Revitalizing the Underground
The escapees from Latrun
By Nechemia Ben-Tor
Yitzhak Shamir, known by his nom-de-guerre “Michael,” immediately set about revitalizing the shattered underground. It was already clear to him that it was necessary to learn from the mistakes of the past, to build the underground on steady foundations, conspiratorial and covert, based on small cells of not more than two to four men. There was also a need to build a cadre of trustworthy commanders, who could direct the new ones who would be brought in. They had to refill their stores of ordnance and explosives, and prepare places to store these items. In order to tighten security, he decreed that there were to be no more visits to the prisons, nor any correspondence with the detainees. Until the underground was ready, dug in deep, far from the eyes of the British and the Jews, he declared, there was no point in resuming military activities against the foreign occupier.
Without flour, there is no Torah, the Talmud says: even warriors of spirit need bread to eat. Michael knew that dealing with the financial issues had to be at the top of his list. For this purpose, he recruited supporters and adherents of the underground. He believed that in order to change the atmosphere in terms of the aims of the war, there must be strong public support for the underground’s activities, ready to help it with all tools, including monetary ones.
One of the most severe errors of the movement in the past had been the insufficient investment in public relations and making the ideological case. When everyone was fighting the Germans, their radio station was insufficient and inefficient. The public was not ready to understand why a group of people would personally target British policemen and soldiers during such a fateful time in world history. In order to make up for this deficiency, Michael decided to publish a newspaper that would be eloquent and high-minded propaganda, which was an indispensable ally to their paramilitary operations.
However, even before the newspaper could begin to be published, Michael had to deal with an especially pressing problem which endangered the underground as a whole. While the underground was being reorganized, Michael’s fellow escapee, Eliyahu (Shaul) Giladi was put in charge of the operational division. However, it soon became clear that he was utterly unfettered by the ideals and commitments of the movement; he started preaching extremism, including the assassination of the Zionist leadership and of the heads of the Yishuv. With no other options, Michael was compelled to remove him from the equation. Only then could the movement begin to move again.
First of all, HaHazit, the periodical of the underground, was born, explaining the Lehi way to the public.
Dr. Israel Eldad (Scheib), a gifted intellectual, was given the work of writing for the newspaper; he had joined the underground even before Michael’s escape. Natan “Gera” Yellin-Mor, Yair’s aide, a Renaissance man himself, who had edited the IZL newspaper in Poland, recommended Eldad, whom he had known since before they arrived in Eretz Israel. Gera added articles written within the walls of the detention camp.
HaHazit was designed to give an ideological basis to the acts of the fighters. This was the first time in the history of the underground in Eretz Israel that an ideological-political journal was put out for the public, touching on all types of problem and responding to current events. The first issue of HaHazit, which came out in Tammuz 5703 (June 1943), called for opening a new front, in Hebrew only, with one defined goal: liberating the homeland from the foreign occupier.
HaHazit was greatly influential, on the frontlines and among the public, surpassing everyone’s hopes. From 300 copies initially, the newspaper grew to a circulation of 10,000 in 5706, when HaMaas replaced it in print. Some argue that without HaHazit, the underground would never have been revitalized.
Secondly, even before the great escape from the Latrun detention camp, which was then in its final stages of preparation, in October 1943, Emmanuel Hanegbi managed to escape via the government hospital in Jerusalem, on his own initiative. He used a clever ruse to fool the British and make his escape.
On November 1st, 1943, twenty Lehi members fled from Latrun via a tunnel 75 meters in length, which they dug over the course of nine months. Every one of the escapees immediately joined the work of the underground, serving as a valuable resource for Lehi’s development and expansion. With Gera’s escape, he joined the leadership of the underground, together with Israel Eldad.
The leadership became known as the central committee.
This was more than an issue of nomenclature: it expressed the new character of the revitalized underground movement. This was no longer a military organization, but rather a covert revolutionary liberation movement. There would not be any more army units, but small cells. There would be no more salutes or ranks; the members would all be “fighters.” “Commanders” would instead become “supervisors.” The fighters had to act in a straightforward manner, not to be conspicuous, but to blend in with the general population, to remain anonymous, dedicated to the cause and faithful to their goals.
Gera took responsibility the contacts with foreign representatives, both inside and outside Eretz Israel. Eldad dealt with the ideological sphere and public relations. Michael took control of many organizational matters, as well as planning and executing operations. The most important decisions required the unanimous consent of all three.
The Lehi escapes did not cease. In late 1943, Yaacov Eliav and Moshe Bar-Giora, senior members of the underground, managed to escape from the central prison in Jerusalem, tricking their guards while they were setting up Christmas lights in the warden’s residence.
One year after Michael’s breakout from British imprisonment, the Lohamei Herut Israel movement was ready to strike a blow against the foreign occupier, just as Samson had smote the Philistines with the jawbone (lehi) of an ass.