July 22, 2012


Blowing Up the King David Hotel: Sunday marks the anniversary of the 1946 attack on the British. My 91-year-old grandfather helped carry it out. (Niv Elis, July 19, 2012, The Tablet)

There were a handful of Jewish resistance groups, but the Etzel was the only one actively fighting the British. The other groups did not want to divert British resources from fighting the Nazis. "The British at that time were worse than the Germans," my grandfather says. "If a ship of Jews managed to get past the Germans, the British would turn them around and send them back." Despite the violence of the Arab revolt, it was the British who truly stood in the way of establishing a Jewish state, making them the main strategic target.

At first, he was not involved in substantial operations, but after a few years of intermittent participation in the group, he took on a more active role, raiding British weapons store-houses, building explosives, and securing funds through any means possible. He was given the code name "Chaim Toit," combining the Hebrew word for life with the Yiddish word for death, during an explosives training course in 1943. He opened up a front store on 83 Hertzel Street, and went to work assembling grenades and other weapons in the backroom.

Around the start of 1945, his commander Eitan Livni (father of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) approached him with a task. The Etzel, he explained, had found a family living over on Bashan Street that was willing to shelter a wounded or wanted soldier in their house, and a hiding place needed to be built for such an eventuality. The apartment, he was told, was small, and an elderly grandmother was ailing in the second room. "Keep the door closed, because if you disturb the suffering old woman she is bound to die," Livni told him.

When he knocked on the apartment door, a cheerful woman with thick glasses answered, baby in arms, and let them in. Careful not to disturb the dying old woman in the next room, my grandfather and his friend Shlomo scouted the apartment out for a suitable hiding place. The house, they discovered, was built in such a way that left ample space between the ceiling and the roof. They could build a faux laundry closet in the corner and put a ladder inside leading to the rafters, which they would reinforce to allow a fugitive to hide for a few days. The plan was perfect, and they went to work.

One day, as they were working, a wind blew open the door to the sick old lady's room. Before its occupant could shut it, my grandfather caught a glimpse of a bearded figure, and his heart skipped a beat. He would have recognized that face anywhere. Even though he'd only seen him once, giving a speech years earlier, he knew it was Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel and, at that time, a wanted fugitive from the British. Instead of delight, however, my grandfather was overcome with trepidation at learning a secret he was clearly not meant to know.

Begin, realizing he had been "discovered," decided it was no use keeping the door closed and invited the two Etzel men into his room for tea, taking the opportunity to get some information on the outside world. My grandfather earned his favor by finding him a short-wave radio to keep abreast of the news from the outside.

Not long after meeting Begin, my grandfather's partner-in-crime at the weapons factory was captured by the British. My grandfather quickly closed the store and relocated to Jerusalem. There he began a new role scouting out possible British targets and determining whether they were penetrable. Among them was the King David Hotel, the luxury building that housed both the British military headquarters and various foreign dignitaries, who would dance along with wealthy Arabs at "La Regance," the hotel's café and lounge. A wanted man, my grandfather had to disguise himself carefully before scouting the area.

The plan was hatched one day when he noticed a truck making a delivery for the café. Every day at noon, Arabs would bring vegetables, food, and canisters of milk to the kitchen. The milk canisters, he thought, would be perfect containers for explosives, but he wasn't sure if the kitchen had an easy connection to the café, which was right below the military headquarters in the hotel's southern wing.

To find out for sure, he'd have to go into enemy territory. Dressed as Arabs, he and a friend, accompanied by two Etzel women, walked right into the café one Friday night. Though the hotel was heavily guarded, and arrest by the British could mean prison, torture, or even hanging, my grandfather had to be sure of his plan. At one point, the ladies were sent to the bathroom, and my grandfather went wandering down the "wrong" hall. At the end of a lengthy corridor, a large Sudanese guard opened a door and boomed a menacing "What are you doing here?" at my grandfather. He replied that he was looking for his friend in the women's bathroom, to which the guard gruffly escorted him, where his date was conveniently waiting for him. The story checked out, and the guard let them go. But my grandfather had already gotten what he needed: He spied a kitchen in the doorway from which the guard emerged. The plan would work.

My grandfather went to work training the operatives who would carry out the operation. On July 22, 1946, 250 kg of TNT in seven milk crates placed along the support columns in the basement went off, demolishing the Southern wing of the hotel and killing 91 people along with it.

Posted by at July 22, 2012 9:05 AM

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