Prison break

Former Acre inmate recalls struggle 60 years after fleeing British prison.

By RORY KRESS
October 24, 2007 01:07
3 minute read.
Prison break

prisoners of zion 224.88. (photo credit: Scoop 80)

 
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Yoske Nachmias could never just sit back and watch the suffering of his fellow Jews. In 1940, the sixth-generation Jerusalemite began to feel the fear spreading across British-controlled Palestine: Hitler's army was marching through North Africa. "One day, instead of going to school, I forged my birth certificate and joined the British Army. It was my first combat experience and it wouldn't be my last. I wasn't even 15 years old," recalls Nachmias in a cool corner of the Acre Prison in which he was once held by the British as a traitor. Tuesday was a day of commemoration honoring the Prisoners of Zion and their families. Jews imprisoned for their Zionist beliefs in Ethiopia, Russia, Iraq and British Palestine gathered to remember their imprisonments, sing old Zionist songs and give testimony of their capture. Nachmias was just one of many heroes gathered in the former prison yard. He was the only Israeli in a British unit: "I ate, I drank, I dreamed by their side," he told The Jerusalem Post. For three years, Nachmias's comrades-in-arms were unaware that this soldier beside them was secretly operating in the IZL - an underground Zionist paramilitary group. "The British didn't know what they were preparing me for," says Nachmias, estimating that 90 percent of the information he scouted for the IZL was later used successfully against them. Nachmias acknowledges that the British always treated him as an equal, and he knew all along that the cost of betrayal was prison with a death sentence. Still, Nachmias was proud to risk his life: "We did not want to be like our brothers in Europe who never got the chance to fight... I had to fight to open the gates [to Israel]." Inside the walls of the Acre prison, Nachmias recalls the incident that landed him there: A pair of IZL members were caught by the British and sentenced to death. Within two hours of the sentencing, Nachmias was dressed as a British officer, mingling in the Tel Aviv officer's club, plotting, and subsequently kidnapping five British officers. The IZL issued the threat that should the sentence be carried out upon their men, they would kill the British officers in their custody. When the British commuted the sentence of the captured IZL members to life imprisonment, Nachmias and the IZL released the British officers. Two weeks later, apprehended and charged as a traitor, Nachmias was sentenced to death by firing squad. For 13 months, Nachmias was imprisoned by the British. While imprisoned in the Acre jail, Nachmias recalls waking before dawn to the sounds of friends singing Hatikva before being hanged. The prisoners joined in the singing of the anthem for the state that had yet to be born - the sole ray of hope they could offer their comrades at the gallows. "I don't wish it on anyone: to hear your friends being hanged only a few steps away and being unable to do anything about it," Nachmias shakes his head with the weight of the memory. On May 4, 1947, an IZL team disguised as Arabs and British soldiers arrived at the Acre prison to free 41 of the 163 Jews being held captive. Forty Jews escaped, of which only 27 survived. About 200 Arab prisoners broke free as well. Nachmias, one of the lucky ones, is quick to add that his survival came at a "very high price," as 13 other prisoners died in the escape. Nachmias did not take his freedom and forget the fight. He recalls a solo mission to Beirut in 1945, dressed as a Lebanese Arab, to steal the broadcast equipment needed to begin an Israeli radio station. "They dressed me in a tarboosh and a big mustache," Nachmias says laughing, tracing his fingers over his cheeks where the mustache once covered. Even now, Nachmias can remember the names of each man that was hanged by the British, unable to let go of their memory. As a member of Veterans of the IZL, Nachmias still sees those he once fought to open the gates with. "We are very connected but unfortunately the group is getting very, very small," he says, noting that a former comrade that was supposed to be present at the Acre ceremony died of old age the day before. "Every time I come here I'm emotional. Every time. I never dreamed when I wore my prison uniform and walked that prison yard that 50 years later I'd be free and be back here telling my story."

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