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The 12th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which falls this year on Friday July 27, marks the 60th anniversary of the execution by the British authorities in Palestine of three members of the Irgun underground - Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar. This column is dedicated to their everlasting memory.
As 1947 dawned, the more judicious counsels in Whitehall cautioned that the death knell of Britain's 30-year rule of Palestine was within earshot. "The sands of time are running out," warned the British high commissioner. But most in Whitehall were either blind or hard of hearing. Some even asserted that the existing political order in the Holy Land was established by the Almighty and, therefore, eternal.
Had they given the matter deeper thought they might have foreseen the inevitable. But thinking ahead is given to statesmen and chess players, not to autocrats and bureaucrats, and certainly not to a man of such anti-Semitic bent Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary of the day, who famously warned the Jews "not to push to the head of the queue" in their demand for the imperative opening of Palestine's gates.
LED BY Menachem Begin, the Irgun revolt against the British hardened. The governing authorities, driven by an irresistible hubris of self-interest and colonial blindness, and embracing the delusion of decaying imperialists in every age that punitive brutality will cow the rebels into giving up their resistance, began sentencing captured Irgun fighters to the most severe forms of capital punishment: flogging for relatively minor offenses, and hanging for relatively major ones.
The executions were frequently carried out in the Acre fortress, a Crusader citadel restored by the Turks and considered impregnable. In May 1947, in what was probably the Irgun's most daring exploit, a wall of this great bastion was breached, allowing for a mass escape. Three of the attacking party - Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar - were captured, tried and condemned to death.
ON THE DAY of the execution, July 29 1947, the district commissioner of Galilee visited the Acre prison accompanied by the commissioner of prisons, to ensure the gallows were readied and all other necessary arrangements in place.
It would be wrong to think of these men as in any way vindictive or malevolent. They were, as we shall see, British bureaucrats doing their job. Their writ did not extend to pondering the iniquity of destroying healthy, conscious men or the unspeakable wrongness of cutting lives short when they were in full tide; or meditating on the significance of pulling a lever, causing a living person to drop through a hole, neck broken, rope twisting on itself, the body slowly revolving. Their task was to see to the formalities and the practicalities of the hangings, aware that if anything went wrong their superiors would wring their necks.
So imagine their astonishment when, upon their calling on the Acre prison superintendent at his quarters, he told them in no uncertain terms that he would not carry out the executions.
WHAT TRANSPIRED subsequent to that was meticulously documented in a number of top-secret and confidential reports to the higher authorities, quoting what each of these officials said and did on that day. Their names and functions were: Mr. Thorne - district commissioner of Galilee, Mr. Hackett - commissioner of prisons, and Mr. Charlton - superintendent of the Acre jail.
The following is a redaction of their exchange:
Charlton [prison superintendent]: I suppose you know that I am not going to carry out these executions.
Hackett [commissioner of prisons]: You are the officer detailed to carry them out. I have here the warrants.
Charlton: I do not agree with the policy of Government regarding these hangings. The whole thing stinks. Why can't Government carry out the executions in a normal manner, giving the prisoners and relatives proper warning as usual? I want no part of it. I am unhappy about the whole affair. Please send me home. I've had enough of this.
Hackett: Do you absolutely refuse to carry out the death sentences?
Charlton: Yes. I have carried out 44 executions during my service in this country and I have not raised any objections before. But now I'm adamant. I had a definite promise from Mr. Bromfield when he was acting Commissioner of Prisons that secret executions such as that carried out in the hanging of Dov Gruner [a prominent Irgun commander] will under no circumstances occur again. I will not preside under the circumstances you have outlined. I am ready to execute the men on Friday of this week [August 1] or next Tuesday [August 5] provided the proper open procedures are followed, meaning that the date is announced in advance and that the relatives are given the opportunity to visit the condemned men prior to the event.
Hackett: But the lawyer of the accused and their relatives will be informed prior to the event.
Charlton: I am not satisfied. Why can't Government carry out the executions in a normal manner, giving the prisoners and their relatives proper advance warning, as is usual procedure? The whole prison will be upset. It will be impossible for me to keep order or discipline if the executions are performed in a secretive manner. I am not going to carry out these executions, not because I am afraid, but solely because it is against my conscience. If the executions are postponed as I suggest, and done later in a proper and regular manner, I will certainly do as ordered.
Thorne [district commissioner of Galilee] to Hackett: The time now is 4.15 p.m. The intention to execute the three men will be made public in an hour-and-three-quarters, at 6 p.m. By that time the relatives will have been informed in Jerusalem. [To Charlton]: Unless you have someone else to carry out the executions, someone whom you can rely upon, we have to inform Government what is happening. I need hardly point out the political and other consequences if the executions are postponed because an Officer of the Crown refused to carry them out.
Charlton: I'm expecting Mr. Clow [superintendent of the Nablus jail] at five o'clock, and I'll ask him if he will carry out the executions. I cannot guarantee that he will.
Thorne: Under the circumstances, and in view of the fact that Clow may not get here in time, and given the importance of the time factor, I'm going to Haifa immediately and inform Government of the situation. [Haifa was the nearest place with a secure telephone line].
LATER, THORNE phoned Hackett from Haifa:
Thorne: Government confirms the executions must go forward as arranged. If Charlton still refuses to carry them out, either you or Clow must do so under all circumstances. Even if Charlton has a change of heart, he has become so excited he won't be in a fit state to carry them out, so there is no use in pressing the matter further.
At 5.30 p.m. Clow, the superintendent of the Nablus prison, arrived at Acre.
Hackett by phone to Thorne: Clow is here. He will carry out the executions if that's Government's final instruction. He is pressing for a postponement, though.
Thorne: A postponement is out of the question. The executions must be carried out as ordered. You have confirmed that the warrant is made out to "the superintendent of Acre prison" [and not to Charlton by name]. So I have relieved Mr. Charlton of that post and have appointed Mr. Clow as superintendent in his stead.
Hackett to Thorne [at midnight]: The tensions have relaxed. There will be no hitch in the executions.
AND, INDEED, there was none: Avshalom Haviv was hung at four in the morning, Meir Nakar at 4.25, and Yaakov Weiss at 5.00.
No one in the Acre jail slept that night. One prisoner, whose Irgun name was Natan but whose real name was Chaim Wasserman, was in a nearby cell, and he smuggled out a letter to Irgun commander Menachem Begin, describing what he saw and heard. He wrote:
"Early this morning our three comrades went heroically to the gallows. We were already aware of what was going to happen between four and five in the morning, and pressed against the bars with bated breath watching helplessly what was going on around the cell. The prison superintendent, Major Charlton, had left the place yesterday afternoon and was not seen again. Toward evening a party of hangmen arrived.
"The officers went in and informed the condemned men they were to be executed between four and five in the morning. Their reply was to sing "Hatikva" and other songs in powerful voices. They then shouted to us that the hangings would begin at four o'clock, in this order: Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar, Yaakov Weiss. They added: 'Avenge our blood! Avenge our blood!'
"We shouted back, 'Be strong! We are with you, and thousands of Jewish youth are with you in spirit.' They replied, 'Thanks,' and went on singing.
"At two a Sephardi rabbi whom we could not recognize from afar [it was Rabbi Nissim Ohana] was brought and stayed in the cell 15 minutes.
"At four in the morning Avshalom began singing "Hatikva," and we joined in loudly, pressing against the bars. At once armed police came up to the visitors' fence near our cell. At 4.03 Avshalom was hanged. At 4.25 we were shaken by the powerful singing of Meir. Hardly able to breathe, we nevertheless joined in. He was hanged at 4.28. At five o'clock the voice of Yaakov, this time alone, penetrated our cell, singing "Hatikva." Again we joined in. Two minutes later he was hanged. Each of the bodies was left hanging 20 minutes before being carried off, one by one.
"The chief hangmen were Hackett, inspector of prisons, and Clow, superintendent of the Nablus jail.
"At dawn we informed the prison officers through an Arab warder that we would not be responsible for the life of any Englishman who dared enter the jail yard. We declared a fast and prayed. Later in the morning we found the following inscription on the wall of the cell of the condemned: 'They will not frighten the Hebrew youth in the Homeland with their hangings. Thousands will follow in our footsteps.' Next to it was the Irgun insignia and their three names in the order they were executed."
May the memory of Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar, and Yaakov Weiss be forever blessed - yehi zichrom baruch.