Who Ratted Out Zionist Militia Leader Yair Stern to His Killers 78 Years Ago?

Moshe Svorai, a partly exonerated fellow Lehi member, inadvertently disclosed the commander’s hideout, scholar says

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The Tel Aviv apartment owned by the Svorais, where Avraham Stern hid and was killed, and now serves as the Lehi Museum.
The Tel Aviv apartment owned by the Svorais, where Avraham Stern hid and was killed, and now serves as the Lehi Museum. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Lehi fighter Moshe Svorai waged three court battles over for his historic truth. He won the first two and the third ended with a compromise. At the center of all of them was a single word that he uttered on February 12, 1942. His critics maintained that it was his mention of a “guest” at his home that revealed to the British the hiding place of Avraham “Yair” Stern, the commander of the Lehi pre-state underground militia and No. 1 on the British Mandate’s wanted list and led to Stern’s death. Svorai, however, convinced the court to exonerate him.

Now, eight years after Svorai’s death, Natan Ron, a lawyer and a doctoral candidate in law and history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says “This affair proves that the legal truth can be the opposite of the historic truth.” In other words, even if the court ruled that Svorai’s slip did not give away the hiding place, historians may certainly rule otherwise.

Avraham Stern.Credit: GPO

To boost his thesis, Ron reviewed all of the documents and exhibits that were used in the trials over Svorai’s claims – two in which he sued for libel and one suit he brought against the archives of the Haganah pre-state underground militia, and he also read the documents that the court declined to accept.

“There was before the court a whole series of evidence that painted a totally different picture, and would have led to a different result had it been examined by a historian,” he says, raising a fascinating question about the ability of judges to decide cases concerning historical events from decades before.

‘An unclear conscience’

To understand what this is all about, we must return to Tel Aviv in the winter of 1942. Svorai and several of his Lehi comrades who had continued to fight the British even at the height of World War II were arrested in an apartment on Dizengoff Street. Svorai was wounded by gunfire from the British police during the arrest and hospitalized under guard and shackled to his bed. At the very same time, his wife Tova was sheltering his commander, Stern, at their apartment on Mizrahi Street in the Florentin neighborhood. In letters he sent to his wife from the hospital, Svorai asked after the welfare of “the guest.” The British censors, who scanned the letters, grew increasingly suspicious, but at first they couldn’t tell where the apartment was. Then, on the morning of February 12, 1942, Svorai made what turned out to be the mistake of his life, and gave his address to a visitor at the hospital so she could bring the letters to his wife. That morning, British detectives raided his apartment and killed Stern.

שלט "מבוקשים" שפורסם תחת המנדט הבריטי בעיתון "הארץ", פברואר 1942

Was there a connection between these two things – Svorai’s slip and the British raid? In 1994, Svorai succeeded in convincing Tel Aviv District Court Judge Eliahu Vinograd that there was no connection. In Svorai’s libel suit against his former Lehi comrade Anshel Shpielman, who claimed that Svorai had “an unclear conscience” about the episode, Vinograd ruled that Stern was killed in a routine search conducted by the British of Svorai’s apartment at 9:30 A.M. He also ruled that Svorai’s slip in mentioning the address where Stern was hiding only occurred at 10, 30 minutes later, so this information could not have been the cause of the British raid of the apartment.

At the end of that decade, Svorai filed a second libel suit, this time against Maariv, on the same basis. He won again. The judge, Adi Azar (who in 2004 became the first judge in Israel to be murdered) was also critical of the attempt to question Vinograd’s professionalism and blasted the newspaper for “not hesitating to publish baseless and tasteless criticism of a veteran and senior judge, and of his characteristically carefully explained ruling.”

However, a later examination of the historical evidence shows there is quite a good chance that both Vinograd and Azar erred in their rulings. Ron is now arguing that the judges did not examine all of the historical facts and disqualified on various technical grounds historic literature, memoirs and other documents that clearly indicated a connection between Svorai’s slip of the tongue and the discovery of Stern’s hideout.

Judge Vinograd, for instance, refused to accept as evidence a very important historical document – a British report written on the day of the event, which said that the detectives were sent to Svorai’s home after a Hebrew-speaking British policeman overheard Svorai say the address at the hospital. Vinograd wrote that one reason he refused to consider this document was that he prefers oral testimony over a written document. This is one point where Ron notes a substantial difference between the work of a historian and the work of a judge.

Moshe Svorai.Credit: Nir Kafri

“There is no question that a historian would vastly prefer to use an authentic document that was written in real time over oral testimony that is given decades later, with all the limitations of the human memory,” he says.

The judge also said he did not accept the document because the court was given a copy and not the original document. “The historian, who is not fettered by legal procedural requirements, would find it sufficient that this document had been in an archive for decades,” Ron says.

Another historical document that attested to Svorai’s responsibility for Stern being located was a telegram that was sent the same day from the British army headquarters. The telegram says that Stern was apprehended at 11:45 – that is, after Svorai’s slip of the tongue. “The information that led to his capture was obtained by the police by means of censorship of letters that were smuggled out of the hospital by wounded members of the gang,” the telegram said.

Vinograd also refused to accept this document as evidence in court. For one thing, he argued that the author of the telegram did not have first-hand knowledge of the veracity of the information he wrote in it. “The historian, on the other hand, would view this telegram as a document of great importance that could possibly settle the factual dispute,” Ron says.

‘Disaster about to befall us’

The judge also rejected the strong evidence in another telegram – a British intelligence survey that said “[Stern’s] hiding place was discovered by a British sergeant who was responsible for several of the ‘Stern Gang’ members. The mother of one of them came to the hospital to bring clothes to her son.

The British sergeant, whose knowledge of Hebrew was perfect, heard the address that was mentioned and immediately informed the British detectives in Jaffa. Three detectives were sent to the address and Stern was found.”

The Tel Aviv apartment owned by the Svorais, where Avraham Stern hid and was killed, and now serves as the Lehi Museum.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Vinograd argued that this document was written “an anonymous major” and therefore disqualified it as evidence. “The historian would have verified the authenticity of the document and if he found that this was the customary manner of reporting at that time, would consider the document decisive proof about the circumstances surrounding Yair’s arrest,” says Ron.

The British historical documents that the judge refused to admit as evidence are joined by a host of Jewish historical sources, in Hebrew, that support them and reinforce the theory that Svorai’s slip was in fact lethal, but they were also ruled out. For example, Ron quotes from the book “Mevukash” written by Svorai’s hospital roommate Yiska Eliav: “Suddenly Moshe Svorai stirred, as if wanting to tell my mother one last thing before she left. In a clear voice he suddenly said: ‘Perhaps you could send regards to my wife who lives on Mizrahi Bet Street, Number 8.’ Just then, [the British officer] jumped up, rushed to the door and ran to the telephone right by the entrance to our room and immediately rang someone. I knew what a disaster was about to befall us, I looked at Moshe. He, too, lay on the bed helplessly, white as a sheet. As soon as he said what he said, he realized the terrible disaster that could happen now.”

Vinograd also ruled out relying on a number of newspapers from the time, all of which said that the time of the killing was about 11:30 A.M. “This morning at 11:30 a company of policemen came to 8 Mizrahi Bet Street,” Haaretz reported at the time. “This evidence is tainted because it presents a version of events without citing its source. In no newspaper did it say that a journalist was present at the time of the event and that he drew the information given in his article from his personal knowledge,” the judge noted. In his research, Ron found that Judge Vinograd was not entirely accurate here, as some of the newspaper reports did say that the reporter was on the scene immediately following the killing.

“It’s important to emphasize that in the eyes of the historian, a daily newspaper can be an excellent piece of evidence for proving controversial historic facts, especially when the fact you want to prove using the newspaper is a technical matter where the writer could not be suspected of any bias,” Ron says.

“Here, too, we see the difference between a judge who from the outset considers a newspaper problematic in terms of evidence, and a historian who would prefer the newspaper to the testimony of living people who are reporting on the event 50 years after it occurred, with all the limitations of memory and other biases that can enter into it.”

Moshe and Tova Svorai at home, 2002.Credit: Nir Kafri

In his ruling, Vinograd acknowledged a judge’s limited ability to get to the bottom of a historic truth. “The problematics of a hearing on a matter of historic importance is great. 50 years have passed since the event and until witnesses took the stand to testify. The event itself was traumatic for most of them. Just because the event at the center of thie trial is of historic importance that does not necessarily make me a historian or give me the tools of a historian or a historian’s approach to examining the event,” he wrote.

“As I have not taken on the mantle of historian, I shall not conduct myself in this trial any differently than in any other trial in which the judge must determine ‘the truth’ solely on the basis of the admissible evidence brought before it by the parties and nothing else. This is not the pure unalloyed truth – if that may even possibly be attained – but is the legal ‘truth’ in this case.”

But Ron’s historical research clearly indicates that the legal “truth” the judge reached is full of holes. Ron also found that internal contradictions occurred in the testimony of the living witnesses whom the judge preferred to the historical documents, especially in the testimony of Tova Svorai. In her testimony she said that the British police knocked on the door of her home at about 9 A.M. However, when he checked, Ron found that in the deposition Svorai gave in 1952, much closer to the time of the event, she wrote that Stern was still talking with her “at about 11 in the morning.”

Ron also found testimony provided by Moshe Svorai himself, when he was interviewed in 1953 for a documentary project about Lehi members. A transcript of the recording was submitted to the court but rejected by Svorai himself, who claimed it was not his voice on the tape. What he says on the tape reinforces the suspicion that he bore responsibility for revealing Stern’s hiding place: “To this day, I have been unable to verify, despite my efforts to do so, whether the police came to our home in light of knowledge it received from other sources or whether they followed Yiska’s mother.” It appears that he himself suspected then that he was to blame.

Ron, whose thesis advisers are Profs. Moshe Sluhovsky and Doron Menashe, argues that the British documents rejected by the judge are “authentic documents that were written amid the work routine, and most importantly, besides the fact that they were written in real time, is that the writers had no interest or reason to alter the time of the killing.”

None of the key players in this episode are still alive. A new examination of the events, 78 years on, could help in understanding the difference between legal and historic truth and also decide, once and for all, what role Svorai played in the affair.

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