Wingate Night, Revisited

In March 1946, as Mandate forces spotted a ship carrying illegal immigrants, Bracha Fuld became the first female fighter killed in the struggle against the British. Amos Levavi, just 16 at the time, always thought he was responsible for her death - until now

In the heart of Tel Aviv, parallel to Marmorek Street and around the corner from Habima national theater, lies a small street called Bracha Fuld. The name commemorates the first female fighter killed in the pre-state struggle against the British, at this very site, when she was 19 years old. For years, Amos Levavi, who was just 16 on the day Fuld was killed, thought he was to blame for her death; he only recently discovered that he did not actually play any role in the tragic incident.

The night of March 25, 1946, which the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine ) later dubbed Wingate Night, they had planned for 248 illegal immigrants to disembark on the Tel Aviv beach - in an operation originally called Nachshon. But the illegal ship Wingate was seized by the British at sea and the operation was canceled. In one of the few clashes between British and Haganah (pre-state underground ) forces that night, Fuld - a fighter in the Palmach, the elite strike force - was killed. She immediately came to symbolize female fighters in the campaign for independence.

Amos Levavi, Or Meir
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Half a year after Fuld's death, the British seized an illegal immigrant ship named after her. Responding in his column in the now-defunct Davar newspaper, called "The Seventh Column," Natan Alterman published the poem "Bracha Fuld," in which he drew a parallel between the fighter and the ship.

Fuld was born in Germany in 1926, to a father who boasted of his military service in the German army during World War I. She was named Barbara, after St. Barbara, the patron saint of the artillery corps, in which her father had served. The November 1938 events of Kristallnacht broke her father's heart, as he found himself torn between his Jewish and German identities. In the end, he took his own life.

A few months later, Fuld and her mother immigrated to Palestine and lived in Tel Aviv. In the summer of 1944, Fuld joined the Palmach where she was one of just a few women to participate in a squad commanders' course and was even named an outstanding cadet. It was in the Palmach that she also fell in love with Gideon Peli, who was arrested by the British and imprisoned in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Fuld made sure to visit him and send him letters. Peli was killed in the War of Independence, two years after Fuld's death.

Opening the gates

March 1946 marked the arrival of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, tasked with investigating the restrictions on the immigration of Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps in Europe. The leadership of the Jewish Agency halted all operations of the Jewish Resistance Movement that month, to prevent the British from using them as propaganda in their war against "Jewish terror."

As opposed to the Night of the Trains, the Night of the Airfields, the Night of the Bridges, and the attacks on British police stations - in which Mandatory government targets were hit - the objective on Wingate Night was to help illegal immigrants disembark on the coast of Tel Aviv, the most important city in the Yishuv. The choice of Tel Aviv was designed to illustrate the determination of the entire Yishuv, including those circles opposed to the armed struggle, to mobilize in favor of opening the gates of the country.

"That was the Haganah's biggest campaign until then," says Pinchas (Pinny ) Weinstein, the commander of the Palmach's Second Battalion, who led the blocking forces in the security ring. The disembarkation of the immigrants was to take place at what is now Hilton Beach, about 300 meters south of the city's port, and three security rings surrounded the designated beach: an inner ring made up of the Palmach's Fourth Battalion, a middle ring comprised of the Field Corps, and an outer ring meant to block the flow of British forces from the Sarona Camp and from Jaffa. Outside the port were four armed boats of the Palyam naval unit, and in the city itself 7,000 Haganah members were recruited to bring in the illegal immigrants.

The commander of the operation was Yitzhak Sadeh, the acting chief of staff of the Haganah, and his two deputies were Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, and Nahum Ziv-Av, commander of the Tel Aviv district. Yehoshua Globerman, a senior member of the Haganah who was later killed at the start of the War of Independence, planned the operation, and the operations officer was Yigael Yadin.

The concentration of the large civilian forces and the deployment of the blocking squads to their positions began in the afternoon. The tension in Tel Aviv could be felt in the air, and the British sensed that something was cooking. From the early evening, they were several unplanned run-ins with the British forces. On several roads both inside the city (Dizengoff ) and surrounding it (the Chelouche Bridge ), traffic was stopped. The British understood something was going on, especially at about 9 P.M. when they discovered the ship at sea, and began their pursuit.

Caught in a volley of fire

Fuld's squad was one of a chain of squads that were supposed to block the movement of armored vehicles from the Sarona Camp. The camp was the main threat in terms of unleashing armed British forces into the city. A British armored vehicle that set out on a circumferential patrol in the Marmorek area identified the squad. The team then called to another armored vehicle, from which a soldier dismounted to patrol the house where the suspicious movement had been identified.

Meir Chefetz, a member of the Palmach squad, encountered the British soldier. They shot at one another and fled. The soldier immediately ran back to the armored vehicle, which began firing heavily on the house.

Fuld was trapped with her team on the balcony of the house. When she stood up to shoot the British commander standing in the turret of the armored vehicle, she was caught in a volley of machine gun fire and mortally wounded. Fuld then managed to tell her friends, "It's better to die than sit in the Bethlehem prison." Instead of being taken to a hospital, Fuld was taken to the Jaffa police station to be interrogated, where she died from her wounds.

He never told anyone

Amos Levavi, who was 16 years old at the time, was one of the teenage Gadna Haganah fighters drafted for the operation. Today he is 81.

"On the day of the operation, I was asked to transfer two parabellum pistols from the Talpiot religious school for girls on Ha'avoda Street to Yudeleh, an elderly Jew who lived on Marmorek Street," he says in his Be'er Sheva home.

"Toward evening we arrived at the school, about 10 boys, and sat in total darkness, with shuttered windows. None of us knew why we had been called and we didn't ask any questions. Suddenly the platoon commander, who was two to three years older than us, entered and said: 'There's a ship on its way to the coast, and the Haganah fighters are deployed at the entrances to the city to detain the "Anemones" [a nickname for the British soldiers in their red berets] from Sarona. Your job is to transmit messages and instructions between the points and headquarters.'"

What did you do next?

"Nothing. We waited tensely for several hours until the platoon commander announced that the ship had been discovered and ordered us to transmit a cancellation order to the blocking positions. I had to bring the news to Bracha Fuld's squad at the end of Marmorek Street," Levavi recalls.

"A curfew had been declared in the city and the streets were empty. The night was dark and cold. I ran as fast as I could using the familiar shortcuts in the neighborhood. At the end of Rothschild Boulevard I suddenly heard a brief volley of shots and within a split second a volley was fired at me. The exchange of fire took place right in front of me, and when I jumped into the bushes in the yard the bullets whistled around me. The street was soon filled with armored vehicles, many British soldiers, spotlights and terrible chaos."

How did you react?

"The order we'd received in advance, in case of the plans' disruption and an encounter with the Anemones, was to immediately disappear from the spot. Under the circumstances, I decided to flee from the area and quickly ran home through backyards. The next morning I heard that Bracha Fuld had stopped the British soldiers with her body."

For years Levavi thought he was to blame for Fuld's death, as he did not succeed in delivering the message. Only recently, when I spoke with him as part of my research for an academic essay about Wingate Night, I told him that the British had discovered the squad on their own, and that the firing began mutually. Until then, Levavi says, he had never told anyone about his involvement in the events of that night.

Why did you keep silent all these years?

"I felt that I hadn't carried out the task I was given, and that because of me the squad didn't know the operation had been canceled and opened fire on the British. Nobody debriefed me after the operation and nobody knew that I'd reached the squad. To tell the truth, the issue has haunted me all these years."

Were you relieved to finally discover that, with or without you, the incident would have taken place, since it was the British who opened fire when they encountered the squad?

"When I read an article about Fuld's bravery I was deeply touched, and I felt the need to tell my family. My wife asked me 'Why didn't you ever talk about it?' I had repressed it and kept the unknown activity to myself. Now I finally feel closure."