Amir: Freedom Fighters of Israel
by Gad Nahshon
They fought against the British occupation of Israel. The British defined them as members of the 'Stern Gang.' Abraham Stern or 'Yair' was the founder-leader of the Freedom Fighters of Israel, or 'Lehi.' Sixty years ago, the British police murdered Yair in cold blood at Tel-Aviv's Mizrachy Street (Florentin). The house in which Yair was murdered is today 'Beit Yair' Museum, (Stern Street 8, Tel Aviv, Tel: 03-6837582, Fax: 03-6819264), the center of Yair and Lehi's legacy and heritage. It is an official Israeli museum and its co-partner in the special non-profit organization which preserves the memory and legacy of these Lehi heroes under the management of Adina Gilarman. It should be explained to the reader that for many years the official Israeli historiography tended to ignore or omit the contribution of Lehi to the struggle of building a Jewish state. Like the 'Irgun', the Lehi was boycotted by the official leadership of the Yishuv, or the Jewish Agency. The two underground organizations were related as outsiders because they believed in one belief or ideology: Zeev Jabotinsky! It was then a sort of heresy! Therefore, we still need to promote a change in the Israeli historiography in order to integrate the Lehi's contribution into the mainstream. Of course, since 1977 one can see the coming of a change. In Feb. 2002, when the Lehi's veterans gathered at Yair's grave in Tel Aviv, president Moshe Katsav as well as ex-prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, the Lehi commander, attended. It was an official Israeli salute to Yair in a memorial day of his assassination which happened 60 years ago.
The new project is the publication of Lehi Personalities by Yair Publishing House and the Lehi's non-profit organization to preserve legacy and heritage. This project is an important step in order to provide the Lehi's members, fighters, and heroes, a proper place in the Hall of Fame of those who fought and died for the dream of a Jewish state, a free state, and for a Hebrew Revolution as well. Among them was the fighter, Lehi member from Bat-Yam, my friend Binyamin Gafner. In a letter to me he explained: "Lehi Personalities, two attractive volumes, is a compilation of 840 biographies of members of the Lehi and those who helped or supported them." Gafner, who was a distinguished publisher himself, praises this project. For many years he made personal efforts to collect historical material and preserve them. He is also a lecturer on the history of Lehi. Gafner also accomplished an oral history project. For many years he used to meet ex-Lehi members and recorded their life history.
Thanks to Gafner, we can learn about the Lehi's stories of 200 fighters and their relative families. Gafner, recently, helped Museum Yair to produce a documentary about these Lehi fighters. Gafner, a very modest person, a member of the lost tribe of those who were founders of the state of Israel, a member of a unique underground para-military organization whose commanders were Yitzhak Shamir, Nathan Yellin-Mor and Dr. Israel Shieb, explained the following: Among these 840 biographies some are of the ones who left Lehi after Yair was murdered. Among the 840, half, or 420, served time in British prisons like Gafner himself. Most of the Lehi's members died or were killed. Some were hanged and murdered by the British while others died in the many wars of Israel since 1948. Only 150 ex-Lehi members are with us and we should bless them as well.
Binyamin Gafner believes that the new non-profit organization, under the leadership of Adina Gilarman whose parents served in Lehi, can make the difference in preserving the legacy of the Lehi for generations to come. The other side of this coin is 'Beit Yair' Museum which hosted about 10,000 visitors in 2001. Inbar Kawanstock is the director of this museum. Recently, the Lehi Mishpucha convened in Ramat-Gan in order to celebrate the project of Lehi-Personalities. Among the guests: Yitzhak Shamir, David Stern (Yair's brother), Adina Gilarman, Yair Amikam, Nechemia Ben-Tur, Guela Cohen, Shulamit Livnat, and others. As to my dear friend Gafner, he, 86 years old, dedicates his life to preserve the Lehi's history.
It is very important that the new generation be aware of the Lehi's heritage. Gafner's life story can serve as a great script for a film or a docu-drama. He is very modest as to his chapter of life in which he served the Lehi, a most secret, clandestine organization, and a small one. He points out that he was not a great hero like Dov Graner of the Irgun or like Alexander Robobitch, a 16 year old member of the Lehi in Jerusalem who was tortured by the British police. He was murdered by the British detective, Roy Faran, who also burned the body in order to hide his crime. This is a well-known affair in the history of the Lehi. It shocked the Yishav at that time of struggle against the British Mandate in Palestine. Alexander Robobitch died because he refused to talk, to endanger his members or the Lehi's secret location of its weapons arsenal.
Gafner was born in Bialistock. He became a member of Baitar. He was an orphan but he went on to study as an engineer in France. He made aliyah and joined the Irgun in 1937. He was arrested and jailed for 2 years. Later he left the Irgun with Yair Stern to establish the Lehi. But the eruption of World War II changed the course of his life: He joined the British Army. He served in Egypt. At the same time he established, secretly of course, a branch of Lehi. Later the British used him as a member of a special commando unit ('A' Force) whose goal it was to trace British or American pilots who had to parachute behind enemy lines, in order to save their lives. This mission was originated from the shortage of pilots in the allied forces. Gafner helped to save the lives of 300 pilots and was decorated by the British army.
In June of 1944, he renewed his activities in Lehi together with his commanders, Shamir and Yellin-Mor. He was among the planners of the assassination of Lord Moyne by the Lehi. Later, Gafner was arrested again but in 1946 he was able again to be active in the Lehi projects. He was an intelligence officer in the Lehi. Gafner was well educated and his secret weapon was his control of many languages. He was also a writer and a poet.
In 1947, his uncle from Michigan, Louis Hepner, financed his trip to the U.S and Gafner established a Lehi branch in this country. He sponsored a new organization 'American Friends of Freedom Fighters of Israel' and published, together with his new supporters, a house magazine called Voice of Jerusalem. He also established a new Lehi Youth Movement called 'Artsa' which was a success story in NYC (Brooklyn).
Gafner tries to hide his real identity because he was busy with some clandestine activities: he smuggled from New York explosive materials which were used by the Lehi. He also collected donations for the Lehi. The money helped to finance the Lehi's activities in Europe. He even sent radio transmissions to the Lehi from the U.S.! Gafner mobilized many Americans to his organization. He even mobilized the support of Henry A. Wallace, F.D.R.'s controversial vice-president. Wallace was always a pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist politician. Gafner's activities continued until the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948. But he returned to Israel only in 1949. Later he became a publisher (Ledri) and a writer as well.
As I explained, members of the Irgun and Lehi were post-1948, a new tribe of untouchables. The official new regime tried to isolate them to eliminate their heritage and legacy from Israel's collective memory, from Israel's historiography, as well. All those historians who defined themselves as post-Zionist or revisionists, never tried to revise the official history of the revisionists or the true disciples of Zeev Jabotinsky! They looked for justice for the Palestinians but never for revisionists, the ones who joined the Lehi or the Irgun.
It is time to revise history in order to launch a campaign for justice. As to Gafner, Lehi fighter and activist who has lobbied for this justice for many years as a researcher of the Lehi's history in Israel as well as in Great Britain, I would like to note that today he views himself first of all as a fighter of Lehi who dedicated his life to serving of the Jewish people.
Gafner's Lehi name was 'Amir.' Let us wish him health and long life.
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