The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939. Germany conquered Poland, Holland, Belgium and Denmark by the 'Blitzkrieg' method. The British and French armies were surrounded and were pushed into the Dunkirk enclave in France, whence they were evacuated to England in small vessels and shipping boats. All their heavy weapons were abandoned and seized by the Germans.
In June 1940, with German victory imminent, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Shortly afterwards, France surrendered, and Britain remained alone in the struggle against Germany and Italy. The Italians concentrated their forces in North Africa and made their way to Egypt.
The proximity of the Italians to Palestine enabled them to dispatch aircraft to bomb strategic targets. A month after Italy entered the war, Haifa was bombed, with the aim of putting the refineries and port out of action. Dozens of people were killed in the raid and many others were injured. Strict blackout was imposed on all towns and settlements, and civil defense measures were adopted against the air raids.
These measures proved useless, however, when Tel Aviv was bombed in full daylight. I was playing with friends near home when we suddenly heard loud explosions. Before we could grasp what was happening, the Italian planes were on their way back to base. The entire bombardment had lasted only a few seconds, catching us unaware and leaving us no time to get to the shelter in the center of the neighborhood. From conversations around us, we understood that many people had been injured. I immediately ran home to report that I was safe and then went to see what had happened. The Nordiya quarter (where the Dizengoff Center now stands) had been heavily hit; the huts were in ruins, and among the debris lay the dead and injured. Here and there a fire had broken out. Damaged cars and wagons blocked the road itself. In the middle of the road lay a dead horse, hit while still harnessed to a wagon. I gazed at the horror around me. Of what strategic importance could this residential area have been?
A mass funeral was held for the 107 men and women who had died in the bombardment. The funeral procession left from the Balfour school and I still recall the coffins lying in rows on the trucks en route to the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery. The lesson learned from this terrible raid was that our early-warning systems had to be improved to enable us to take shelter in good time. However, many Tel Avivians decided on a different solution and left the city for a safer place. Among them were my parents who, after much family consultation, decided to move to Ramat Gan, a quiet suburb of Tel Aviv, which was of no interest to enemy aircraft. My father bought a medium-sized plot of land on Salameh Street (now Ben-Gurion Street), between Ramat Gan and Ramat-Yitzhak, and reverted for a brief period to his previous occupation of building contractor. He built a small four-roomed house with a large cellar, which would serve as a shelter if necessary.
I was thirteen when we moved to Ramat Gan, and spent my last year of grade school )eighth grade) in the Ohel-Shem High School in Ramat Gan. It was a school with twelve grades, where boys and girls studied together - a great innovation for me. The standard of teaching in the humanities was much higher than in the Bilu school in Tel Aviv and the transition was not easy. Ohel-Shem was a private school (owned by the Koller family) and the atmosphere was liberal, but orderly and disciplined.
On arriving in Ramat Gan, I made friends with a classmate, Yosef Kinderlerer-Yaldor. Yosef had been born in Poland and in 1936 his family immigrated to Palestine. They lived in a hut near the Rama cinema. His father worked in the Elite chocolate factory and his mother ran the household and raised chickens and pigeons in the courtyard to supplement the family income. It was a warm and welcoming home. When we graduated from the eighth grade, Yosef moved to the Montefiore Reali School in Tel Aviv and I continued my studies at Ohel-Shem, but we remained firm friends.
The year 1943 was a turning point in the course of the Second World War. The Italians and Germans were driven out of North Africa, and the British army, together with the Americans who had joined the war effort in December 1941, invaded Italy. On the Russian front the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, and the Russian forces launched a wide-ranging offensive. The front moved further away from Palestine, and the threat of bombing was averted. On the other hand, catastrophic news was reaching us from Nazi Europe. Hitler's extermination machine was becoming increasingly streamlined, and those Jews who had succeeded in escaping the death-camps had nowhere to go, since the British had stopped all immigration to Palestine. The Yishuv faced a cruel choice: on the one hand, the desire to help the Allies in their war effort against the Germans; on the other hand Britain's treachery and indifference to the systematic extermination of the Jews made collaboration a distinctly unattractive prospect. Ben-Gurion summed up the situation: "We must help the British in their war effort as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no war," but this was clearly impossible since the two were irreconcilable.
In summer 1943, now aged fifteen, I felt that I could no longer remain indifferent to everything happening around me. My closest friends felt the same and together we pondered the contribution we could make. The idea of volunteering for service in the British army was immediately dismissed because of our youth, but there remained the possibility of joining one of the underground movements; the big question was which one.
As will be recalled, the Haganah had set itself the aim of defending the lives and property of the Yishuv, and in the 1930s, at a time when the Arabs were rioting against the Jews, it had adopted a policy of self-restraint (Havlagah). The Irgun Zvai Leumi was opposed to this policy and launched a series of deterrent attacks on Arab targets.
After publication of the White Paper, the Irgun had launched a second front against the British. The command had decided that illegal immigration activities should continue concomitantly with attacks on British Mandate targets, in order to express the strong objection of the Jews to the ban on immigration and on the limitations imposed on their purchase of land in Palestine. When war broke out, however, the Irgun declared a cease-fire. Its leaders concluded that the Nazis were the main enemy of the Jewish people and that it was essential to collaborate with the British in the war against Germany.
In late 1943, word of the liquidation of European Jewry had already reached the Yishuv, which was powerless to rescue the survivors. The British not only failed to help the survivors, but actually prevented the rescue of those who had succeeded in fleeing the Holocaust. The reaction of the Irgun was a renewal of the struggle against the British rulers of Palestine.
In this period, as noted above, my friends and I were trying to arrive at a decision as to which underground organisation to join. I was approached by Gavriel Trivas, a well-known figure in Ramat Gan, who proposed that I join the Haganah. The Haganah was then concentrating on training the younger generation to defend the Yishuv in the event of an Arab attack. Trivas invited me to a Saturday meeting in an orange-grove, where adolescents and adults were practicing hand-to-hand combat with sticks. The passivity of Haganah policy did not, however, appeal to me and training with sticks seemed absurd. I felt it was dangerous to reconcile ourselves to the British presence and was convinced that the only way to implement Zionism was to drive the British out.
I reported my impressions to my close friends, including Yosef Kinderlerer-Yaldor and David Cohen, and we agreed that the Haganah was not the place for us. Our decision was reported to Akiva Cohen (David's older brother), who was a member of the Irgun, and several days later he contacted me to explain the Irgun's ideology. Akiva said that the way to solve the Jewish question was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and in order to achieve that it was essential to get rid of the Mandate rule. Since the British were not ready to leave of their own free will, we had to fight them and force them to leave. Akiva swore me to secrecy and I had no idea whether he had also contacted my friends. After several more conversations, Akiva invited me to appear before the Irgun's selection committee. The meeting was held in the cigarette factory shelter at the end of Salameh Street, which was set apart from the residential buildings of Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak. Entering the shelter, I was dazzled by the beam of a flashlight and was asked by the person holding the flashlight if I knew why I was there. I replied in the affirmative and explained what I knew about the Irgun and its methods. We talked about the means to be used to fight the Mandate authorities, and the rejection of the individual terror policy advocated by the Lehi. I was told of the dangers entailed in underground activity, including the possibility of arrest, injury and even death. Finally, I was asked if I would be ready to carry out any order I received, unquestioningly. I replied that I understood the importance of discipline, but that I did not think it should be blind. I was, of course, ready to follow orders, but not without question. This sparked off a debate, and it was explained to me that failure to carry out an order would undermine the structure of the underground movement. I replied that I felt I had to understand the order and accept it, otherwise I could not carry it out. We parted, agreeing to disagree, and I was asked to think about all the things I had heard so as to be ready for the next meeting. Since I was cautioned not to tell anyone about what I had seen and heard, I could not discuss the issues which had been raised with my friend Yosef. The question of blind obedience troubled me deeply, since I could not envisage carrying out an order, which seemed wrong. Interestingly, I was not troubled by the thought of the many hazards entailed in underground activity - perhaps because they did not seem real to me or perhaps because I deluded myself that nothing could happen to me on account of my youth.
Shortly afterwards, Akiva contacted me again, and after a long conversation lasting well into the night, I was summoned to the committee. This time the conversation was more relaxed and the issue was whether there could be circumstances in which it was not essential to follow orders. After a long discussion we arrived at an understanding, and after I had declared myself ready to join the Irgun, I was told that I should wait to be contacted. Later I discovered that I had been given especially considerate treatment, since all the other candidates were brought before the committee blindfolded so that they would be unable to identify the place.
I kept my secret and told nobody what had happened. The eagerly anticipated contact was made and I was summoned at a pre-determined date to the same hut at the cigarette factory at the end of Salameh Street. It was a dark night, but still I glanced behind me to make sure nobody was following me. The shelter itself was pitch black, and when the commander lit candles I was amazed to discover old friends there. Among them were Yosef Kinderlerer, David Cohen, Shmuel Averbuch, Baruch Toprover, and Amos Goldblat. Tension was high, and the commander, who was introduced to us by his underground name alone, explained the rules of conspiracy. Each of us was given a code name, and as the new names were distributed, the tension was dispelled by a burst of laughter. I took great pride in the name given to me: 'Avshalom', and identified with it completely.
At that time, I had just read about the Nili group organised in Palestine during the First World War under the leadership of Aaron Aaronson to transmit important information to British Intelligence on Turkish army movements. I had been particularly impressed by Avshalom Feinberg, a man with great leadership powers and the moving spirit behind the organisation. Contact with the British was maintained through a ship anchored off the Atlit coast which, after receiving a pre-agreed signal , would send a small boat to shore to rendezvous with the Nili members. When contact with the British ship was severed, Avshalom decided to make his way to Egypt through the Sinai Desert to renew the contact. He and his friend Yosef Lishansky set off, but after a short time Lishansky returned wounded, explaining that when they had reached the British frontline, they had been ttacked by Bedouin and that Avshalom had been killed. Lishansky was handed over to the Turks by members of HaShomer (who were opposed to Nili's activities) and was hanged in Damascus for espionage. For many years Avshalom's death remained an enigma. People did not believe Lishansky's story and suspected that he had been involved in the death. In 1967, with the help of a local Bedouin, Avshalom's bones were uncovered near Rafiah and reinterred in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. It transpired that Avshalom had indeed been murdered by Arabs and that, at the time, he had a handful of dates in his pocket. After his death, a date palm grew from one of the stones in his pocket and the Bedouin knew that this tree marked the place where he had been murdered.