In July 1947, two British sergeants were being held in a narrow, closely-guarded bunker that had been dug underneath a diamond-polishing plant in Netanya. The two were captured by the Irgun, and the Jewish underground militia threatened to hang them unless the British commuted the death sentences of three Irgun operatives.
On August 1, nearly three weeks after the kidnapping, Haaretz reported that the Palestine Police found "the two corpses ... in a government eucalyptus grove" near Netanya.
The front-page headline in the UK's The Daily Express was more acerbic. "HANGED BRITONS: Picture that will shock the world," it screamed to its readers. Beneath that was a grisly photo of the two young soldiers' bodies on a tree, bound and blindfolded.
This past weekend marked the 65th anniversary of these dramatic event that became known as the Sergeants affair, an event that agitated the entire pre-State community in Palestine and has been named in history books as one of the factors that led to the end of the British Mandate.
Filmmaker Peleg Levy has devoted considerable time to researching the affair for a documentary he is producing together with veteran filmmaker Herb Krosney. "You have to understand," says Levy, "that there are many people who are afraid to open this story."
Last Thursday night, Levy marked the anniversary by leading a group of 70 people, aged 11 to 95, on a tour of the final stations in the lives of the two soldiers. The first stop was 15 Herzl Street in Herzliya, where Sergeants Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice were abducted on July 11. From there the group moved on to the building where they were hidden. The tour ended in "the sergeants' forest" in Kiryat Hasharon, where "the affair reached its climax," according to Levy.
The hanging of the sergeants was the peak of a stubborn battle between the British and the Irgun. During the course of that battle, the Irgun captured (or tried to capture ) British soldiers and commanders to use as bargaining chips, to obtain the release or the commutation of death sentences for Jewish fighters caught by the British.
Between 1938 and 1947, 12 members of the Irgun and the Lehi, the other underground militia, were sentenced to death by the British. Ten of them were executed by hanging. The other two committed suicide in prison. The last three on the list were Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar. After they were abducted, Menachem Begin - the Irgun commander who was hiding in a Tel Aviv safe house - ordered the capture of British hostages to secure the trio's release.
Martin and Paice were easy prey: They frequently met with Aharon Weinberg of the rival Haganah underground, and gave him intelligence information about the British forces. A surveillance team followed the pair after one such meeting and abducted them.
But the Irgun failed in their goal. The British hanged the "Olei Hagardom," as they are called in the underground martyrology - Jews who went to the gallows in the struggle against the British. Begin ordered that the sergeants be hanged in response. He later said that this was "the most difficult decision of my life" and defined it as a "cruel revenge."
Levy's interest in the affair began six years ago, when he happened to have met Moshe Moldavsky on a public bench in Netanya. Levy tells how the former Irgun member explained to him that "When the British started hanging Jews, there were those who said aloud that it would be the end of the Empire; they warned them against breaking the neck of 'this stiff-necked people,' aspiring to return to its land."
Levy took a special interest in the unanticipated Jewish angle of the affair: Clifford Martin was the circumcised, Hebrew-speaking son of a Jewish mother. After his abduction, his mother pleaded for help to a Jewish member of Parliament.
"I ask myself how the fact that the abducted man was a Jew affected the abductors for the Irgun on the one hand, and the British commanders on the other," says Levy.
Marvin Paice, was also "one of ours," he adds. "[Paice] was deeply involved in the country, he helped the Jews and he reported to them on the British plans." Paice's father appealed to Begin to have mercy on his son, in a letter addressed simply to "The commander of the Irgun." A postal worker who was an Irgun member got the letter to Begin, who replied in an open radio broadcast: "You must apply to your government that thirsts for oil and blood."
Levy defines the hanging of the sergeants as a tragedy. He believes they should be added to the list of Olei Hagardom.
Before he passed away, Shmuel Katz, a member of the Irgun high command, told Levy: "The British understood that after the Olei Hagardom went to the noose with their heads held high and after the sergeants were hanged, there was no more scope for escalation. The game was over."
The affair left an impact that can still be felt in Israel to this day. One of the scenes in Levy's film shows two participants in the affair: Yossi Meller, an Irgun member who participated in the abduction and who passed away a year and a half ago, and Meir Novick, a Haganah member involved with getting intelligence from Martin and Paice. As fate would have it, both of them lived in the same old age home, but refused to ever speak to each other.
Levy hopes that the film will come out next year.
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