On July 22, 1946, Ephraim Lentzitzky, a member of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi underground militia (aka Irgun), participated in the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, one of the most controversial attacks ever perpetrated by the pre-state Jewish organization, headed by Menachem Begin. Ninety-one people were murdered in the terror attack, among them Jews, Arabs and British civilians and military personnel.
The bombing caused the collapse of one wing of the hotel, where both the British Mandate’s civilian government and military command in Palestine were headquartered. After Lentzitzky died last month at the age of 94, there are apparently no other surviving participants from that operation. Irgun member Sarah Agassi, the telephone switchboard operator who called the hotel to warn of the impending explosion, died in September.
Lentzitzky, whose underground nom de guerre was Perry, was tasked with driving the getaway car for the Irgun members who had hid the explosives in the hotel and/or were injured in the attack. The militants had stolen the vehicle, originally a taxi cab, from its owner just in time. A medic for the underground group, Hadassah Tabak (“Ariela”) Sdovnik, rode next to Lentzitzky, who parked the car next to the gas station adjacent to the hotel and awaited orders.
Irgun militiamen dressed as Arab waiters entered the lavish King David in the afternoon, carrying milk cannisters containing 350 kilograms of explosives. They placed the cannisters in the kitchen of the hotel’s coffee shop, and fled. The explosion took place at 12:37 P.M.
Why didn’t Lentzitzky himself participate in placing the explosives?
“I had reddish hair, so they couldn’t let me wear a kaffiyeh and enter the hotel because there were no red-haired Arabs,” he recalled during an interview for an Israeli documentary project.
On the way out, the British opened fire on the fleeing Irgun militants and some of them, including several who had been shot, got into Lentzitzky’s car. As per his orders, he began to drive quickly toward the Old City. He suddenly noticed in his rearview mirror a British military jeep in hot pursuit, but managed to dodge it.
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En route, Lentzitzky stopped for a few moments and three of the underground members got out of the car, tearing off the Arab clothing they had worn over their khakis. “People gathered around us and looked with wonder at how Arabs turn into Jews,” Joseph Evron wrote in his memoir, “Gidi: How Could One Chase a Thousand.”
The medic and two injured colleagues now remained in the vehicle. When they reached the Old City, Lentzitzky was forced to slow down because a truck was blocking them. “Sirens were wailing. Police filled the streets and stopped vehicles for inspection,” according to an account on the Irgun website. Aharon Abramowitz, who was badly injured by British fire after the explosion, was in the car fighting for his life. He received medical treatment but died the next day of his wounds, and is today recognized as one of Israel’s fallen fighters.
Ephraim (Lipman Fischel) Lentzitzky was born in 1925 in Lodz, Poland, to a family that belonged to the Aleksander Hasidic movement, one of the biggest such sects in the country before World War II. He studied in heder as a child, and learned Hebrew from a private tutor hired by his father. In 1936, at the age of 11, he moved to Palestine with family; they lived in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. The family supported itself by running a grocery store out of its home, and Lentzitzky worked there with his siblings. Later, he worked in a garage, and got a driver’s license for buses and trucks.
He initially joined the Haganah pre-state underground group in about 1944. His teacher for hand-to-hand combat was Yitzhak Navon, who would eventually become president of Israel. Thereafter, he became a member of the Irgun (also known by its Hebrew acronym, Etzel). After the King David bombing, the British arrested Lentzitzky but didn’t charge him. During the War of Independence, he participated in various Irgun operations, among them the conquest of the Arab village of Dir Yassin, which until today has been a source of controversy as many deem the killing of 110 villagers there a massacre.
Lentzitzky went on to work as a driver for the Hamekasher and Egged bus companies, and was later employed at Jerusalem’s Hadar biscuit factory and at a family-owned juice business. He married Rachel Lazarovitch of Rishon Letzion, who was born in 1926 and was orphaned at age 12 when her parents, members of the Haganah, were murdered by Arabs. Rachel was a member of the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite strike force, and was part of the Jerusalem convoy during the War of Independence, serving as nurse in the sixth battalion of the Harel Brigade. In 1949, she was sent to Aden, Yemen, to help prepare Jews there for immigration to Israel. She died in 1995. Lentzitzky is survived by a daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.