Tova Svorai, Pre-state Underground Hero Who Hid Lehi Commander, Dies at 97

Along with her husband Moshe, Svorai sheltered Avraham 'Yair' Stern, leader of the Lohamei Herut Yisrael militia, at a time when no one else dared to take him in.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Tova Svorai, who fought with the Israeli underground in pre-state Israel, died on Sunday. She was 97.

Svorai is perhaps best known for an act of bravery in 1942, when she and her husband Moshe hid Avraham Stern, the leader of the pre-state underground militia Lohamei Herut Yisrael, or Lehi, in their rented Tel Aviv apartment.

Stern was the leader of the militia until he was caught by the British. In an attempt to evade capture, he fled to the Svorais' apartment in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood at 8 Mizrahi Street, which has since been renamed to Stern Street in honor of the fighter. The apartment, where he stayed for six weeks, is now the home of the Lehi Museum.

Stern, who was at the top of the British police’s most wanted list, went into hiding at the Svorais' apartment on January 3, 1942. He had been wandering the streets of Tel Aviv as a fugitive, and only the Svorais were willing to take him in, which later became known as Beit Yair.

On the morning of February 12, however, the British caught up with Stern. In an interview with Haaretz 11 years ago, Svorai recalled that fateful day. At 8:00 AM, she noticed someone walking on the roof opposite the window and closed the blinds. Stern hid behind the door. When British detectives knocked on the door an hour later, Stern hid in the attic. After he was discovered there, he was handcuffed and murdered.

Svorai wrote in her memoirs that one of the detectives “went through every possible place in our small apartment. Finally, after he had checked everywhere, he went to the attic. When he opened the door, Yair [Stern's nom de guerre] couldn’t be seen at all. The attic was full of bundles, dresses and a coat. But... he put his hand inside and, of course, found Yair and pulled him out. Suddenly I saw him put his hand into the back pocket of his trousers, where he kept his gun. I sprang from my place and stood between Yair and the police officer. 'Don’t shoot,' I said. 'Don’t shoot, or shoot me.'"

On January 27, 1942, two weeks before Stern was murdered, Moshe Svorai was arrested in an apartment at 30 Dizengoff Street, after British detectives had shot him together with four other Lehi members. He was wounded, arrested and put on trial. He was also taken to the hospital on account of his wounds.

After Moshe Svorai’s arrest, Stern fled the apartment on Mizrahi Street for fear that he would be arrested as well, but returned shortly afterward. “I’m sorry. I have no place to go,” Tova recalled him saying. She took him in and asked no questions.

After Stern was murdered, Moshe Svorai was taken to the hospital in Jaffa to identify his body. “We found him in your apartment,” the British detective told him.

Later on, it was claimed that the British found out where Stern was hiding because of a slip of the tongue Moshe Savorai made in the hospital where he was arrested.

According to this claim, when the mother of his friend Yaakov Eliav visited him in the hospital, he asked her whether she had delivered a letter he had written to Tova and a "guest" staying in his apartment. She said she had not and asked him for the address. He answered, “The address is 8 Mizrahi Street.”

Svorai denied any slip of the tongue. For years, and in an interview with Haaretz, he said he had not known Stern was still hiding in his home. As the years went by, Moshe and Tova Svorai felt that their fellow members of Lehi had given them up to “slander, terrible lies, a blood libel, falsifications, collusion and character assassination,” as they described it. Moshe Svorai brought a series of libel suits against various groups and individuals who blamed him for Stern’s death.

In 1989, Moshe Svorai finally cleared his name in court. A judge ruled unequivocally that Avraham "Yair" Stern had been murdered in a routine search, so Savorai could not possibly have led the British to him.

Moshe Svorai died on December 6, 2011, aged 97, almost a year and a half before the passing of his wife Tova last Sunday.

Moshe and Tova Svorai. Credit: NIr Kafri
Avraham Stern, Lehi commander (right). Credit: Haaretz
The Beit Yair MuseumCredit: David Bachar

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