Chanukah and Purim have passed but they are not past, because Jewish history is not only ancient. The message of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is that Jewish history is now. Indeed, some of the Maccabees are still alive.
Seventy years ago, British detectives discovered Abraham Stern, a poet who had organized an army to fight for Jewish independence, hiding in Tova Svorai’s Tel Aviv apartment. A British policeman reached for his gun. Tova instinctively jumped between the gun and Stern, declaring, “You’ll have to shoot me first!”
Today, Stern is famous for having founded Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang or Stern Group. Stern and his followers – a few dozen when he was alive and one thousand by 1948 – fought to eject the British from Eretz Yisrael.
Stern was murdered in the living room of Tova’s apartment an hour after he was found. Tova is now 96 years old. She is one of the last links to the modern Maccabees who started Israel’s war for independence.
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Tova Hochglick was born in 1915 and brought up in a religious home in Warsaw. Her family moved to Eretz Yisrael when she was eight but returned to Poland when the children got sick. They made aliyah again in 1934. While in Poland, Tova joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s nationalist Betar youth movement.
When Tova made aliyah, Betar charged her with watching over a younger member of the movement on the train leaving Poland. Having no ticket, he hid under her seat. Tova was next assigned to supervise a would-be illegal immigrant on the ship that carried her to Palestine.
“Srulik,” she recalls, “a blond, blue-eyed Betari, loved to sing and entertained the travelers and made friends with them all.” Only Tova knew he was a stowaway. As they approached Haifa, Srulik sat in one of the cabins, waiting for all the legal passengers to disembark; when the guards and officials were gone, he was to jump into the sea and swim ashore.
Unfortunately, one of the passengers was delayed aboard the ship and the authorities went looking for him. They found Srulik, who was sent back to Poland.
After the Holocaust, Tova inquired and learned he died fighting as a partisan.
The night before she left Poland to make aliyah, Tova and a friend walked between their homes, unable to say good-bye. Her friend told her about a group in Eretz Yisrael called Brit Habirionim (League of Toughs), whose teenage members had torn down the Nazi flag from the German consulate in Jerusalem. Tova promised her friend she would meet the heroic teens.
In Haifa, Tova met a Betar member named Moshe Svorai and told him she wanted to meet the man who had taken down the flag. He told her, “He stands before you.” They were married a few years later.
In 1936, “after many meetings and conversations in small and dark rooms,” as Tova recalls, she joined the underground Irgun. Moshe, who had been arrested for incitement against the British in the early 1930s, was arrested again in 1939 as a member of the Irgun. While Tova and her Irgun unit were taking their first lessons in firearms, she made weekly trips to Acco prison to visit Moshe – but she was already an Irgun courier, bringing messages to and from the prison.
The Svorais’ first daughter was born a month after Moshe’s release from prison. They named her Herut (Liberty).
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After Moshe’s next arrest, Tova made weekly visits to the Mizra Detention Camp, his new place of imprisonment. Now she acted as courier for Abraham Stern’s Haifa underground. She smuggled mail to prisoners; found visitors from Tel Aviv to take intercity messages; and managed to get a gun inside the camp. Tova hid it in a box of honey and says she “stood near the fence as a nice Englishman looked at everything. I smiled even though I was worried because I had a daughter at home. But the gun got to Moshe.”
On other days, while supposedly leading a quiet life with her family, she looked for young people with whom to “talk about the hot subjects of the day, like whether to respond in kind to attacks on the Jews and whether to prepare to establish an army.” She let the underground know when she encountered potential members.
“So even though I was mother to a young girl and the wife of someone under arrest, I felt I was doing something to establish the state we dreamed of,” says Tova.
While being transported from prison to prison, Moshe and his police escort stopped for some beer and Moshe escaped as they drank and used the facilities. He and Tova were soon back in Tel Aviv, an area Abraham Stern then put under Moshe’s command. One night in January 1942 Moshe brought Stern to his apartment and asked Tova if Stern could stay; he had nowhere to hide and was being hunted by the police and Jews who opposed his war against England.
Tova replied that their home “is his house and the house of any underground member who needs one.” Every morning after breakfast Tova excused herself and left Moshe and Stern to their work. They sat at a hallway table and wrote articles for the underground newspaper and scripts for the group’s radio broadcasts, and talked worriedly about the imminent destruction of Polish Jewry. Moshe later wrote, “Stern didn’t want to save hundreds of Jews, or thousands. He wanted to save them all, the millions.”
“Faced with Stern’s burning vision, all my little dreams are meaningless,” thought Tova.
As for the Jewish hatred outside, Tova says, “We knew they were wrong and we were working for Am Yisrael. Stern knew his purpose was to establish the Jewish state, no matter what people thought of him.”
Stern and the Svorais lived in hiding – “underground” – in Tel Aviv. They ate little, mostly bread and jam, and had only one knife, which they passed back and forth. Stern was glad to see the Svorais had a separate set for dairy and meat.
During breaks from his work, Stern entertained the two-year-old Herut by playing hide and seek and carrying her on his shoulders. As the winter grew colder and the temperature in the apartment dropped, Herut left to live with her grandmother. One day Tova complained to Stern that she felt “miserable” because she was now a housewife while he and her husband planned underground activities. Stern answered, “You are the wife of an underground commander and have much responsibility.”
Stern said his wife, Roni, “also does a lot that others in the underground don’t do.”
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On January 27, 1942, a British detective named Geoffrey Morton burst into a Lehi hideout on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street. Moshe was there for a weapons course. He was shot in his shoulder, thigh and jaw. From the floor he watched his comrades, hands raised, being shot one after the other. At 1 a.m., Stern’s underground “contact” came to Tova’s apartment and told her there had been shots and people had been wounded but she had no more information.
Tova felt as if Moshe “were taken from my arms” and prayed his injuries were light. Stern sent her to meet with people “in the know” to find out how the four injured men were doing. Someone told her, erroneously, that one of Moshe’s legs had been amputated. Ultimately, two of the four died. Moshe and another recovered and were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Two weeks later British detectives made a routine search of the Svorai apartment. Detective Thomas Wilkin taunted Tova for not visiting her husband, then said all the Sternists would die like the two Morton had killed. Tova told Wilkin she would live to see the British flee the country. (Today she says she doesn’t know where she found the courage to say that.)
A policeman named Bernard Stamp noticed a wet shaving brush. Because he knew Tova’s husband was under arrest and not at home, he began a more thorough search. He found Stern in a closet and pulled a gun. After Tova jumped between them, Wilkin ordered Stern to sit on the couch. Two guns were pointed at Stern so he could not move. Stern asked Tova for his shoes, which she brought to him despite Wilkin’s warning that she should take orders only from the police. Then Wilkin called for Morton.
When Morton arrived, Wilkin left and Tova was sent downstairs. At first she refused to go but Stamp promised her nothing would happen to Stern. She heard shots as she was getting into a police car. She shouted, “Plainclothesmen are murdering Stern!” and was driven away. Wilkin, in the front seat, made a “V” for victory sign every time they passed another police car.
At the time, the British police claimed Stern was shot trying to escape. Morton later said he shot Stern because he thought Stern was going to set off a bomb. Stamp called Morton’s story “hogwash” and said Morton shot Stern in cold blood.
Tova yelled at her interrogators that night. She promised hundreds of new fighters would replace the ones they killed.
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Tova spent the next four years – “the hardest years of my life” – in Bethlehem’s prison for women. Tova remembers entering prison and feeling “very lonely…. [Stern] was murdered, Moshe was wounded and in the Jerusalem prison. And I was alone, without my daughter, totally, totally alone.”
She imagined little Herut running around her apartment asking, “Mother, where have you gone?”
Tova felt the trauma and drama of being with Stern in his last minutes was not something she could communicate to young underground members who asked her to describe what happened, so she remained silent. She thought about her dead father and “confided” to him her feelings about Stern’s death, about her arrest, about leaving her widowed mother and not being with her daughter. She imagined him telling her: “A Jew was being hunted, you had no choice but to hide him.”
Tova’s brothers were also under arrest. Her mother supported the underground by feeding its hungry members and cooking glue for them when they were hanging anti-British posters on billboards and walls.
Over the next six years, some 150 women from the Irgun and Lehi were jailed in Bethlehem. Tova acted as a Hebrew tutor to some. She and her friends led several protests against the conditions endured by the prisoners and the patients on a ward for the insane one floor below. Once, after the prisoners barricaded themselves in their cells, Tova was punished with six weeks in solitary confinement.
In 1944 Tova happened to be in a hospital when the body of Detective Wilkin was brought in. He had just been assassinated by Lehi.
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Tova was released in 1946. Her cellmates sang to her as she left. Rabbi Jacob Goldman was there that day to give a Torah lesson and he gave her a lift to Jerusalem. They stopped to pray at Rachel’s Tomb and the rabbi gave her a book of Tehillim as a gift. Tova prayed for the safety of her husband, brothers and all Israel.
In the middle of a July night a few weeks later, Tova was re-arrested. This time she was held for a month without being charged. In February 1948, Moshe was one of twelve Lehi and Irgun members who dug a tunnel out of the Jerusalem Central Prison to rejoin the fighting ranks.
When Tova and Moshe reunited, Moshe told her how worried he was that a slip of his tongue in the hospital after he was shot might have led the British to their apartment. In fact, he had been depressed over this for years.
Tova loved Moshe and had not seen him for six years, so she did not want to tell him how hurt and angry she was that he hadn’t written her of his worries.
“If he had told me, he would have spared us so much pain,” she says, because she could have told him the British reached the apartment at least an hour before he gave his address in the hospital. In the years that followed, Moshe sued anyone who suggested Stern’s death was his fault, and he won a libel case in an Israeli court.
When Israel was established in 1948, it wasn’t what Stern’s followers wanted: a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates with a Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem. Still, Tova mingled with the dancers in the streets, thinking, “It isn’t enough, but still I’m happy.”
In the 1950s Moshe was refused government permission to be a teacher because he had been in Lehi. Instead he drove a bus while putting himself through law school and embarking on a career as a lawyer.
Tova was a housewife again. But the motto of the Lehi fighters was to serve forever. It was taken from a song by Stern: “Soldiers without names or uniforms are we…discharged from the ranks with our last breath.”
In 1981 Moshe and Tova, then in their mid-sixties, helped organize a settlement group and moved to northern Samaria. They established a town called Shaked. Tova became Shaked’s librarian and worked into her nineties disseminating books among the children of Shaked’s 200 families.
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Moshe died last December 6 at the age of 97. Tova insisted that the ambulance carrying his body circle the settlement before his final departure as a fitting farewell.
Tova celebrated her 96th birthday on December 29. She took up painting a few years ago and still paints today. When well-wishers offer her the traditional hope Ad me’ah ve’esrim – May you live to 120 – she replies that while she has no objections to living that long, her preferred wish is Ad hasof tov – May it be good till the end.
I believe Ze’ev Jabotinsky was right when he wrote not to ask where the blood of our Maccabean ancestors has gone, for it flows in the hearts of our generation, too.
Tova and Moshe had two more children after Herut, but it is appropriate to call Tova, Moshe and their generation the mothers and fathers of Liberty.
Zev Golan is the author of “Stern: The Man and His Gang,” a history of the Lehi underground and its members.
About the Author: Zev Golan is the author of “Stern: The Man and His Gang,” a history of the Lehi underground and its members.
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