70 Years Later, Perpetrator and Victim Recall King David Hotel Bombing

Levy Kampos remembers clearly what happened when the deadly blast went off on that fateful July morning in 1946 — so does Sarah Agassi, who called the hotel to inform them of the bomb her group left there.

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Rescue workers search the ruins of Jerusalem's King David hotel, blown up by the Etzel underground militia in 1946.
Rescue workers search the ruins of Jerusalem's King David hotel, blown up by the Etzel underground militia in 1946.Credit: Hugo Mendelson, GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Monday, July 22, 1946 began as an ordinary work day for Shoshana Levy Kampos. Early in the morning the 21-year-old Jerusalemite reported to the city’s King David Hotel, the headquarters of the British Mandate government.

Levy Kampos who came to Palestine from Germany in the late ‘30s, graduated from the prestigious Evelina de Rothschild school in Jeruslem in 1944 and landed a coveted, well paid job as a typist and shorthand typist in the British administration.

That day she was supposed to deal with documents about equipment and food supplies for the British army in Palestine. But a phone call in the late morning cut short her routine. “We got a message that there was ‘going to be an explosion,’” she recalled this week in an interview in her Jerusalem home. “But the man in charge, [Chief Secretary for the Government of Palestine, Sir John Shaw], said we weren’t to leave work under any circumstances,” she says.

For 21-year-old Sarah Agassi it also started out as another day in the office. In the morning she came to the Amamit health maintenance organization in Jerusalem, where she worked as a secretary. A few hours later Yitzhak Avinoam, the Jerusalem commander of the pre-state underground militia Etzel, “came and told me to get out of my office,” she said this week at a Ramat Efal retirement home, where she lives. He gave Agassi, who was an Etzel operative, a secret mission together with another operative.

“We were told to stand opposite the King David Hotel, watch our guys going in, wait for instructions and telephone the hotel, the nearby French consulate and the Palestine Post offices and warn them that bombs had been placed,” she says.

Agassi waited near the YMCA building, opposite the hotel, while seven Etzel operatives entered it. One of them was her brother, Yehoshua Gal. They were disguised as Arab waiters, carrying six large milk pitchers loaded with 350 kilograms of explosives and a self-detonating device. They put the pitchers in the hotel café’s kitchen and fled.

When she saw her brother running out of the hotel, Agassi called the hotel. “This is Etzel. We put bombs in there. Clear the people’ we told them,” she says.

The response was disparaging. “They laughed and said, ‘those bloody Jews won’t tell us what to do,” she recalls.

Levy Kampos, who will be 91 in two days, remembers clearly what happened at 12.37 P.M. that day. “It was pitch dark and there was a terrible explosion. I couldn’t see a thing. I thought everyone was killed, until I heard someone clear his throat. Everything was full of smoke and soot,” she says.

When she started seeing the extent of the disaster she ran from the place crying. Agassi was in a safe place by then. “I saw a huge mushroom rising and said to myself, ‘I did it,’” she says.

Not for nothing was the grand King David Hotel chosen to be the target of the attack. It was a symbol of the British government. The attack was in revenge for Operation Agatha, (or Black Sabbath, as it was called by the Jews), in which the British carried out raids, arms searches and mass arrests in Jewish cities and kibbutzim a month earlier.

The explosion demolished all seven floors of the hotel’s southern wing and 90 people – British, Arabs and Jews – were murdered. “Dozens of people were killed for nothing. But some still see it as a ‘success,’” says historian Ruth Lamdan, of Ramat Hasharon. Her father, Zvi Shimshi, a clerk for the British Mandate, was murdered in the attack. He was 35 years old; she, a child of three.

The destruction after the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every year Lamdan publishes a mourning ad in memory of the bombing’s fatalities in Haaretz, the newspaper that slammed the perpetrators and their commanders at the time. “A horrific crime” and “atrocious attack” the paper called the operation.

“The so-called cause for which such deeds as yesterday’s are done is the Jewish state. But even if this cause is achieved, will it be a Jewish state?” Haaretz’s editorial asked the following day. “What value would this state have, if we must turn our backs on all our traditional values and violate all the commandments concerning the relations between people, to win it? What point would there be to this state if its citizens lose their Jewishness and human qualities?”

Levy Kampos, Agassi and Lamdan will take part Firday in an event marking the attack’s 70th anniversary, at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. The event will be broadcast live on the center’s Facebook page. Asked after all these years if she has any regrets about her part in the act that took the lives of dozens of innocent people, Agassi doesn’t hesitate.

“I was a soldier, I have no regrets. I did my duty. The British helped the Arabs a lot; for us they made laws. They hurt the Jews, so we tried to overcome.

“It totally undermined them. After that they were afraid to walk around in Jerusalem, and walked only in twos and threes,” she says.

Avinoam died last year at the age of 94. In an interview with the documentation project Toldot Yisrael he said, “after that action the countdown for the British leaving the country began. After that the British government and its central nervous system was undermined.”

Lamdan disagrees. “It was the most awful, pointless terror attack that ever took place here,” she says. “It changed nothing and did no good at all. It’s all nonsense.”

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