Yair Stern was born four months after his father was gunned down by British police in a Tel Aviv hideaway. From the time he was a toddler, and until he was four, the child believed that his father was working in America, and that someday he would return. As soon as he mastered the alphabet Yair began writing letters, telling his dad that he missed him and couldn’t wait to see him.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab State. The Jews of Palestine were ecstatic, breaking spontaneously into song and dance.
When Yair asked why everyone was so happy, he was told that soon the Jews would have their own country. And then he was given the shocking news that his father had been killed in the war with the British, fighting for Jewish independence, on February 12, 1942.
Yair’s father was Avraham Stern who, during most of the 1930s, had been a member of the underground Etzel (Irgun Zvai Leumi) movement. A paramilitary organization with a policy of violent retaliation for Arab terror and a firm belief that it was the right of every Jew to live in Palestine, it was responsible for bringing many “illegal” immigrants into the country. And after publication of Britain’s White Paper in May of 1939, severely limiting immigration, Etzel began actions against the British. Etzel’s anthem was a song written by Stern, called Anonymous Soldiers.
When World War II broke out four months later, Etzel halted activities against the British. After all, the British were battling the Nazis. Stern, however, fervently believed that the British were the Palestinian Jews’ real enemy, and that the fight against them must continue. He then split from Etzel and founded Lehi.
Members of the Lehi underground worshipped Stern (code name Yair) and what he represented. Most never even met him, but followed him and his precepts blindly – even to their deaths. Children as young as 15, raised to hate the British with a passion, found meaning in Lehi; it gave a purpose to their lives, and they were excited to be part of something so important.
Members of the Haganah underground, far more restrained than Etzel and certainly than the Lehi, vehemently disagreed with Stern’s view of the British as a direct threat to the Jews of Palestine and were afraid his group’s activities would harm the war effort. As a result, Lehi fighters were in constant danger of being turned in to the authorities by their fellow Jews.
When the war began, the British asked for a list of incarcerated Etzel members so that they could be released from jail. So harsh was the rift between the groups that Etzel leaders left Lehi members to languish in jail.
In 1985 the Ministry of Defense opened a museum inside the house on Stern Street in which Stern was shot and killed. Called Beit Yair (Yair’s House), it lacks the sophisticated technology found in almost every other Israeli museum these days. Yet it offers visitors a fascinating and in-depth glimpse into those tense, volatile years when the British ruled Palestine.
Your visit begins with a seven-minute movie whose drum roll, music and spoken words help you feel the atmosphere of despair that enveloped the Lehi in those dark days of British pursuit 75 years ago. It is presented within a framework of the actual room, and with the original furnishings, where Stern’s killing took place. You hear the knock on the door that sent him deep into a closet, and view the hat, razor and shaving brush – still wet – that gave him away. And you hear the three shots that ended his life.
Afterwards you move into an area of the museum that commemorates 127 members of Lehi. Fifty-five of the men and women, boys and girls, whose photos are on display were killed while serving in the underground. Almost everyone else was among the Lehi fighters who joined the Israel Defense Forces as soon as the State was declared and fell during the War of Independence.
Also on display are photographs of “olei hagardom”. While the term sometimes refers only to members of the underground tried by the British and sentenced to execution by hanging, here are included, as well, people hanged by the Turks because they spied for the British, and Eli Cohen, the Mossad’s “man in Damascus,” hanged in a public square in the Syrian capital in 1965.
Another room is dedicated to “Yair”, with displays on his background, his brilliance at university, his studies in Italy, his charisma, his obsession with forcing the British out of Palestine, and his talent as a poet.
In other portions of the museum you learn about a ship called the Struma – and the hundreds of “illegal” immigrants fated to drown in the ocean after being denied permission to land in Palestine. Exhibits depict several clever Lehi escapes from British jails; a milk canister, one of many used as a “slik” (hiding place for weapons), and the printing press used for posters that had an enormous influence on budding Lehi members. On the wall next to a display of weapons is a map of the sites throughout Palestine where, in 1929, massive Arab riots took place against a defenseless Jewish population.
Displays feature descriptions and photographs from Lehi actions, including the airfield where fighters blew up eight British Spitfires and the assassination of British diplomat Lord Moyne. At the end of your tour you will view an unusual photograph of Stern, made up of tiny pictures of all 850 Lehi members.
Our guide to the museum was Moshe Ben Yehuda (code name Giora) whose tales and explanations vastly enriched our visit. Call ahead, if you, too, want a guided tour. If you are in Tel Aviv and just stop by, however, you will still see the movie and can move through the museum on your own, reading the excellent signs in English.
The Freedom Fighters of Israel Heritage Association (FFI-LEHI), a non-profit run by former Lehi members and their families, occupies a room in Beit Yair where they plan memorial ceremonies and events, produce movies, and prepare books for publication. Anyone interested in Lehi can peruse the extensive archives and get information. Or browse the web site: http://www:lehi.org.il.
Lehi Forest, at Kibbutz Mishmar Ayalon is among the sites where memorial ceremonies are held.
So are other ceremonies: in 2005, soon after a monument to 127 fallen Lehi fighters was inaugurated, the Jewish National Fund held a tree-planting ceremony at the site, where people of all ages planted tiny shoots in the ground.
Last month we took our dog with us to the forest. What a difference we found. Tall, beautiful trees now surrounded the impressive monument, designed by Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky, while bright red anemones were in bloom nearby, and a tree-shaded recreation area featured picnic tables and playgrounds for the kiddies. Scattered around in the forest were other monuments and groves, with several dedicated to the Jews of Palestine who fought with the British in both World Wars. This lovely place to visit is where the FFI-LEHI holds its annual Memorial Day ceremonies (this year, on May 1).
For more specific directions to Lehi Forest please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.