Olei haGardom

The Keneset will be holding a special commemoration today for the 13 “olei hagardom”, those who went up to the noose, hanged during the British occupation: Eliyahu Hakim, Eliyahu Beit-Zuri, Mordechai Alkachai, Yechiel Drezner, Eliezer Kashani, Meir Feinstein, Moshe Barazani, Yaakov Weis, Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Mordechai Schwartz. All but the last, members of Etzel (Irgun Tzeva’i Le’umi — National Military Organization) and Lechi (Lochamei Cherut Yisrael — Fighters for Israel’s Freedom); Mordechai Schwartz was from the Haganah (The Jewish Agency’s official defense arm). Hashem yiqom damam.

While I admit I find the morality of their actions non-trivial, their mesiras nefesh, their willingness to proudly die to fight the White Paper that kept Jews escaping the Holocaust into Palestine, is a holiness few can fathom.

I happen to be reading “A Tzaddik in Our Time“, a translation of “Ish Tzaddiq“, Simcha Raz’s biography of R’ Aryeh Levine z”l. The book contains an entire chapter on those who wore the scarlet prison clothes and the room in the shadow of the gallows that marked them as condemned men. Both those whose sentences were commuted, and those who were killed. It was very hard to read; stories of people about to die whose final words were often attempts to alleviate the shared pain of their rabbi. Questions about what to say or do, if moments remained after the final Shema.

In looking for something to share, I found an essay by Yehuda HaKohen that is particularly appropriate for the season. Here is an excerpt:

Between Israel’s slavery in Egypt and the ultimate Redemption in Jerusalem, the story of the Exodus continues throughout time. In every generation we find challenges and heroes in our unbroken struggle for freedom as we inch ever closer to HaShem’s final goal.

The festival of Pesach is the holiday of Israel’s initial liberation, marking the birth of the Hebrew Nation as well as G-D’s great love for His people. It was on this day that HaShem took Israel out from Egyptian slavery in order that we become His national expression in this world. We were brought from subjugation to freedom in order that we establish the holy kingdom meant to bless humanity with the light of His Truth. This light can be fully illuminated only through Israel existing as a sovereign Nation over the entire territory that G-D has assigned to us according to His Divine wisdom. It is therefore precisely on Pesach — on the birthday of the Hebrew Nation — that we must educate ourselves to the true value of freedom.

Rashi teaches that the miracles of the Exodus began on the tenth of Nisan, the Sabbath directly preceding Pesach. It was on this great Sabbath that Israel overcame all fearful reservations and liberated ourselves from psychological slavery. Each household sacrificed a lamb, the national god of Egypt, and displayed it defiantly for all gentiles to see. Although the Egyptians would naturally seek to slaughter their Israeli slaves for such an offense, the Children of Israel were miraculously unharmed. This was therefore the day on which the miracles of Redemption began and when Hebrew courage was first demonstrated after so many years of terrible persecution.

On Pesach of 5707 (1947), the last year of British colonial rule in the Land of Israel, an important seder took place in the Jerusalem prison. A few days before their scheduled executions by the foreign regime, six young men were sharing the holiday’s ritual meal together with Rabbi Yaakov Goldman. They were Dov Gruner, Mordechai Alkachi, Yechiel Dresner, Eliezer Kashani and Meir Feinstein from the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) and Moshe Barazani from the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). Dressed in their red death row jumpsuits, these boys were provided with haggadot and food for their seder in order that they could sit together and celebrate the holiday of Israeli freedom for the final time.

The young men eventually arrived at the part of the haggadah which relates Rabbi Akiva, and other Sages discussing the Exodus from Egypt all night in B’nei Brak. When dawn broke, their students came to inform them that it was time for the morning prayers — it was time to say “Shema Yisrael”.

The Jewish prisoners sitting around the table discussed where these rabbis might have been that they could not see the light of day in order to know the time. It is well known that these rabbis had supported the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome and that Rabbi Akiva even served as Bar Kochba’s personal arms bearer. Acting as the spiritual leader of the insurrection, Rabbi Akiva had gone so far as to proclaim Bar Kochba the Messiah. These rabbis must have been hiding in caves from where they were organizing the revolt. They were discussing the Exodus — the importance of freedom and independence for the Hebrew Nation — all night long and when dawn broke, their students came to tell them that it was time for “Shema Yisrael” — time to sanctify G-D’s holy Name through liberating His Nation and His Land from foreign rule.

Nearly two thousand years later, these six boys — warriors captured while fighting for Israel’s freedom and sentenced to death — were reading the story of the rabbis in B’nei Brak. Dov Gruner said to the others, “It is a shame that the Jewish Agency does not learn what Rabbi Akiva said, that if the Egyptians had not received fifty makot and another two hundred and fifty makot at the sea, they would never have granted the Hebrews their freedom. If Rabbi Akiva understood that in order to become free, there had to be makot, then why is it so difficult for Israel to understand now that we must give makot to the British in order to win our freedom?”

Dov Gruner, who was scheduled to be executed by the British authorities, understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, who was brutally and publicly executed by Rome. Now, after nearly two thousand years of terrible persecutions, the students of Rabbi Akiva had arrived to proclaim that dawn was at last braking. The students that history had been waiting for had finally arrived. The students, all dressed in red, eating a prison seder only days before their execution by a modern incarnation of Rome, had arrived to establish a new Hebrew state on the foundation of their corpses. These were students who walked in the path of Rabbi Akiva, knowing that it was their last Pesach before singing HaTikvah on their way to the gallows. And without fear or regret, they wondered why the Jewish leaders of their generation had not understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva.

Prior to his execution, Dov Gruner wrote a farewell letter to his commander, Menachem Begin:


From the bottom of my heart I thank you for the encouragement which you have given me during these fateful days. Be assured that whatever happens I shall not forget the principles of pride, generosity and firmness. I shall know how to uphold my honor, the honor of a Jewish soldier and fighter.

I could have written in high-sounding phrases something like the old Roman ‘Duce est pro patria mori’, but words are cheap, and skeptics can say ‘After all, he had no choice’. And they might even be right. Of course I want to live. Who does not? But what pains me, now that the end is so near, is mainly the awareness that I have not succeeded in achieving enough. I too could have said: ‘Let the future take care of the future’ while enjoying life and being content with the job I was promised on my demobilization. I could even have left the country altogether for a safer life in America. But this would not have satisfied me, neither as a Jew nor a Zionist.

There are many schools of thought as to how a Jew should choose his way of life. One way is that of the assimilationists who have renounced their Jewishness. There is also another way, the way of those who call themselves ‘Zionists’ — the way of negotiation and compromise, as if the existence of a nation were but another transaction. They are not prepared to make any sacrifice and are therefore forced to make concessions and accept compromise. Perhaps this is a means of delaying the end but, in the final analysis, it leads to the ghetto. And let us not forget that in the ghetto of Warsaw alone there were five hundred thousand Jews.

The only way that seems, to my mind, to be right, is the way of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the way of courage and daring without renouncing a single inch of our homeland. When political negations prove futile, one must be prepared to fight for our country and our freedom. Without them the very existence of our nation is jeopardized, so fight we must with all possible means. This is the only way left to our people in their hour of decision: to stand on our rights, to be ready to fight, even if for some of us this way leads to the gallows. For it is a law of history that only with blood shall a country be redeemed. I am writing this while awaiting the hangman. This is not a moment at which I can lie, and I swear that if I had to begin my life anew I would have chosen the same way, regardless of the consequences for myself.

Your faithful soldier,

Dov Gruner fully internalized the message of Rabbi Akiva…. After receiving Gruner’s letter, Menachem Begin wrote:

“Great is the courage in Israel at a time of destruction and in this time of resurrection. We will be proud of them all and in all of them we will recognize holiness. But in the ladder of Jewish heroism, there is one level which is supreme. And from that level arise those who are Harugei Malchut. They were fighters whose fighting was not passive. It was active. They were revolutionaries whose revolution was not without choice but initiated. They went to the gallows and their heroism was not once. It is eternal. From their bleeding hearts, a song of freedom was sung. The song that sang how there is no purpose in being slaves anymore and that liberty would win and justice would arrive. And now, G-D of Israel, I tell You: Because You have given Israel such children as these, I say ‘Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah‘.”

Menachem Begin says “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah” — “May His Great Name be exalted and sanctified”. The evidence that G-D’s Name is exalted and sanctified is that Israel has sons who are prepared to give their lives for the freedom of Israel — Boys who are ready to sacrifice themselves on the alter of Redemption so that the next generation will see a Hebrew flag over Jerusalem.

The famous tzadik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, came to see Yechiel Dresner before he was taken to the gallows. Dresner asked the tzadik for help with the confessional prayer before death and Rabbi Levine began to cry. He told Dresner not to worry and that the prayer was not necessary.

And dawn broke. Not long after the execution of these boys, did the British retreat from Eretz Yisrael. A flag of Hebrew sovereignty once again rose over parts of our homeland, initiating the first flowering of our Redemption.

The Talmud (Berachot 20a) asks why Israel experienced less open miracles in Talmudic times than in Biblical times. The Sages question if it might be because the Nation in Talmudic times were less immersed in Torah. But the Talmud dismisses this and answers that it can be proven that there were Biblical generations that studied less Torah but still experienced greater miracles. The Talmud continues by revealing that the difference is due to a distinction not in learning but in self-sacrifice. Israelis in Biblical times were more willing to sacrifice their lives for the sanctification of G-D’s Name. The Talmud therefore concludes that miracles are a result of courage and selfless devotion. When Israel is ready to meet HaShem half way, we are rewarded with great miracles.

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  1. Jon Baker says:

    re your title

    I was just reading a lengthy post on Michael Rodkinson, the translator of the Talmud, on the “On the Main Line” blog. Kaufmann Kohler critiques the translation for its many errors. One error he sees is that “olei hagardom” should be “olei hagradus” (reading samech for mem-soffit), meaning those who go up to the platform for the noose.

    Kohler is an interesting case, BTW – he, like Graetz, was apparently a major student of RSRH, and yet went OTD. And yet, despite the big parallels in their lives, such as the translation & commentary in German, and the major Talmidim or children who went OTD, we see RSRH celebrated and MM reviled.

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