Meet Sonia: A Hagana smuggler in Israel War of Independence

Despite all the ups and downs and disappointments of the political situation in Israel, it is effaced by the imprint from this time, and makes me feel that I fought for Jerusalem and will die here.

 A view of Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, 1 October 1945 (photo credit: JEWISH NATIONAL FUND ARCHIVES)
A view of Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, 1 October 1945

When I matriculated in 1945, I first heard of the horror stories of the Holocaust, as Potchefstroom, South Africa, was pretty cut off from Europe. There was not yet a state, and like thousands of others, I felt that Jews needed a safe haven in Eretz Israel.

This had a profound influence on my thinking, and motivated me to become a Zionist pioneer. After much arguing, my parents allowed me to study Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Promising to return as a teacher, I joined a group of 40 young South African Zionist pioneers and Machal (overseas recruitment) volunteers leaving Durban to Palestine that summer.

On Sunday, August 26, 1945, at 18 years old, together with Rona Moss-Morris, Ruth Rosenberg, Yehudit Werbranchik and our chaperone Mrs. Katz, I embarked on the cargo liner named Chupra. The remainder of the group sailed on two other ships that week.

I hated the sea passage. I was sick all the time, and thrilled whenever we unloaded cargo at various ports along the coast of East Africa, where I could put my foot on land. Finally, we disembarked in Alexandria, Egypt, and then took a train to Palestine.

 A portrait of Sonia Grober (credit: SARAH LEVIN) A portrait of Sonia Grober (credit: SARAH LEVIN)

Arriving at Haifa East station on Friday, September 15, 1945, just before the Sabbath, the other girls left with their families and Mrs. Katz took me to hers. They were extremely poor and generously gave us their beds. This was my first encounter with the local people.

Sunday morning they put me on a train to Jerusalem in search of the address of my Habonim Dror (the builders-freedom) youth-movement counselor, Mervin Jaspen, who was to help me settle in. I found him renting a room in his landlord’s flat. As I was young and innocent, having never shared a room with a boy before, his landlady set up a little corner in her house for me.

The next week I moved to Beit Hachalutzut (House of the Pioneers), a girls’ residence in the Rehavia neighborhood. It became my new home. I shared a room with Denise from Greece, and Polish sisters Ruth and Bianca, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust. The sisters traumatized me at night, crying, “No mama, no papa.”

These girls had few clothes and would darn their stockings daily. Coming from relative comfort and lack of want, this made a strong impression.

After a few months of living in a friendly atmosphere, we had a serious blow. Denise contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium. The sisters moved away and I found a room with a South African lady.

So began a new chapter in my life.

I met with the Hebrew University authorities. However, everything was a mess. There were no organized studies since war was impending, which I knew nothing about. They introduced me to a student, named Shimon, to look after my needs. He became a good friend.

First, Shimon took me on long walks. I didn’t know he was an underground fighter. Everywhere we walked, there were young British soldiers – at the entrances of the post offices and various parts of Jerusalem. At the time, I was unaware of the underground’s strategic locations.

The walks were meant to test if I had what it takes to be part of the Jewish pre-state paramilitary force, the Hagana. Shimon’s main interest in me was that I’m a fluent English speaker and hold a South African passport. He spoke about the upcoming struggle for statehood and why we needed to prepare for a State. I didn’t need convincing. Needless to say, I didn’t attend university. 

The street was my Hebrew teacher.

One day, Shimon asked me to mail a few letters. At the post office, the British Tommies (soldiers) frisked everyone. I wasn’t at risk. I greeted them straightforwardly when they said hello, as we had something in common: English.

I made many trips to the post office, whose purpose I knew nothing about. I mailed secret correspondence regarding defense, security, settlement, illegal immigration and the impending war. Without realizing it, I was becoming part of the Jewish underground. Shimon and I never talked about it.

Shimon was later killed in one of the battles in Jerusalem.

After this, my assignment became more dangerous. I was recruited as a gunrunner, a physically challenging task that also demanded moral and mental strength.

My new Hagana escort, Carmela, didn’t tell me much about herself. Most underground people were tight-lipped. At her flat in west Jerusalem, she concealed inside my clothes, and all over my body, dozens of bits and pieces of weaponry.

During that time, Jews weren’t permitted to enter east Jerusalem or the Old City. Alone, I’d walk past the Jordanian border guards, while Carmela snuck past. She then would lead me, blindfolded, down winding passageways into hideout houses near the New Gate and inside the Old City, where the armament was taken off for reassembly.

I couldn’t see who took these things, although I remember feeling a lot of hands.

Subsequently, I started smuggling arms to the newly established kibbutzim located about 20 kilometers south of Jerusalem: Kfar Etzion, Masuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim, the area known as the Gush Etzion bloc. Sewn into my thick jerseys were parts of bayonets, bazookas, machine guns, pistols and rifles. My oversized trousers concealed cartridges. I had hand grenades inside my brassiere. I smuggled it all under my overcoat.

One day, at a roadblock, British Tommies stopped my taxi and asked me to get out of the car. Speaking in perfect English, I said, “It’s so cold, do I have to? I’m going to see my aunt in Kfar Etzion to bring her food and cakes.” He let me pass.

That was the first time I felt real fear. I was drenched in perspiration. This event stayed with me for a long time. If caught, I’d have been imprisoned as a terrorist.

My last firearms smuggling operation to Gush Etzion was in November 1947. Once relieved of my heavy armaments, I was driven to Masuot Yitzhak, where an officer informed me that the bloc was under siege. I couldn’t go home.

This was a difficult period. I didn’t have adequate clothing. The kibbutzniks gave me clothes. I spent my time doing military exercises in preparation for the coming war. There were a few WWI rifles. I was given a burlap sack filled with corn cobs for a mattress, some blankets, a pillow and slept in a long room. Early in the foggy morning we would assemble outside in the cold.

Our training consisted of arduous self-defense and civil defense tactics, running up and rolling down hills, crawling under barbed wire fences, marching in the heat. We practiced throwing stones, like hand grenades. I was pretty lousy at this.

Water was limited. A large mikveh served our personal needs. The nighttime commands of the four-hour look-out watches were very scary. We were surrounded by Arab villages. It was pitch black. We had to listen intensely. We never knew if someone was creeping nearby.

On Friday, January 16, 1948, we stood despairingly on guard for the arrival of Captain Danny Mass, who was commanding a convoy of fighters bringing aid on foot to resupply the besieged Gush Etzion bloc. Ironically, the password was mule.

We were unaware of their massacre until the next day, when two of their troops walked into the kibbutz carrying another soldier on their shoulders who had a sprained ankle. They described how their 35 comrades were slaughtered beyond physical recognition. Some of their body parts were put into sacks and were brought to the kibbutz.

These murders became known as the Convoy of 35, or the Lamed Hey, which stands for 35 in Hebrew numerals.

Soon after, a new route was opened and I returned home. A good friend of mine, Etti, who was staying in my room, replaced me in my training program in the bloc. I gave her my coat. She was imprisoned by the Jordanians. I never saw her again. So many were killed at the time. 

There were a few South Africans – notably journalist Walter Hollander from Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Sid Jaffe from Johannesburg, and Nina Herbstein from Cape Town.

Walter married an Israeli named Zahava, and they had a little dog. We became best friends. They lived in a room near me, in a flat owned by a Dutch family named Hass.

Tragedy hit us hard. I can never forget the day of the Ben-Yehuda Street bombing, on Sunday, February 22, 1948, around 6:10 a.m.

We heard a super large boom and people ran into the streets. I rushed to where Zahava and Walter lived. All over were debris and police and people. Returning from patrol, Walter yelled, “Zahava must be alive, her body is still warm.” Walter, Sid and I started to remove the rubble that was part of their collapsed building.

This was one of the first and worst experiences of what was taking place around us. Zahava died of suffocation, together with five members of the Hass family. Zahava’s little dog lay at her feet. Approximately 49 to 58 men, women and children died that day, and 140 to 200 were injured.

Their bodies were moved to the courtyard of the Bikur Cholim Hospital for five days, until the British Mandate authorities permitted their burial in the Sanhedria Cemetery (Tombs of the Sanhedrin or Judges), which was last used during the period of the Second Temple in the first century CE. The Arab siege of Jerusalem made the Mount of Olives, where Jews were previously buried, inaccessible because the route to the cemetery passed through hostile Arab villages.

Taken to the Sanhedria Cemetery on a lorry truck, we sat beside the piled corpses. Sid, Walter and I were given shovels to dig Zahava’s grave ourselves, along with everyone else’s. This was my first contact with a dead body. It was a horrifying experience and left a mark on me all my life.

We fought with the Jewish Burial Society to bury the dog with Zahava, but they wouldn’t permit it. We had to find another place to bury her dog.

After the State of Israel was declared, on Friday, May 14, 1948, I became a military fighting nurse in Unit 163, Division 3 in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). We worked in squads of 10. I was given a kit bag with first aid supplies, a quick course on putting on splints and bandages, and how to give morphine injections to ease the pain of the badly injured, which I never had to do.

One of the first places I was sent to was Ramat Rachel, a place called Beit Habubot (House of the Dolls), once some kind of nursery school. It was a forward position in Israel’s defense and was heavily attacked.

Stationed from here, we were sent to different parts of the city. Most of our fighting was house to house. Sometimes we occupied a house without a roof, sometimes with only a few walls, and once again, we had long guard duties, four hours on, four hours off, night and day.

We always slept fully clothed. If we were covered with a blanket, our feet stuck out. The captain banged on the soles of our shoes, which we always kept on, to jump up and run to our next post.

We slept holding a Karabiner 98 kurz rifle and hand grenades strapped to a belt on our chests. Next to us were our steel Brodie helmets and kit bags. We were never totally at rest, always in a state of watchfulness.

I remember when we took Katamon.

We broke into houses that the wealthy Arabs of Jerusalem once occupied. The elite and middle-class occupants immediately fled, leaving their things intact. We found hot food on the tables and were told not to touch a morsel because it could be poisoned. This was in the middle of a terrible siege, and it was difficult to resist.

Before we entered the homes, we always threw hand grenades to make sure there was no one inside but never found anyone because they had all fled east, in the direction of Jordan.

One of the most dangerous and tricky places I was sent to guard was the community of Beit Yisrael on the frontlines, near the Old City. We were to warn the residents and repel attacks by Palestinian Arabs, to protect their lives and property.

It was home to very religious Jews, and many did not want to leave their homes. So we stayed alongside the civilian population. The religious men were extremely helpful. They prepared sandbags for the windows and dug shallow trenches that we crept in as we went along from house to house.

I was given strict orders not to lift a finger to help them.

One Friday night, I heard a woman crying for help. She was shot in the hip while hanging out her wine-stained tablecloth on her rooftop. I dragged her to safety, mended her wounds and sent her to our base hospital.

I became quite popular with these people. Sometimes on Saturdays I’d sit on their steps and listen to them speak Yiddish, but I didn’t understand much.

One day I had an unusual experience. I had a terrible nosebleed. Someone took me to the Kabbalistic Chacham (sage) Avraham Barazani. He sat on a bed, wore a fez hat and was dressed in oriental fashion – in a long shirt that reached his ankles. He had very kind eyes and was supposed to have had healing power in his hands, so they said.

His wife, Lulu, fetched a towel to staunch my hemorrhage, while he wrote kabbalistic prayers. He dropped the paper into a glass of water and instructed me to drink. Unfortunately, none of his kabbalistic prayers helped. Maybe I was too big of a sinner for the prayers to work. I made a mess in their house and used a lot of their towels in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Soldiers came and took me to the surgeon for cauterization. I went back to the base with their soiled towels in my kit bag.

There was very little water in Jerusalem because the pipeline was damaged from heavy shelling. Most came from wells or were delivered in water carriers. Citizens were given water rations. Fortunately, our army base had several deep wells, so I was able to wash the towels and take them back.

On Tisha Be’Av, Sunday, August 15, 1948, I spent a lot of energy running from place to place. There was shelling from rockets and heavy firing. Many were killed and injured.

Since my unit was religious, everybody fasted. Someone from our unit told a rabbi about me. A message was sent for me to stop fasting, to eat and drink because I required energy to attend to the wounded.

This kind of caring is something quite unique in the Israeli fighting forces, where there is such concern and protection among fighting comrades. This has always strengthened my love for special events in the early days of the State of Israel.

Our most formidable enemies were the Jordanian soldiers, who were well-trained by Lt.-Gen. Sir John Bagot Glubb, a noted British soldier. They were excellent snipers. Many of our people were wounded and killed by them.

One of the actions I remember was an attempt to blow up a two-story building that the Arabs occupied, where they had an elevated vantage point. There were a few trees beside this building. Our plan was to set them ablaze. While the Arabs were putting out the fire, our sappers would jump in and blow up the house.

Fatefully, we made so much noise, they twigged, and the operation failed. We quickly withdrew the sappers with the hand grenades and the Molotov cocktails. We manned these houses for three days.

We had lots of cigarettes, water and an emergency pack of dry biscuits that kept us going. When we smoked, we laid on the floor with a blanket covering us so that the smoke couldn’t be detected, as we were very close to our enemy. We could often hear their voices even through the sandbags.

Two people were killed there. The first was the death of a Moroccan sniper, who demonstrated his skill by shooting off the beak of a bird as it flew away. 

He was shot by a Jordanian sniper. I saw the bullet enter his chest. I went to his aide but, because he was so heavy, he fell backward and banged his head on the floor.

I thought I contributed to his death by this fall and felt terrible guilt. As soon as we were able to leave this outpost, I spoke to a military doctor. 

He told me that I was not responsible because a corpse is very heavy and the fall he had, which also pulled me backward, was because he was already dead.

The second fatal casualty was a UN civilian. The British had an armored car that they drove up and down the street where there was a barrier. A man was shot in the head when he got out of the vehicle to lift the barricade. The driver drove away and left him lying face down on the road.

I asked the soldiers to make a crisscross fire so I could crawl and drag this man to the safety of our outpost. Regrettably, he needed surgical attention to save his life. He lay at the entrance to the outpost, breathing heavily. His eyes started to bulge out of his sockets. It was hard to watch him die.

We had no telecommunication, so we stood guard and decided to wait for the armored car to return. Seeing it, we shouted as loud as we could to stop and take the body of the injured UN worker. At last, they stopped and took him away. Thankfully, we were spared and did not see the sight of his dreadful end.

Finally, relief came and we were freed of this duty. It was then that I was wounded.

I went to wash up in a water well in the backyard of one of the houses that we occupied. Suddenly, I heard a very sharp “ping.” The soldiers yelled at me to lay down. I put my hand on my face; it was covered with blood and I realized I was shot. It was a nerve-racking experience.

A military doctor removed the shrapnel and I returned to base. I have a scar on my cheek, a kiss from a Jordanian soldier. Luckily I didn’t lose my eye. The bullet aimed at me went into a wall.

After that, whenever I heard a shot, I was scared and lay on the ground. My nervous reaction passed over time.

Some months later, I was sent to work at the Bikur Cholim Hospital. This was quite a difficult adjustment. The routine was extremely different from previously, where we moved around guarding and fighting. Now, I had to fit into a more structured discipline.

I married a soldier in my unit and was discharged after serving two years.

From here, my life took on a different course. I became pregnant. In August 1949 my son was born in Wallach’s Hospital (now Shaare Zedek Medical Center).

There was little food. I was very thin.

When my baby was about four months old, my parents flew me back to South Africa. They caught the fright of their life. I was frazzled; all skin and bones. 

I recuperated in Potchefstroom where I revived my spirit and restored my shattered health for nearly a year.

I then returned to Jerusalem and rejoined my husband and friends and took care of my son. The relationship between me and my husband was not good. Our cultural divide was too great to have a happy marriage, so we decided to divorce.

In 1950 I studied history and Hebrew with the philosopher and headmaster Martin Buber at the Teachers Training College for Adult Education in Jerusalem. After graduation, I returned to South Africa to be the first Hebrew teacher at the first Jewish school in the country, called the King David Schools, in Johannesburg. I remarried and taught until retirement.

Since I had lived through the formative years of Israel becoming a state, in which I had played a part, I felt I belonged there. I immigrated in January 1988 to Israel, where I continued my higher learning pursuits by hosting a weekly intellectual study group and an Israeli poetry translation club. I especially gave my heart and soul to teaching English to wounded IDF soldiers.

At my graceful age of 94 (I was born on June 16, 1927), I would like to add that the spirit of camaraderie among us was so strong, and the willingness of each one to give his life for the other under all circumstances, was what characterized for me this historic period of creating a state.

The memory of this time has never left me. Despite all the ups and downs and disappointments of the political situation in Israel, it is effaced by the strong imprint from this time, and makes me feel that I fought for Jerusalem and will die here.