went abroad from time to time on missions to purchase arms and to oversee their transportation to Eretz Israel. Two years later saw the 1936-1939 riots during which 520 Jews were killed and 2,500 were injured (out of a Jewish community of a mere 385,000 souls in Eretz Israel). Etzel was confronted with severe dilemmas by the riots. From their outbreak it became confused and polarized. The policy of non-retribution advocated by the Yishuv leadership and the Haganah in the face of the murder of innocent Jewish bystanders – old folk, women and children – that had become a daily occurrence, was coming under heavy scrutiny by the activist young members of the leadership and they demanded a pro-active line. Due to severe pressure on the part of the Revisionist Party to make Etzel, which had been founded in 1931 by non-Revisionist elements, into an instrument of the Revisionist Party, Tehomi found himself in a tight spot. He therefore signed a secret agreement with Jabotinsky promising the Revisionists control of Etzel, but with no intention of keeping his part of the agreement. In desperation he decided to choose the lesser of two evils and agreed to an offer made by the Haganah to merge the two organizations under very alluring conditions. This decision was met with resistance on the part of the younger leaders headed by Avraham Stern and David Raziel, who were afraid that the merger would make Etzel subservient to the Haganah, and would therefore become unable to continue functioning as an independent military force. About half of the members of Etzel followed the two young leaders.
The first split in Etzel took place on April 24, 1937. Despite his closeness to Tehomi, Avraham Stern’s decision was once again based on loyalty to the ideal rather than on personal merits. In the pamphlet “To Those who Honour the Oath!” which he wrote and published on April 23, the eve of the split, he stated: “The ideal and the purpose of Etzel, in Eretz Israel for whom it was created, is the belief that the Hebrew State cannot arise without an independent national military body.” Moreover, this was the first time that the term “Foreign Occupier” appeared in the call to “fight against the Foreign Occupier and its wicked schemes”.
Avraham was a dominant figure in the renovated Etzel, one of the four Central Command members, leader of the Commanders Training Course, involved in determining ideology and policies, in undertaking missions abroad and in assisting illegal immigrants. His behavior throughout these activities reveal his self-restraint, courage, and authority. In 1937 he wrote and published, together with David Raziel, the manual “The Handgun” under the signature D. RAS (an abbreviation of the names David Raziel and Avraham Stern). Yonathan Ratosh helped to polish the language and style.
From February 1938 to May 1939 Yair acted as the Etzel headquarters representative in Poland. Those were days of havoc with the rise of Nazism, the shadow of war looming, and Britain’s betrayal of the Jewish people and their movement of revival. During his mission he formed relationships with the Polish government and obtained their support in founding, training and arming, in Poland, a Jewish military force under the command of Etzel. This force was to invade and conquer Eretz Israel and enable millions of Jews, whose departure from Poland was in the interest of the Polish Government, to emigrate there. He was also involved in creating, in Eastern Europe, clandestine Etzel cells that would be independent of Beitar and the Revisionist Party; in organizing an independent central command system which would be involved in forming, training and educating these cells to help organize Jewish illegal emigration, with the support of the Polish Government, in preparation for a more massive emigration program; and in creating public awareness, of Etzel and its war, among diverse groups including even those who were distant from the ideas and aims of Zionism at the time. Amongst these groups were the assimilated Polish Jewish intelligentsia who gathered around Dr Henrik and Lily Strassman. They were to contribute greatly towards tightening the relationship with the Polish government and broadening Etzel’s base of support and its influence on the general public both Jewish and non-Jewish alike. He also founded two separate publications which were to communicate Etzel’s word to many circles. These were Di Tat (The Deed), in Yiddish, which became a daily newsletter in April 1939, and Jerozolima Wyzwolona (Liberated Jerusalem), in Polish.
Yair’s conception at the time, was to train thousands of young Jewish men from Poland and Eastern Europe, to arm them with the aid of local Eastern European governments, and to send them to Eretz Israel in order to replace the British Mandate and to save European Jewry. The number of men originally intended for this plan was forty thousand. However, Yair was also planning to transport, in the near future and within the framework of the “illegal” Aliya Bet, ten thousand men whose task would be to gain control of the land together with the forces already there. In order to realize this plan Yair, with the aid of the allies he had made and under a secret agreement between himself as Etzel’s representative and the Polish Government, initiated a clandestine Commanders Training Course, which took place from February to May 1939 in a small town near Andrichov in the Carpathian mountains. Twenty-six Etzel commanders from Eretz Israel took part in the course. For four months, with the aid of the Polish Government, they were trained by veteran Polish Army men in the conduct of army and guerrilla warfare. Several instructors were former Polish Underground members who had fought for the liberation of Poland.
In three further courses, two of them in Poland and one in Lithuania, an additional 150-170 men were trained – all commanders in the clandestine Etzel cells – as part of the plan to train between 3,000 to 5,000 men by March 1939. Following Yair’s agreement with the Polish Government, weapons were promised in order to execute this plan. Five thousand St. Etienne guns were delivered as well as three to four hundred medium range Hotchkiss automatic cannons and as many hand grenades as needed, all stored in a special warehouse in Warsaw.
The secret activities of the Etzel cells as well as the independent alliances that Yair forged created some tension between Etzel and the Revisionist Party, with its Beitar movement, in 1938. In a meeting with David Raziel in Paris between January 29 and February 1, 1939 an agreement was signed, under heavy pressure from Jabotinsky, that all of Etzel’s foreign relations and activities would come under the jurisdiction of the Party and the Beitar movement. Etzel was to retain its independence only in Eretz Israel, and as Etzel’s commander Raziel would act as Beitar’s local representative. This agreement was doomed to failure from the very beginning. The suspicion and hostility between the two sides did not disappear. Yair had not attended the Paris meeting and, together with other members of the Etzel mission, refused to accept the agreement and they decided to continue their independent activities. Even the attempt to merge the organization in Israel was unsuccessful.
With the publication of the White Paper on May 17, 1939 Etzel engaged in hostile activities against the British Mandate Government and the authorities began their widespread campaign of arrests. On May 21, 1939 David Raziel was arrested in Lod airport on his way to meet Pinchas Rutenberg, the then head of the National Congress. Hanoch Kali, who was appointed to Raziel’s vacant post, recalled Yair urgently to take command of Etzel in place of the arrested leader. Yair returned at the end of May 1939 and began to take charge of things with all his energy. On August 31, at the onset of WW2, Yair was arrested together with the rest of the Etzel high command while they were having a meeting.
The activities that had been progressing so well in Poland were brought to an end with the outbreak of WW2. Ironically, just as the centre of its activities was shifting from Poland to Eretz Israel, Etzel found itself on the verge of collapse. In accordance with Jabotinsky’s stance of alignment with Britain, without any preconditions, for the duration of the war Etzel announced a general cease-fire. At the end of October 1939 David Raziel was released following an agreement with the British Police that included a promise of co-operation, a general amnesty and grants to the Revisionist Party and its institutions as well as to Etzel. This agreement, with all its details, was signed without consulting any of the other commanders who were all under arrest, and was met with much resentment. In their joint meeting on June 19, 1940, a day after their release from a nine-month prison term, Raziel resigned his post of head of Etzel after an angry confrontation with all the others, and Yair was elected to replace him. At this point the Revisionist Party, under the direction of Aryeh Altman, intervened. His strong influence got Raziel to change his mind and Jabotinsky publicly announced the continuation of Raziel’s position as head of Etzel. The split was inevitable from this point onwards.
In August 1940 the split became a well-known fact. The Central Command’s Announcement No.1 on the eve of the Jewish New Year 5701 (October 1940) was already the official policy of the splinter group. The new underground was being conceived amidst the chaos of hair splitting debate, struggle, soul searching, definition, formation and path finding. It very soon faced a severe setback with the arrest of many of its members, the abandonment by many others, and failures – with the foremost men in confinement behind barbed wire. During all this time the new leadership, under the guidance of Yair, was struggling to formulate The Principles of Revival, an ideological manifesto. For this purpose Yair met with people from all over the political spectrum; drafts were proposed and submitted to heavy scrutiny and editing, which led to the circulation of numerous memos. Many of the debates appeared in the six issues of the paper Bamahteret, in the suggestions section.
The new organizational and ideological set-up slowly began to blaze a trail away from the Revisionist institutions – abandoning formal militarism and transforming the organization from a small army into a revolutionary underground movement. Allegiance to the commander was replaced by allegiance to the idea, and the goaThe Hebrew Liberation Movement that strives in the Underground… Foreseeing that its commanders are destined to pain and execution… Knowing that if one of us is captured another will readily replace him and be willing to sacrifice his life for the idea. The idea is the Column of Fire that strides before the Freedom Fighters, among whom a commander and leader of the entire nation will rise,” wrote Yair, fully aware of the path that lay ahead of him. One of the central ideas that the movement raised was that from that point onwards the fight was not to change Britain’s policies but to achieve the complete expulsion of any foreign occupier. The most important point emphasized in the new ideology was that it was “the sole representative of fighting Judaism,” resulting from the recognition that destiny was an ally of the house of Israel, of the culture and tradition of the people, and in complete negation of Canaanite arrogance and local “Hebrewisms”. This came to be expressed in the group’s suggested title: “The Military Organization in Israel”, which was adopted by the newly founded body.
During 1941 the underground movement had reached a nadir of pain and failed operations. As a result of these operations and of the activities of hostile informers, the movement was struck numerous severe blows that brought it to the verge of collapse. From a conceptual perspective this was a period during which so-called leading ideological foundations were laid down. These and the conceptual side of things were given prime importance during the period when the movement was shaking off its failures and beginning to renew its activities, although some changes in orientation did occur, the basic elements of thought remained intact.
A small group of revolutionaries, occupied at the time in finding their direction and methods, felt that historical urgency was knocking at the gate. It turned out that during the fateful years of 1940-1941 all Jewish efforts to influence and change Britain’s policies and to make it recognize that the Jewish people and its liberation movements were in fact its allies, were futile and met with no sympathy. The British had no need to pacify an ally that was ready to support it unconditionally without demanding anything in return. While forming their cynical policies, they regarded every Jewish survivor as a burden. These were days of victory for Germany on all fronts. Humiliated and defeated, France surrendered and Italy allied itself with Germany. The entire European Jewry was threatened with extinction under the Nazi occupation. The Vichy Government of Syria was becoming a center of instability in the entire Middle East. The alliance between Hitler and Stalin, the two sworn ideological enemies, endured and the resources of the Soviet Union fed the German war machine. At the same time numerous refugees, survivors of the destruction of the Jews in Europe, were stranded before the gates of blockaded Eretz Israel. Boats laden with immigrants, who had left Europe with Germany’s permission and under its surveillance and were desperately trying to escape from the impending jaws of death, were turned back by Britain and sent to distant islands. These were the days when the tragedy of the immigrant ship Patria occurred and another one, the Atlantic, was sent to Mauritius.
Yair was certain that the Allies would win the war in the distant future, but feared that by then European Jewry would be totally destroyed and so would the Yishuv in Eretz Israel. “After we are wiped off the face of the earth”, he wrote, “what happens to the rest of the world will be no concern of ours”. In view of the unfortunate circumstances in the Yishuv, Yair called for a “combatant Zionism”, which would “declare war immediately” or “ally itself with Britain only after obtaining firm guarantees.” On his own initiative Yair met with Yitzhak Sadeh on October 15, 1941 and tried to convince him of the need for co-operation in those fateful days, in the light of impending events.
After abandoning all hope for this co-operation Yair decides that it is now necessary to seek an alliance with the Axis powers – Italy and Germany – and to present them with a solution for solving their “Jewish Problem” by agreeing to support the transfer of Jews from their countries to Eretz Israel. These diplomatic attempts were unfruitful because the Germans preferred to co-operate with the millions of Arabs against the British rather than with a small Hebrew organization. Much like everybody else, Yair never ever imagined back then that the solution of the “Jewish Problem” would be the “Final Solution”.
After numerous failed attempts and after all illusions of obtaining outside help had vanished, Yair learnt the hard way that he had no alternative other than to raise the banner of resistance even without allies and to prepare, in a gallant demonstration of opposition and fighting, for a battle whose value and benefit was its very existence. Although he had envisaged the fall of the British Empire in spite of the expected victory of the Allied Powers in the war, and understood that with its downfall the possibility of founding a free Jewish state in Eretz Israel could arise, yet it was crystal clear to him that this would not come about without further war and bloodshed. He also believed that this war would not come of its own accord and saw that the historical mission of the underground movement he had founded was to raise the people’s awareness that there was no escaping this war and that combat on all fronts was inevitable. He felt sure at the time that this would also mean the loss of his own life. It would appear that he had no illusions regarding the price he would have to pay for fighting this desperate battle against the powerful British Empire with just the small alienated and persecuted group that he headed. In a conversation with several commanders after the 1940 split he said: “Even we, small in numbers though we be, can faithfully fulfil this one specific role that is our historical mission. We must serve as the first infection that will poison and initiate decay in that worldwide empire which has now declared war against us. And we are prepared to do so even if we perish in the enemy’s bleeding wound we have inflicted.” The British Intelligence, on its behalf, decided against capturing Yair alive. In a conversation with Yitzhak Shamir, in the darkness of the night, Yair spoke with complete certitude that his end was near. “It is obvious to me that if I’m captured they will kill me and say that I tried to escape”. He also added: “The war does not consume one’s strength – it creates it”. The meaning of this sentence was fully understood only after his death.
With the tightening of the noose and the knowledge of the impending danger to his life, both the political right and the left offered Yair shelter, but he refused it. To his wife Roni, who was carrying their son in her womb, he said in their last encounter: “Promise me that you will be a good mother, that you will not spoil our son, and that you will be both mother and father to him”. This was his will. In a short note he sent her during those days he wrote: “I could not and did not want to follow any path other than the one I chose. I do not regret a single moment, nor shall I ever do so.” On the 25th of Shevat 5702, February 12, 1942, the building in Mizrahi B Street in which he had been hiding was surrounded by men of the British CID. Shortly after his capture he was shot dead from behind while handcuffed.
His devoted brother David Stern wrote:
“His funeral took place that same day at three o’clock, in section 36 of the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery. Detectives, British paratroopers and vehicles surrounded the cemetery at that time. I said Kaddish. Our mother was paralyzed with pain. Hinda supported her gracefully with love. We sat Shiv’ah in our house.
Shiv’ah sits the mother in mourning for a son
Enclothed is she in pain with ashes on her head.
A dark-stained talith hangs limply in the house
While silent, for a Minyan, men gather one by one.
The patter of light rain taps out holy words of prayer
And sudden gusts of wind say Kaddish for the dead.
Yair, from the poem “For Our Mothers”.
Yair was murdered. The secret police and all Britain’s collaborators… sighed with relief. But the rebellion did not die with his death. Yair’s blood lit the flame of the war against the foreign occupier that was fought until the free State of Israel achieved its independence. Yair was a noble spirit, a poet, and a statesman. He was a true Hebrew by strength of will and in his roots. He was very formal in appearance, speech, and dress. He possessed a clarity of thought, a rational mind, and a romantic vision. He radiated an aura of inner strength that was intensified by his logical analysis and his dialectical reasoning.
Nine editions of his poems in Hebrew were published in Yair Publications, which was named after him. All his poems were translated into Russian and some of them into other languages as well. Poems were written in his memory; his articles were published during his lifetime and posthumously as well. Many pieces concerning his poetry and his life were written in schools as well as in doctoral dissertations for diverse universities. Numerous streets in Israel are named after him and many towns carry his name. Hundreds of fighters and their families as well as disciples of his including prime-ministers of Israel, representatives of the Ministry of Defence and youth groups pay homage to the man who in his lifetime fulfilled the promise that he set out in his poem “Unknown Soldiers”:
Death alone from the ranks can discharge us.