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.”
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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.”
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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