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Avraham Stern

Avraham Stern (Hebrew: אברהם שטרן‎, Avraham Shtern), alias Yair (Hebrew: יאיר‎) (December 23, 1907 – February 12, 1942) was a Jewish urban revolutionary who founded and led the Zionist organization later known as Lehi (also called the "Stern Gang" by the British colonial authorities).

Contents

Early life

Stern was born in Suwałki, Poland. During the First World War his mother fled the Germans with him and his brother David. They found refuge with her sister in Russia. When he was separated from his mother the 13-year-old Avraham earned his keep by carrying river water in Siberia. Eventually he stayed with an uncle in St. Petersburg before walking home to Poland. At the age of 18, Stern immigrated on his own to Palestine.[1]

Stern studied at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. He specialized in Classical languages and literature (Greek and Latin). His first political involvement was as a member of a student organization called “Hulda,” whose regulations stated it was dedicated “solely to the revival of the Hebrew nation in a new state.”[2] During the 1929 riots in Palestine, Jewish communities came under attack by local Arabs, and Stern served with the Haganah, doing guard duty on a synagogue rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City.[3]

Stern’s commander and friend Avraham Tehomi quit the Haganah because it was under the authority of the local labor movement and union. Hoping to create an independent army, and also to take a more active and less defensive military position, Tehomi founded the Irgun Zvai Leumi (known as the Irgun). Stern joined the Irgun and completed an officer’s course in 1932.

Between 1932 and 1934 Stern wrote dozens of poems embodying a physical almost sensual love for the Jewish homeland and a similar attitude towards martyrdom on its behalf. One analyst referred to the poems as expressing the eroticism of death together with de-eroticism of women.[4] Stern’s poetry was heavily influenced by Russian and Polish poetry, especially Vladimir Mayakovsky’s.[5] His song Unknown Soldiers was adopted first by the Irgun and later by the Lehi as an undeground anthem. In it Stern sang of Jews who would not be drafted by other countries while they wandered in Exile from their own country, but rather who would enlist in a volunteeer army of their own, go underground and die fighting in the streets, only to be buried secretly at night. One of the commanders of Lehi, Israel Eldad, claimed this song (along with two others, written by Uri Zvi Greenberg and Vladimir Jabotinsky) actually led to the creation of the underground.[6] In other poems from the same period, up to eight years before he founded the Lehi underground, he detailed the feelings of revolutionaries hiding in basements or sitting in prison and wrote of dying in a hail of bullets. One example of his poetry is: “You are betrothed to me, my homeland \ According to all the laws of Moses and Israel… \ And with my death I will bury my head in your lap \ And you will live forever in my blood.”

Stern became one of the university’s top students. He was awarded a stipend to study for a doctorate in Florence, Italy. Avraham Tehomi made a special trip to Florence to recall him, in order to make him his deputy in the Irgun.[2]

Stern spent the rest of the 1930s traveling back and forth to Eastern Europe to organize revolutionary cells in Poland and promote immigration of Jews to Palestine in defiance of British restrictions (this was therefore known as “illegal immigration”).

Stern developed a plan to train 40,000 young Jews to sail for Palestine and take over the country from the British colonial authorities. He succeeded in enlisting the Polish government in this effort. The Poles began training Irgun members and arms were set aside, but then Germany invaded Poland and began the Second World War. This ended the training, and immigration routes were cut off.[7] Stern was in Palestine at the time and was arrested the same night the war began. He was incarcerated together with the entire High Command of the Irgun in the Jerusalem Central Prison and Sarafand Detention Camp.

Lehi

While under arrest, Stern and the other members of the Irgun argued about what to do during the war. He founded Lehi in August 1940 (though it did not adopt that name, which is a Hebrew acronym for Lohamei Herut Israel, meaning Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, until after his death), by splitting from the Irgun, when the latter adopted the Haganah’s policy of supporting the British in their fight against the Nazis.

Stern rejected collaboration with the British, and claimed that only a continuing struggle against them would lead eventually to an independent Jewish state and resolve the Jewish situation in the Diaspora. The British White Paper of 1939 allowed only 75,000 Jews to immigrate to Palestine over five years, and no more after that unless local Arabs gave their permission.[8] But actually Stern’s opposition to British colonial rule in Palestine was not based on a particular policy. Stern defined the British Mandate as “foreign rule” regardless of their policies and took a radical position against such imperialism even if it were to be benevolent.[9]

Stern was unpopular with the official Jewish establishment leaders of the Haganah and Jewish Agency and also those of the Irgun. His movement drew an eclectic crew of individuals, from all ends of the political spectrum, including people who became prominent such as Yitzhak Shamir, later an Israeli prime minister, who supported Jewish settlement throughout the land, and who opposed ceding territory to Arabs in negotiations; Natan Yellin-Mor who later turned to radical politics, and Israel Eldad, who after the underground war ended spent nearly 15 years writing tracts and articles promoting Lehi’s brand of revolutionary Zionism.

Stern began organizing his new underground army by focusing on four fronts: 1) publishing a newspaper and making clandestine radio broadcasts offering theoretical justifications for urban guerilla warfare; 2) obtaining funds for the underground, either by donations or by robbing British banks; 3) opening negotiations with foreign powers for the purpose of saving Europe’s Jews and developing allies in the struggle against the British in Palestine; 4) actual military-style operations against the British.

None of these projects went well for the new underground. Without money or a printing press the stenciled newspapers were few and hard to read. The bank robberies and operations against British policemen resulted in shootouts in the streets and both British and Jewish police were killed and injured. A British sting operation entrapped Stern into attempting to negotiate with the Italians and Germans, and this further tainted Lehi’s reputation.[10]

In January 1941, Stern attempted to make an agreement with the German Nazi authorities, offering to "actively take part in the war on Germany's side" in return for helping Jewish refugees to come to Israel into a Jewish State. Another attempt to contact the Germans was made in late 1941, but there is no record of a German response in either case.[11]

Death

Wanted posters appeared all over the country with a price on Stern’s head. Stern wandered from safe house to safe house in Tel Aviv, carrying a collapsible cot in a suitcase. When he ran out of hiding places he slept in apartment house stairwells. Eventually he moved into a Tel Aviv apartment rented by Moshe and Tova Svorai, who were members of Lehi. Moshe Svorai was caught by British detectives who raided another apartment, where two Lehi members were shot dead, and Svorai and one other wounded were hospitalized. Stern’s Lehi “contact,” Hisia Shapiro, thought she might have been followed one morning and stopped bringing messages. On 12 February 1942 she came with one last message, from the Haganah, offering to house Stern for the duration of the war if he would give up his fight against the British. Stern gave Shapiro a letter in reply declining the safe haven and suggesting cooperation between Lehi and the Haganah in fighting the British. A couple of hours later British detectives arrived to search the apartment and discovered Stern hiding there. He was told to sit on the couch. One detective held a gun to his face, another stood next to the couch and pointed a gun to his head. Stern was handcuffed and told to stand, then shot from behind.[12]

Tovah Savorai, resident of Mizrachi Street in Florentin who hid Avraham Stern in her apartment, was arrested during the raid. She heard Stern being shot by the British police. She recalled in a memoir:

"At about 9:30 there was a knock at the door, too gentle a tapping to signal the presence of the police. Yair…went into the closet, and only then did I open the door. At the door stood the 'good' detective Wilkins with two men behind him. Wilkins was always very polite, too polite perhaps. He asked me why I hadn't gone to visit my husband Moshe and if I weren't worried about him. I told him that if I had gone to the hospital I would have been arrested immediately. They searched my room…then they went downstairs and brought two neighbors, women, so they might have witnesses…they went over to the closet…one of the policemen opened it. Yair was nowhere to be seen. The policemen thrust his left hand into the closet and began searching, and when his hand came upon Yair he pulled him out. At the same time he put his right hand into his back pocket and took out his gun. I ran between him and Yair and said "Don't shoot! If you shoot, you shoot me"…. in my innocence I thought I had saved Yair's life…how wrong I was. They made him sit on the sofa…more detectives appeared, they had handcuffs and used them to bind Yair's hands behind his back….they told me to get dressed and go downstairs…I got into a small car…suddenly I heard three shots."

Avraham Stern's memorial day is attended every year by Israeli political and government officials. In 1978, a postage stamp was issued in his honor. His son, Yair, born a few months after Stern's murder, is a veteran broadcast journalist and TV news anchor who once headed Israel Television.

In 1981 the town Kochav Yair (Yair's Star) was founded and named after Stern's nickname.

See also

References

  1. ^ Zev Golan, Free Jerusalem: Heroes, Heroines and Rogues Who Created the State of Israel, p. 203
  2. ^ a b Nechemia Ben-Tor, The Lehi Lexicon, p. 320 (Hebrew)
  3. ^ Zev Golan, Free Jerusalem, p. 198
  4. ^ Moshe Hazani: Red carpet, white lilies: Love of death in the poetry of the Jewish underground leader Avraham Stern, Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 89, 2002, pp 1-48
  5. ^ Yaira Ginossar, Not for Us the Saxophone Sings, pp. 73-78, 85 (Hebrew)
  6. ^ Zev Golan, Free Jerusalem, p. 59
  7. ^ Zev Golan, Free Jerusalem, pp. 153, 168
  8. ^ J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion, pp. 47-48
  9. ^ Israel Eldad, The First Tithe, p. 84
  10. ^ Nechemia Ben-Tor, The Lehi Lexicon, p. 87 (Hebrew)
  11. ^ Heller, J. (1995). The Stern Gang. Frank Cass.
  12. ^ Zev Golan, Free Jerusalem, pp. 231-234

Further reading

  • J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion: Irgun Zvai Leumi, Lehi, and the Palestine Underground, 1929-1949, (Avon, 1977), ISBN 0-380-39396-4
  • Israel Eldad, The First Tithe (Tel Aviv: Jabotinsky Institute, 2008), ISBN 9789654160155
  • Avaraham Stern ("Yair"), by Hillel Kook at www.etzel.org.il - Profile at the Irgun website







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