1915: A Man Who Fought With and Foxed the British Is Born

David Niv joined the Irgun, was drafted by the British and arrested by the Haganah, and also wrote a six-volume work on the history of the Etzel.

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A war memorial honoring Etzel soldiers in Jaffa.
A war memorial honoring Etzel soldiers in Jaffa.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today is the 99th anniversary of 1915: the birth of David Niv, who fought for the British in Mandate Palestine, only to be arrested by them on charges of belonging to a terror organization, and who wrote the the six-volume history “Campaigns of the Etzel,” about the pre-state Irgun militia.

David Niv was born David Linivksi on December 15, 1915, in Wolkowysk, near Bialystok, Poland (today in Belarus). His parents were Tzvi Hirsh Linivski and the former Sheyna Pines. David grew up in a family of Zionists, and received both a general and Jewish education at Bialystok’s Hebrew Gymnasium, where a classmate was Yitzhak Shamir.

Additionally, from age 15, he was an active member of the Revisionist youth movement Betar, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

In 1935, after a year’s study at the University of Warsaw, Niv immigrated to Palestine. (His parents and two siblings remained behind, and perished in the Holocaust.) He then served for two years in the Betar work brigades, laboring as an agricultural worker, stonecutter and builder of roads.

In 1936, he also joined the Irgun, or Etzel: the acronym for Irgun Tzva’i Leumi – National Military Organization, in which his nom de guerre was Shaul.

Drafted into the British army

After the Irgun suspended its operations against the British, in order to fight the common enemy of Germany, its members began to be drafted into the British army’s Jewish Brigades. Niv joined in 1942, and according to his widow, Naomi Niv, since he had studied Arabic, he was employed by the Mandatory authorities to work in their draft office to recruit Palestinian Arabs, a mission that had only limited success. He also served as a liaison between the Irgun and the British command.

In late 1944, in an action referred to as the “Saison” (as in “hunting season”), the Haganah and Jewish Agency began arresting and turning over to British forces members of the Irgun and Lehi (the more-radical militia that split off from the Irgun in 1940). After Niv’s release from British service, in 1945 he found himself arrested by the Haganah and placed in administrative detention.

In December of that year, he was transferred with some 50 other comrades from the Revisionist militias to Britain’s Sambal prison camp, outside Asmara, Eritrea.

Niv was active in the cultural life of the Jewish detainees in the camp, and it was during this period that he wrote the words to the song “They Won’t Break Us” (Hem lo yishbaru otanu), which became the anthem of the exiles.

From Eritrean prisoner camp to Sorbonne

In January 1946, Sudanese troops guarding the outer perimeter of Sambal camp fired on and killed two of the Jewish prisoners who happened to get too close to the fence. When Niv ran to offer assistance to his fellow prisoners, he too was shot, taking seven bullets in the upper part of his body. Seriously wounded, Niv was hospitalized by the British for a year. He only left Africa and returned to Palestine in March 1948.

In the years that followed, Niv did further studying at the Sorbonne, during the time he was a Betar emissary in Europe, and then received a master’s degree in Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University. He also spent two years in New York, where his first wife, Molly Dawidow, was studying medicine, but returned to Israel without her.

Niv worked for over a decade in the press division of the Jewish National Fund, and edited several different journals and newsletters for Betar. From 1968 to 1980, he was chief editor for the Knesset, where he oversaw production of all its publications and the parliamentary record. According to Naomi Niv, he also was responsible for an internal newsletter in which he kept track of bloopers – errors and misuse of language uttered by legislators in the Knesset plenum, a publication that Knesset employees looked forward to hungrily each week. But Niv’s magnum opus was his military history of the Irgun, which he published in six volumes between 1965 and 1976.

David Niv died on September 21, 1988, following heart surgery. He was survived by his wife Naomi, two daughters and a stepdaughter.

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