“Everyone dreams,” my 91-year-old grandfather tells me over a cup of coffee in his north Tel Aviv apartment. “My dream was to move to Eretz Yisrael and ride a horse, carrying a rifle.”
The romantic militancy of my grandfather’s childhood dream should not shock me: I’ve known since I was young that the man I call Saba was partly responsible for the King David Hotel bombing, one of the largest terrorist attacks of its time. The operation against Britain’s military and administrative headquarters in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, left 91 people dead. Of them, 54 were civilians. Twenty-eight were British. Seventeen were Jews.
Although there was always an uncomfortable kernel of truth beneath the family joke that my grandfather was a terrorist, the reality of Saba Shraga’s background had seemed like a fable until I moved to Tel Aviv last year, where he still lives with my grandmother, Savta Margalit. On the one hand, he was a hero, decorated by the state of Israel for his contributions to the pre-Israel Zionist paramilitary group Irgun Tzvai Leumi (commonly known as Etzel). The photos on their wall picture him with the likes of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, long-time member of Knesset Uzi Landau, and, of course, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who headed the Etzel before entering politics and, eventually, signing the Camp David peace accords with Egypt as prime minister in 1979.
On the other hand, my college course on the History or Terrorism lumped the Etzel under the same umbrella as Hamas, whose wave of murderous suicide bombings against Israeli civilians reached its peak during my year abroad here a decade ago. In the history books written here in Israel, my grandfather is a great man. But while it’s easy to relegate the grittier elements of Israel’s history to the inaccessible past, my grandfather’s personal role forces me to grapple with the political violence that exists here on both sides of the conflict.
Alongside our regular discussions of why I’m not married yet, I have begun asking my Saba questions about what life was like back before Israel was an iPhone-saturated high-tech hub, before Tel Aviv was an international destination for beach revelers and night-clubbing vacationers. Life here was hard, he says. “It was so miserable then,” my grandfather tells me. “I could never have comprehended that, one day, I would live in an apartment with three indoor bathrooms, a Jacuzzi, a shower, running hot and cold water … all in all, it’s only been 80 years!”
“It’s impossible for you to understand what the world was like,” my grandmother interjects, slightly annoying my grandfather, who fashions himself as the narrator in the family (he even went so far as to lay out very specific instructions for how this story should begin). A bald man with a cheery disposition and an occasional temper, my grandfather has an innate sociability and attention to detail that make him a natural storyteller. As he speaks, the elderly man with the hearing aids and the chronic leg pain, the man who shared lemon popsicles with me on the beach as a child, melts away to reveal an able-bodied, hot-blooded fighter chasing a radical path to a better life in the land of Israel.
Though I call him Saba Shraga, my grandfather was born Feivel Eliash in Lodz, Poland, in April 1921. The youngest of six (Bella, Ella, Leah, Bronca, and his lone brother, Israel Mendel), he recalls doing the family’s “black work,” like carrying pots of cholent home for Shabbat. He followed in his brother’s footsteps, studying in the local synagogue, where his teachers gave him the Hebraized last name Elis, and remembers watching as his grandmother made “ponchkes” (doughnuts) for Hannukah, spitting into her hands to insulate them from the dough’s stickiness.
Life in Poland was good, but his fond recollections are marred by anti-Semitism. His earliest childhood memory is of hiding under the table as his father slammed shut the windows and tried his best to lock the gate as he whispered something about a “pogrom.” Button-stealing bullies in his school years left him baffled by calling him Christ-killer.
He did not grow up in a Zionist household, but as the economic and social conditions worsened for Jews in Poland, murmurs about the land of Israel made their way to his family. His father took him, at the age of 11, to hear an early version of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s famous “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you” speech. Though the audience threw tomatoes at the Revisionist Zionist and booed his call for Jews to take up arms to build a Jewish state, my grandfather was entranced, both by his words and the impressive gold-buttoned brown uniforms that Jabotinsky’s followers in the Beitar youth movement wore.
The price for aliyah was steep: A family needed to pay 1,000 British sterling to a banking company as a capital investment in Palestine. Selling off some of their possessions helped the Eliash family fill the gap they needed for aliyah. On Dec. 20, 1935, the family woke up to people screaming in the streets that Jews were being beaten. By New Year’s Day 1936, they were in Palestine.
“To succeed in life,” my grandfather likes to say as he slowly draws an imaginary circle on his palm, “you need to be smart. You need to work hard. You need to be good-looking, because that’s important, that will get you most of the way there. But to succeed,” he says closing the last segment of the diagram on his hand, “you need luck.” Despite his brother Israel Mandel’s good head for business, perseverance, and audacity, in the end it was luck that he lacked.
Life in the Promised Land was not quite as promised. There wasn’t much work in Tel Aviv, and the work that was available involved heavy physical labor. Food was scarce. When my grandfather ran to get provisions on credit, Mrs. Rosenblum, the shopkeeper, would tell him: “Ingaleh, tell your mother that the notebook is already full.” After a day getting blisters lugging heavy materials along the Yarkon River for pennies, Israel Mandel realized the pioneering life was not for him. He soon decided to go home to Lodz, where at least work and food were readily available, even if it meant serving in the Polish army for two years. His head for business helped him succeed there, even as his family struggled in Tel Aviv. When the Germans arrived in Lodz, they made a point to kill the richest Jews first to wipe out old war debts. Israel Mandel was among the first 10 to be hanged.
In the Yishuv, life improved after the war began. Feivel changed his name to Shraga and found work as a plumber’s apprentice. But after an unpaid apprenticeship led to a meager salary, he started a plumbing business of his own. He may never have gotten to ride a horse while carrying a rifle, but while working, he got a lot closer: A man named Eliyahu Aloni stopped by the shop and, after chatting with him briefly, convinced him to join the Etzel, to be one of the warriors fighting for the creation of a Jewish state. (The same man would eventually lead my grandfather to meet my grandmother in a business transaction, but that’s another story.)
There were a handful of Jewish resistance groups, but the Etzel was the only one actively fighting the British. The other groups did not want to divert British resources from fighting the Nazis. “The British at that time were worse than the Germans,” my grandfather says. “If a ship of Jews managed to get past the Germans, the British would turn them around and send them back.” Despite the violence of the Arab revolt, it was the British who truly stood in the way of establishing a Jewish state, making them the main strategic target.
At first, he was not involved in substantial operations, but after a few years of intermittent participation in the group, he took on a more active role, raiding British weapons store-houses, building explosives, and securing funds through any means possible. He was given the code name “Chaim Toit,” combining the Hebrew word for life with the Yiddish word for death, during an explosives training course in 1943. He opened up a front store on 83 Hertzel Street, and went to work assembling grenades and other weapons in the backroom.
Around the start of 1945, his commander Eitan Livni (father of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) approached him with a task. The Etzel, he explained, had found a family living over on Bashan Street that was willing to shelter a wounded or wanted soldier in their house, and a hiding place needed to be built for such an eventuality. The apartment, he was told, was small, and an elderly grandmother was ailing in the second room. “Keep the door closed, because if you disturb the suffering old woman she is bound to die,” Livni told him.
When he knocked on the apartment door, a cheerful woman with thick glasses answered, baby in arms, and let them in. Careful not to disturb the dying old woman in the next room, my grandfather and his friend Shlomo scouted the apartment out for a suitable hiding place. The house, they discovered, was built in such a way that left ample space between the ceiling and the roof. They could build a faux laundry closet in the corner and put a ladder inside leading to the rafters, which they would reinforce to allow a fugitive to hide for a few days. The plan was perfect, and they went to work.
One day, as they were working, a wind blew open the door to the sick old lady’s room. Before its occupant could shut it, my grandfather caught a glimpse of a bearded figure, and his heart skipped a beat. He would have recognized that face anywhere. Even though he’d only seen him once, giving a speech years earlier, he knew it was Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel and, at that time, a wanted fugitive from the British. Instead of delight, however, my grandfather was overcome with trepidation at learning a secret he was clearly not meant to know.
Begin, realizing he had been “discovered,” decided it was no use keeping the door closed and invited the two Etzel men into his room for tea, taking the opportunity to get some information on the outside world. My grandfather earned his favor by finding him a short-wave radio to keep abreast of the news from the outside.
Not long after meeting Begin, my grandfather’s partner-in-crime at the weapons factory was captured by the British. My grandfather quickly closed the store and relocated to Jerusalem. There he began a new role scouting out possible British targets and determining whether they were penetrable. Among them was the King David Hotel, the luxury building that housed both the British military headquarters and various foreign dignitaries, who would dance along with wealthy Arabs at “La Regance,” the hotel’s café and lounge. A wanted man, my grandfather had to disguise himself carefully before scouting the area.
The plan was hatched one day when he noticed a truck making a delivery for the café. Every day at noon, Arabs would bring vegetables, food, and canisters of milk to the kitchen. The milk canisters, he thought, would be perfect containers for explosives, but he wasn’t sure if the kitchen had an easy connection to the café, which was right below the military headquarters in the hotel’s southern wing.
To find out for sure, he’d have to go into enemy territory. Dressed as Arabs, he and a friend, accompanied by two Etzel women, walked right into the café one Friday night. Though the hotel was heavily guarded, and arrest by the British could mean prison, torture, or even hanging, my grandfather had to be sure of his plan. At one point, the ladies were sent to the bathroom, and my grandfather went wandering down the “wrong” hall. At the end of a lengthy corridor, a large Sudanese guard opened a door and boomed a menacing “What are you doing here?” at my grandfather. He replied that he was looking for his friend in the women’s bathroom, to which the guard gruffly escorted him, where his date was conveniently waiting for him. The story checked out, and the guard let them go. But my grandfather had already gotten what he needed: He spied a kitchen in the doorway from which the guard emerged. The plan would work.
My grandfather went to work training the operatives who would carry out the operation. On July 22, 1946, 250 kg of TNT in seven milk crates placed along the support columns in the basement went off, demolishing the Southern wing of the hotel and killing 91 people along with it.
After the bomb went off, the British were horrified at the blood-toll exacted upon them for administering the region. Cracking down on the Etzel, they ramped up the search for the militants and their leader in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the sweep that followed, Jewish fighters were captured and hanged, but they never managed to find their prize target, Menachem Begin. Despite unknowingly setting up their makeshift Tel Aviv headquarters on the lawn in front of Begin’s house, where Mrs. Begin coolly brought them water and lemonade in the summer heat, the British did not discover the Etzel leader safely tucked away in the ceiling hiding space my grandfather had built. In his memoirs, Begin said that the two Lodz-niks who built the space saved his life, though he also noted that they nearly killed him as well: My grandfather had apparently forgotten to leave him a supply of water.
The bombing remains controversial. A 2002 Discovery Channel documentary titled The Age of Terror calls the King David Hotel bombing “one of the most audacious acts of terror the world had ever seen” and made no bones about comparing it to 9/11. (My grandfather makes an appearance at 4:43.) One YouTube posting titled “Jewish Man Brags About Blowing Up King David Hotel” splices the documentary’s footage with an anti-Semitic screed denouncing Jews as the devil.
The bombing marked the beginning of the end of the British desire to carry on the mandate, and it certainly worked like terrorism, aiming to achieve political goals through psychological means. I ask my grandfather what he thinks: “It depends on how you define terrorism,” my grandfather tells me. “We were real freedom fighters. We didn’t attack places that had women and children. We fought solely against military targets.”
That history is disputed. Ben-Gurion, who headed the Haganah defense force that eventually morphed into the Israel Defense Forces condemned the “lawless” act.
The Etzel maintains that it called warnings in to the hotel three times, telling them to evacuate the entire building. Various theories exist as to why the British did not comply. One is that they failed to get confirmation that there was an attack planned from a double agent. Another is that the British general, Sir John Shaw, refused to listen to the Zionists and allow massive disruptions every time someone called in a threat. A third is that the bombs, meant to explode after 40 minutes, went off after just 22 when guards attempted to remove them, inadvertently setting off the mechanism. Others, including Sir John Shaw himself, allege that no such phone calls were ever made.
“It was a disaster,” my grandfather says of the civilian deaths. “I had a very heavy feeling when I learned that innocent people died. That was not our mission.”
But what of the Etzel’s other operations? The ones against the Arabs? These, he defends, saying they “saved the nation of Israel.” When his troop conquered Jaffa during the War of Independence, he says, there were 80,000 Arabs living there, but only 3,000 were left. “The rest ran off,” my grandfather claims. The Arabs were scared and started to leave, he says, and their leaders were so sure they could annihilate the Jews that they encouraged the flight until the fighting ended. “This was the redemption of Israel,” he says. “It may not have been intentional, but that’s how it worked out.” Life is messy, he tells me. The Jewish state could never have been born of an immaculate conception.
Maybe so. Or maybe not. The circumstances at that time were not the same as today, and ideas about conquest and victory have changed since 1946. Whatever judgments today’s armchair historians make, I know that I am privileged to enjoy the physical, financial, and possibly moral sacrifice of an earlier generation today. The more I think about it, the more what my grandmother said rings true: I cannot begin to comprehend what life was like then.
CORRECTION, July 19: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Etzel was the common name for Irgun Tzvai L’Yisrael. In fact, the proper name for the paramilitary group was Irgun Tzvai Leumi.