The first year or two, they snuck into the cemetery at night, one or two at a time, and laid a stone on the grave or whispered a prayer before darting out.
In the years that followed they came in the hundreds, in broad daylight, hugging each other and singing songs at the grave. The years have passed, and this Sunday, the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, the remnants of the Stern Gang will gather in a Tel Aviv cemetery to pay their respects to their slain leader, Abraham Stern, just as they have for the past 72 years.
Describing Abraham Stern is not easy. “Stern was a bank robber” – yes, and a smuggler, too. “Stern wanted to talk to the Nazis” – yes, but when and about what? “Stern’s bombs killed British – and Jewish – policemen” – yes, they did. Stern was also a poet, a songwriter, and Hebrew University’s most promising Classics student.
For good measure, with only a couple of hundred followers in his “gang,” he declared war on England. He may not be easy to define, but with such a resumé, it is no wonder the veterans of his organization hold him in awe.
Abraham Stern was born in Poland in 1907. He survived World War I as an overworked, preteen refugee in Siberia, eventually moved with an uncle to St. Petersburg, and at 13 walked home to Poland. He completed his journey at 18 when he sailed for Eretz Israel. He studied Greek and Latin at Hebrew University, was the life of every party he attended, dreamed of becoming an actor, and enlisted in the newly created Irgun. He used the code name “Yair,” after Masada commander Elazar Ben- Yair.
Stern won a scholarship to study in Italy but used most of his time there to procure guns and ammunition for the Irgun. As the 1930s progressed, Stern moved from smuggling guns to smuggling people, taking responsibility for the landing of “illegal” Jewish immigrants the British tried to keep from reaching Eretz Israel. With the negotiated approval of the Polish government, he also ran bases in Poland training Jews to become freedom fighters.
In 1939 he refocused the Irgun: away from responding to Arab violence and toward the British, who were, he wrote, the “enemy” – the foreign occupying power controlling the Jewish homeland. But he split from the Irgun when that organization decided to halt its anti-British operations during World War II. He founded what became Lehi – the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – and began blowing up British government offices and attacking its military and police forces.
Stern could not make public appeals for funds or collect taxes. As many an underground army commander before him had done, he sought the money where it was, in banks. Stern used the funds to prepare radio broadcasts, publish broadsides and assemble bombs.
Even more controversial than the robberies and bombs was his decision to contact the Germans.
This was 1940 and 1941; the “Final Solution” had not yet been decided upon. Stern said the Germans wanted the Jews out of Europe and any Jews who stayed were doomed. He offered to cut a deal with the Germans to transfer the Jews to Eretz Israel. He was pilloried by the British and Jews, considered a traitor. In a private conversation with one of his deputies he agreed to accept the epithet, if he might save the Jews by doing so. Ultimately, of course, the Germans were not interested.
Stern walked the streets of south Tel Aviv at night with a collapsible cot, sleeping in stairwells after his underground meetings were over. One morning in early 1942, British detectives found him in a rooftop apartment.
They surrounded him, leveled their guns, and called for their commander. He arrived and shot Stern, whom he said looked as if he were trying to detonate a bomb. One of the policemen present disputed that, saying Stern was “killed by the police force, he was unarmed, with no chance of escape.”
At the time of Stern’s death he had perhaps 200 active followers. His death and the arrests of his lieutenants put his little army in disarray. But when two of his top associates, Yitzhak Shamir and Nathan Yalin-Mor, escaped from behind the barbed wire, they and Israel Eldad reorganized Stern’s group into a fighting militia that became the scourge of the British.
The Irgun joined the fight in 1944, and by 1948 some 6,000 underground combatants were trying to expel the British from Eretz Israel. That is 6,000 fighters out of a population of 600,000, the Jewish “one percent” that changed history. (This is not to detract from the Haganah, which did not intend to chase the British out. It often fought the British on aliya, sometimes helped the Irgun and Lehi but other times helped the British suppress them, and in any case organized the defense against invading Arab armies in 1947-48.) Stern’s charisma undoubtedly helped his army form and his martyrdom helped it grow. But his genius was in what he had done before. His most famous song is “Chayalim Almonim”: “Soldiers without names or uniforms are we, surrounded by terror and death... On red days of blood and atrocities... We’ll raise our flag in the towns and cities....”
The Hebrew phrasing and the cadence are impressive, but the remarkable thing about the song is Stern wrote it in 1932, long before there were underground soldiers hiding their names and conquering cities. Other songs of the time recount underground fighters in prison or hiding in damp basements. No one lived underground then; Stern founded Lehi eight years later. Essentially his songs helped create the underground and bring the fighters to the basements.
He was also the first to formulate policy based on British interests in the Middle East being opposed, not conciliable, with Zionism, meaning cooperation with the British would lead nowhere. He added that any non-Jewish power in the homeland was an enemy. He was first to declare that the homeland did not need to be freed to solve a “Jewish problem” somewhere in the world; it needed to be liberated because it was the homeland.
He was also first to build a political platform around what was long ago called “redemption” – an ingathering of the exiles, building a third Temple, and creating a Jewish society. He therefore envisioned the Hebrew revolution continuing after independence was achieved.
Stern was no angel, but there is something mythical, indeed biblical, about his life and goals. It seems natural that every year around the anniversary of Stern’s death Israel sees a flurry of activity related to him: a commemoration in the Knesset, an academic conference at a university, or a songfest at a trendy Tel Aviv club. And, of course, the old-timers gathering at his grave, their voices a little worn, still singing about being his soldiers.
The writer is the author of Stern: The Man and His Gang, a biography of Abraham Stern and history of Lehi.