Last Friday I traveled north to spend a relaxing and spiritual Shabbat in my favorite city in Israel; Tzfat. Maybe I’m crazy but I literally feel the holiness as I walk around the old city. I love the quiet and serenity. I love the stone floor and narrow alleys. I must admit that as I get older, it gets harder to climb the thousand stairs that are all over the place, but I still manage and enjoy every moment I’m there. To me, Tzfat is simply about living Jewish history and I feel it in my bones as I enter the city.
A very common thing to do when visiting Tzfat (before Shabbat), is to pray at the holy graves of the amazing Tzaddikim who are resting there. Who doesn’t visit the grave of the Ari HaKadosh or Rabbi Yosef Karo? Who hasn’t sung “L’cha Dodi” next to the grave of Rav Shlomo Alcabetz – who wrote that incredible poem? There are so many holy men and women resting in the cemetery of Tzfat that this entire article can be filled with their names. The problem, however, is that in addition to the holy Tzaddikim whose names you easily recognize; there are many others whom – sadly – you probably never heard about. Those are the graves I go to.
Shabbat parshat Shmini – the 26th of Nissan – was the 70th yahrzeit of 4 holy Jews who were hanged by the British in Acco prison back in 1947. They are buried in the Tzfat cemetery. When driving down to the cemetery, I noticed hundreds of Jews davening all over the cemetery but these four graves were all alone. Nobody went there and when I spoke to a few people who walked past, they had no idea what I was talking about. Let me tell you about these 4 Jewish heroes who were killed “Al Kiddush Hashem” and why – the next time you are in Tzfat – you should go and pray to Hashem at this holy spot.
The first name you might have heard of; Dov Gruner (pictured on right). Born in 1912 in Hungary, Dov was part of a Rabbinic and Chassidishe family. He made Aliyah in 1940 by organizing a ship of people escaping Europe, something considered illegal by the British who were running Israel during those dark days. On one hand, the mission was a success as the ship made it safely to Israel but Dov was arrested and spent 6 months in the Atlit prison, near Afula. Immediately after WWII, Dov joined the underground Etzel movement, under the leadership of Menachem Begin. In 1946 he was part of a team that attacked the Ramat Gan police station, which was run by the British. While the operation was a success, as Etzel fighters managed to take large amounts of weapons from this police station and use them in defense of Jews all across Israel, it did have its failures. One fighter, Yisrael Feinerman, was killed in the battle and one was seriously injured, and captured. His name was Dov Gruner. He was shot in the jaw.
Dov’s trial was front page news as he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the British judges in Israel. He spoke only one time, in Hebrew – on the first day of his trial. Here is a quick translation and summary of what he said; “You (the British) were given a mandate by the world to correct the horrific wrong that was done to the Jewish nation. You accepted the responsibility to help set up a Jewish state in Palestine but very quickly veered off course in a cruel and brutal way. You closed the door to immigration, causing the deaths of millions of Jews who would have left Europe, had they been allowed to enter Palestine. You enacted laws that benefited yourselves and put Jews in grave danger and you became an occupying army in our G-d given land. Therefore, it became our obligation to rise up and fight against you to drive you out of our land. It is the Jewish nation – as mandated by G-d Himself – who will be the only ones running this country and anyone who attempts to sever that bond will pay the ultimate price.” Dov then concluded with the words; “I will not speak any more at this illegal trial. I understand that I face a possible death sentence but I will not defend myself before those who have no right to judge me.” He then sat down and did not utter another word, even after the death sentence was handed down.
48 hours before he was hanged, Dov Gruner wrote a letter to Menachem Begin thanking him for his leadership and guidance and saying how proud he was to be a fighter in his army. He concluded with these words, which send chills down my spine every time I read them; “I write these words just 48 hours before I will be hanged and at a time like this, a man does not lie. I swear to you that if I had the chance to start all over, I would have picked the exact same path…”
The other 3 men who were hanged were younger than Dov. Yechiel Dresner (pictured at left), originally from Poland, was 25. Eliezer Kashani (2nd from right), born in Israel to parents who made Aliyah from Persia, was 24 and Mordechai Alkachi (2nd from left), born in Israel to parents who made Aliyah from Turkey, was just 22. These 3 men were caught in an operation called “The night of the flogging” when Etzel members caught and flogged British officers after they had done the same to Jews. These 3 fighters followed the lead of Dov Gruner and also did not participate in their trial.
At the end of the trial, before their death sentence was announced, Yechiel Dresner, who was known as a Talmudic genius in Poland, spoke briefly; “Neither my friends, nor I, recognize your authority to judge us. You are an occupying army and we are prisoners of war. Since when are prisoners of war put on trial? Allow me to say just one thing about what we did. When British officers flogged Jewish men all across Israel, you did it to shame and humiliate our nation, but we are not like the Jews of the exile. We do not allow these things to happen. We do not enjoy flogging the British but felt the need to do it so that you understand we are a nation that demands respect and honor. We will not allow ourselves to be humiliated any longer! If you want to flog people, do it in your own country and to your sons, not ours! Take yourselves and your whips and leave our country at once. Only then will there be peace for you and us.”
These 4 Etzel fighters were held in the infamous Acco prison and on the night of the 26th of Nissan, at 4am, they were taken out of their cells and hanged, one at a time. As they walked to the gallows they sang “Ha’Tikva”. Gruner was first, yet before the hanging, he blessed the other 3 men. I am not sure who was next but by 5:30am it was all over. The four had been hanged.
They are buried next to each other in the same section as 20 Jews who were brutally murdered during the 1929 riots. Most Jews have heard of the 1929 massacre in Hebron but did you know about the 20 who were murdered, and 80 who were seriously wounded, in Tzfat also in 1929? These 4 holy Etzel fighters, plus 3 more who were hanged just 4 months later, are all resting in one section in the old Tzfat cemetery, just a short walk from the Arizal!!!
What pained me greatly is that on the day I visited the graves – 70 years exactly to the day of their hanging – there should have been thousands of people there. Yet, sadly, it was just my wife, my daughter and I who went to this holy place. While there, a Haredi fellow saw us davening and asked which Tzaddik was buried there? I told him their names but he never heard of them before. I then told him their story and he admitted that they were true Tzaddikim. He went to their graves, said some Tehillim and put a stone on each one.
THis Sunday night and Monday is Yom Ha’Zikaron – Memorial Day in Israel. As the siren sounds throughout the country, let’s all remember Dov Gruner, Yechiel Dresner, Eliezer Kashani and Mordechai Alkachi. May their memories be a blessing for our Nation. Amen