Last Tuesday, Shalom Masuri, 90, revisited his role in a historic event that took place 70 years ago, not far from where we sat in the living room of his Hadera home. “I can’t remember what happened last week, but I remember those days as if it was yesterday,” he said with evident emotion.
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1946 was a violence-filled year in pre-state Israel. The mention of just two incidents — “Black Sabbath,” on June 29, a massive roundup of Jewish officials by the British, and the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the administrative center of the British Mandate, on July 22 — suffices to grasp the spirit of the Jewish Yishuv’s struggle to end British rule and found a Jewish state. Terror acts, explosions, executions, abductions and incarcerations occurred almost daily.
Masuri was born in Yemen in 1926 and was 6 when his family immigrated to Palestine and settled in Hadera’s Nahliel neighborhood. He joined the Revisionist Zionist movement Beitar and enlisted in the Irgun, the underground militia led by Menachem Begin and also known by its Hebrew acronym Etzel. His first big mission, in 1945, at the age of 19, was sabotaging British telegraph poles. After that, he was chosen to take part in robbing a payroll train.
The Irgun knew, because of intelligence from Jews serving in the British railway police, that a train carrying the salaries of British soldiers set out from Haifa between the 10th and 14th of each month, delivering pay packets along the route, down to the Egyptian border. Black steel crates held 50,000 Palestine pounds, in bills and coins.
The Irgun, a small militia, desperately needed cash for its anti-British activities. “For them, this was a lot of money,” Joseph Kister, a historian at Tel Aviv’s Jabotinsky Institute said last week.
Apart from its economic significance, the operation also had great symbolic value, putting the Irgun alongside other national revolutionary organizations that stole money from their government adversaries, including the communists in Russia during the revolution and the Polish underground.
“The history of national revolutions is strewn with legends of fighters who captured booty from the enemy in order to fight against the latter,” raid commander Menachem “Mendl” Meltzky wrote in his memoirs.
After some reconnaissance, a site was selected for the raid — a spot between Hadera and Gan Shmuel. “There were hills and dense woods, and the railbed was low,” minimizing the echo from the explosions, Masuri related.
“The track makes a sharp bend, the train is forced to slow down. We’ll be able to stop it,” wrote Meltzky, describing the preparations for the raid.
On the night of January 11, 1946, a Friday, Masuri and other members of the cell laid mines under the tracks and hid them under the gravel, he related. They extended the mine cables into the woods, a distance of a few dozen meters, and concealed the guns they planned to use the following day in a hole they dug for the purpose.
They returned at noon on Saturday. Meltzky describes the moment of the explosion in dramatic terms: “Boo-oo-oomm!!! The explosion was deafening. A colossal thunderclap bolted in a shock wave through the air, and was carried upwards with plumes of smoke and dust. The instantaneous response was the sound of railway carriages knocking up against one another with a series of terrified thuds. A sound of steel crashing up against stone, a tumult of wheels clambering off the tracks, crashing through the stones of the rail bed and screeching through the gravel. The groan of bending steel.”
Masuri and his comrades rushed to board the derailed train, and entered the engine, guns drawn. They found two frightened British men, next to the expected crates of cash. The guards, who were also frightened, were in a different carriage. The Irgun men overcame the British, and took the money.
“I climbed on the carriage, which was leaning on its side, and broke in. There was barely any resistance. The Brits were frozen in place, and didn’t move,” Masuri recollects.
Now seven women from the Irgun fighters, who had been waiting nearby, came, concealed the cash and smuggled it out of the train to a safe place.
“The money was placed in nylon stockings that were tied around their bellies, and the girls appeared to be pregnant,” says Prof. Yehuda Lapidot, an Irgun veteran. Some of the cash was smuggled into Tel Aviv in an ambulance that purportedly was bringing women to a maternity ward. The rest was hidden in jugs readied in advance and collected a few days later.
Eitan Livni, the Irgun commander of operations who became a Likud Knesset member, who took part in the raid, later wrote: “The operation was carried out quickly. ... In just a few minutes, the attackers had vanished, and on the tracks remained only the damaged cars and the shocked guards, who were unhurt.”
The take was 35,000 Palestinian pounds, which according to the Bank of Israel is equivalent to 1.2 million shekels, or around $302,000, today.
“They don’t consider it theft. They didn’t steal from civilians; they confiscated money from a foreign government” that was their enemy, documentary filmmaker Peleg Levy said. He is part of Toldot Yisrael, which has filmed testimony from several senior Irgun figures connected to the raid.
For love and money
Money wasn’t the only thing to come out of the train raid. It also led to three marriages: those of Eitan Livni and Sara Rosenberg (the parents of MK and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni); Amichai “Gidi” Paglin and Tzipora Perl; and Yaakov Goldberg and Malka Kaplowitz.
The following morning, British police and army units under the command of senior officers surrounded Hadera. “They besieged the Nahliel neighborhood, assembled the men from the houses and examined them,” Masuri recalls. “I, wearing my shorts, wished them a warm welcome and continued along my way,” he says.
“They conducted a house-to-house and room-to-room search and tried to find either the money or any other sign that would be evidence of any link to the operation,” Meltzky recounted in his memoirs.
In the end, the British had no choice but to release this announcement: “On Saturday morning, approximately 70 Jews armed with rifles and automatic weapons attacked a train near Hadera, after derailing it by means detonating a mine under the locomotive. While some of the attackers engaged in a battle with the guard escort, others threatened two unarmed British railway officials, and robbed 35,000 pounds in cash.” The announcement ended with the statement that the police’s tracking dogs attempted to track down the robbers, “even though the gangsters scattered pepper in the area.”
The Irgun men smiled at reading the British announcement. They chuckled over the fact that their 13 operatives were perceived by the British to be a force of 70 fighters. An announcement released by Irgun the following day read: “In an expropriation action, the likes of which are seldom found in the annals of revolutionary and freedom-fighting organizations worldwide, our soldiers confiscated 35,000 Palestinian pounds from the exploitative and oppressive British government. This entire amount is entirely dedicated to the war of liberation. ... And this is what our teachers and rabbis taught us: “Gold will become iron, and iron will bring freedom to a people that champions freedom.”
Masuri is the only Irgun figure who took part in the train robbery who is still alive. He went on to participate in other famous Irgun operations, such as the raid on a British weapons train near Hadera on April 17, 1948, that yielded large amounts of munitions for the militia.
Smuggled out of jailin a suitcase
He was later wounded, was arrested by the British and issued a death sentence from which he was saved only after forging identity papers and being smuggled out of jail inside a suitcase.
In the War of Independence, he participated in the conquest of Jaffa and fought in Jerusalem.
After the war, Masuri managed a bookstore and worked at a bank, at a Kupat Holim Health Maintenance Organization and at the Mifal Hapayis national lottery. This year, he will celebrate his 90th birthday, surrounded by his grandchildren.
“Today, I cannot believe that I did what I did,” he says. “Where did I get the courage to take part in all these actions? Its strange, but that was the spirit of the times.”