Passover with the Irgun

    April Passover 2003 Edition            
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Passover in the Irgun


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From the Seder to Jaffa

By Joseph A. Poisson

It was the eve of Pesach, the Seder. Our family was seated around the table, on the Seder-night of 1948, the Festival of unleavened bread and of freedom. We recited Kiddush; we thanked the Lord who has chosen us from all peoples and has raised us high above all nations and has made us holy by His commandments…and has brought us to this appointed time of gladness, this Festival of unleavened bread, which is the season of our memory of the departure from Egypt. This reminded all of us, seated around this table, that we are waiting for the time of our freedom in Israel, to our freedom from foreign rule. When we symbolically raised the Matzah and read in the Haggadah: "This is the poor bread which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt," it reminded us of our poor bread, yet promised us: "Next year we pray to be a free and happy people."

I, the youngest in the family asked: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and did not know during those moments when I asked this question that in a couple of hours so much would change for me and for us in what was still to come. When we continued reading the Haggadah, telling the story of our departure from Egypt, we mentioned the days of the Messiah, and that God kept His promise to Israel. In other words: He would bring us from slavery to freedom, from the Diaspora to redemption, and would take us to the land of Israel and build the Temple for us.

It was a historic moment, which I will never forget as long as I live. We remembered, with awe and reverence, the six million of our brothers killed in Europe, by a dictator twice as bad as Pharaoh, King of Egypt. With his Nazi partners, and their accomplices, they killed our innocent and pure brothers. Men, women, and children were shot, hanged, gassed, and burnt.

Our people in the Ghettos and in the concentration camps sacrificed their lives for sanctification of the Holy name. Some of them were courageous, revolted against the wicked and even killed these evildoers. In this night of Pesach, during World War II in 1942, survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto fought against the Nazis just as the Maccabees did; inseparable, in life or death. They extolled the honor of Israel, may God avenge their blood.

It was quiet outside while my father started reading the Haggadah with the traditional tune. From time to time we would join him in the reading and the songs. He would elaborate on the story of the exodus from Egypt.

In this historic night, where the spark of hope was ignited in the hearts of the survivors of the people of Israel in their homeland, the Irgun was not satisfied solely with the reading of the Haggadah, but went on to act and fulfill its message.

The underground wanted to ensure the Jewish way of life for those who lived there, and the survivors who joined them. Therefore, people were summoned to revolt, to hold the iron and crush the Arab sniper's nests in Jaffa, which were a threat to the citizens in Tel-Aviv. They called to put an end to the British siege as well as the Arab menace, and use firearms to break the enemies. This call initiated a new spirit in the hearts of those who believed in our independence, in the tradition of our forefathers, and in our trust in God.

Just before we began our festive meal that evening, there was a knock on the door. A messenger asked to talk to me. I was told to be at Dov base in Ramat-Gan before 11.00 p.m. This place was the designated meeting point for all of the battle corps units to get organized, receive supplies and equipment before we went out to combat in Jaffa, for the liberation of Tel-Aviv.

I was surprised to get the call during the Seder, but I was glad to be part of this important mission. Menachem, my brother, puzzled why he was not called despite being the elder and having greater combat experience, sat, somewhat disappointed, but kept the festive spirit.

I completed my meal quickly and was reminded of the exodus from Egypt in which our fathers left Egypt during their flight from slavery, and had no time to prepare any provisions for the way. Seated around the Seder table, I glanced at the Haggadah and saw the following words rising: "Let us consider what Laban, the Syrian, tried to do to our father Jacob. That Pharaoh only wanted to drown the boys that were born in the homes of Israel, but Laban wanted to destroy everything…"

I thought to myself: Try, Joseph, to learn from the long history of our people, that fierce foes have fought against us in every age, but the Holy One of Israel has saved us from their hand. And now we are a few in number, a couple hundred members of the Irgun are called to go out to battle against our many enemies, British and Arab, who wish to sweep our folk away, and throw us into the sea. And the British rulers did evil to us after the Holocaust in Europe, and they made us suffer terribly through tough orders and harsh restrictive laws, and we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and our cry came up unto God in heaven. And we, the members of the Ma'amad heard the voice of the messenger, and were ready to go to Jaffa, to free the inhabitants of the city of Tel-Aviv.

My parents were very nervous when they realized I was called to fight. They asked me to slow down; their faces expressed their concern behind the happy facade and the light in their eyes during the traditional ceremony of the Seder.

The same picture must have occurred in hundreds of other homes of my friends from the combat corps, those who were summoned to their units, who were called to action again.

We were an army in the underground, in hiding. We lived at home and went out to battle when summoned, or when it became necessary.

I rushed to my room to change from my holiday outfit into the everyday khaki, and put on my army boots. We had no special gear at home except for our clothes, but we were ready to go to the front.

After a short walk I arrived at the Dov base. On the way, I met a few other people whom I had known before and some that I did not, but it was clear that we were all anonymous soldiers, getting to know each other after years of secrecy in the underground. As you may well imagine no one was walking outside on this day of the Seder, not even non-religious Jews. Everyone was celebrating with friends or family. We were the only ones who were out during those late hours of the eve of Pesach.

It was a very special feeling, warm and wonderful, to see those hundreds of young faces, members of the battle corps, all going in one direction, to our meeting point at Dov base. When we got there, we reported to our specific units, then waited a few sleepless hours. We chatted with friends in the dark. First we talked about our Seders, and then we went on to talk about what we believed was to occur. Our conversations flowed pleasantly, helping to connect us to one another, encouraging us. We ceased to tell the story of the exodus of Egypt, and began to tell the stories of the fighters of the underground while we waited for the sign.

The signal to go out to battle did not come that morning. Although there was no kitchen to cook for all of us, no one complained. We had no provisions with us, no Matzahs, and of course no bread. Someone brought some Kosher chocolates, and it satisfied our hunger, and water was abundant.

After hours of waiting the signal was given. After dark we would go to the front, on the border of Tel-Aviv and Jaffa. We were handed out some light and rather poor military equipment but for us, it was "heavy and rich", since we did not have much in the past, and we never expected anything more than what we had been given. We were poor in terms of our military equipment and arms and ammunition, but definitely rich in battle spirit.

In Jaffa, the Arabs organized military gangs with the help of the British infantry and armored corps, who stood by their side during their last couple of weeks in Israel. Yes, the British soldiers fought side by side with the Arabs, against us. Together they were many against a few. Many well armed, with the best weapons, plenty of ammunition, and we had only afraction of what they had. Yet we had to protect ourselves against those who planned to throw us out of our homes, to wipe out our people and our possessions. And we were all very determined to attack the Arab enemy, because an attack was our best defense. And then it began.

Despite the darkness and the limited sight, I was very impressed by the chief commanders abilities. We were standing in units and groups, attentively trying to listen to the first speech of the head of the Irgun: Menachem Begin. It was the first time that I heard his voice, and the first time that he stood in front of us, among us.

Begin spoke briefly and to the point, about striking the enemy and about mercy for the captured. He talked about the conquest of Jaffa in order to free Tel-Aviv. His words lit a fire in our hearts, and we were ready to go to battle. Unit after unit, we advanced and boarded the buses. When we were all ready to leave at the crack of dawn, this row of vehicles moved forward on the way to Tel-Aviv, with hundreds of young soldiers singing loudly. We sang songs of the underground as well as our national songs. After a short drive we reached the small alleys of the Yemenite quarter near the border of Jaffa.

The Ramat-Gan unit was put in a number of deserted buildings near the Arab neighborhood called Manshia. As the sun rose we could see the famous mosque of Hasan Bek, and some of the Arab strongholds. It was the first Sunday of the days of the festival, Pesach 1948.


We waited again a few more hours, and after two sleepless nights we fell asleep on the floors of the house, guards standing watch in case of an attack.

Almost two thousand Arab fighters were put into action. They came from out of town and out of Country: from Syria, Iraq and Yugoslavia. In addition, British soldiers came to support the Arabs adding thousands more to their numbers. We were about 600 soldiers with no uniforms, and with a small number of sub-machine guns, rifles and handguns, with explosives, and a few thousand mortar shells. On top of the large number of soldiers, our enemy had a great deal of armor, motorized guns and airplanes.

We were all impatiently waiting for the signal. The shooting continued and we continued waiting. We began asking questions: "When will we receive the signal for attack?" The hours went by and the tension rose. From time to time we saw figures going up and down in the buffer zone between us, among the deserted houses and the ruins.

Late at night on our first day in Manshia, we finally got the order to start out from house to house. One went out while two others covered him. We were told to watch one another and be very prudent, to advance simultaneously or to advance crawling. We were informed that the Arabs have plenty of snipers, and in the street nearby we already heard of a few injured and one casualty. So this is the way we left, under the dark, into Manshia. Our unit did not suffer any casualties that night because we avoided a direct attack against strong holds and fortified lines. Instead, we advanced and took hold of some weak points in the Arab line, among the deserted houses of the Arabs, and waited for what was next, on the break of a new day.

The next morning, we suffered a number of casualties in the neighboring streets, where some other units of the battle corps tried unsuccessfully to break into the Arab strongholds. I believe that our lack of experience in urban fighting, worked against us. We needed to learn and acquire experience while our friends were bleeding. Nevertheless, our commander, who was well versed in urban combat acted with common sense, since he himself, had no actual experience. He drew some conclusions from his studies, and was not quick to attack under fire. He learned the conditions, the power of the enemy, and any other data that we possessed. He weighed our lack of experience against our ability as underground soldiers, used to either swift actions or "hit and run" actions, or storm attacks and then a quick withdrawal. He was definitely a born commander, responsible, clever, with a sharp eye and superb performance.

On the second day of fighting, we were told by our commander to wait. We checked the battlefield. That very day, I saw our first fallen in battle. One of the Irgun's commanders who came to visit from our general headquarters, climbed on the fence of one of the houses, to assess the situation in the front. He was hit in his head by a sniper bullet, and instantly killed. A young man, who was alive and very vital just moments ago, was lying dead in front of me. We recuperated after a couple of minutes and returned fire trying to be accurate and not waste our limited ammunition.

At the end of the second day, in the evening, our commander gathered all of us around and instructed an important and essential lesson in urban fighting. Some of us had questions about the limited ammunition, questions about the changing password, about the communication between the positions and between ourselves and the other units acting in the area. Every question got the right answer excluding one: additional equipment. There was no additional military equipment. Our only hope was to acquire by force any military equipment, from the British or the Arabs once they are defeated.



On the next morning an unpleasant surprise awaited us. We woke to the news that the Haganah, was instructed by the Labor party, to intervene and serve as a buffer between us, (the power who was ready to sacrifice its life in order to free the city of Tel-Aviv) and the Arab and British forces. The Haganah were out against their Irgun brothers, against their comrades-in-arms, against their People sharing the Zionist dream. They called us to put an end to all of our actions, for we took steps that they disagreed with. The Irgun did not have the consent of the Haganah, and therefore it was up to us. They were scared to create a confrontation with the British, to endanger the security of the city. Like the Diaspora Jews before, the Haganah failed to see the importance of taking action when needed.

The Haganah instigated the town's people against us. They sent an armed company to remove the blockades put by our units in the entrance to the Yemenite quarters to secure our mission. Our comrades in arms were firm in their opinion that we would fight just one war, the war against the British and Arab army. We would avoid a civil war at all costs.

During those hours of quarrel when the Haganah members conspired against us, a voice came from many of our parents and family members of the friends in the battle corps, all of them in Tel-Aviv and its vicinity, and the voice said: " Do not listen to the words of the dictators, the armed company of Haganah members." This initiated a demonstration of big crowds opposing the Haganah. So many people understood the importance of the Irgun's mission to liberate Tel-Aviv from the Arab terror coming from Jaffa. They demanded that the armed company of the Haganah would leave and let the Irgun continue the battle.

Our fans, our families and the rest of the demonstrators appreciated our sacrifice. They saw our injured carried away to hospitals and clinics. They felt the pain of the families of our fallen soldiers, who gave their lives for them, and they expressed their anger at the false prophets, instigating our people instead of supporting us throughout our struggle with our enemies.

The civilians are the ones who actually won. They were the crowds who went out to demonstrate for peace between brothers. They saved the situation by putting pressure on everybody to help those fighting in Jaffa, and to intervene between the hawks, the armed Haganah members and the Irgun members. As a result, the Haganah company left and the crowds calmed down.

The horn of the Irgun was exalted and its name rose to greatness, among thousands of inhabitants, and even in the international press in Europe as well as in America.

On the third day of battle, in the front between Manshia and the Yemenite quarter, we followed oucommander's orders. Instead of dashing forward in the streets and alleys outside the houses, we broke through deep inside Manshia, via inside passages that we created between rooms in house walls. We did it with the assistance of hammers, pick-axes and other accessories. We were not visible; therefore, the enemy's fire could not reach us. We advanced from room to room and from house to house, completely sheltered. In between the houses, or between alleys, we constructed shelter barricades of sandbags. Our progress was slow but sure, from house to house and from street to street, and we finally conquered most of the Arab positions in the center of our front line.

On the eve of the third day of Pesach, still creating passages between walls, two experienced saboteurs passed through. They approached the sidewall of an Arab stronghold near our position. While they advanced we covered them by firing the one and only submachine gun we had, and a few rifles and Stens. When the saboteurs blew up the sidewall of their position, a few of us entered quickly in a cloud of smoke and dust, and paralyzed all the Arabs inside. One of our people was slightly injured, not by a bullet but rather from a stone that hit his arm. I dressed his wound, and he stayed with our unit, in the Manshia front.

As we moved forward, I entered the courtyard of a house, and found myself in front of an Arab, his back leaning against the wall, his eyes wide open, a gun turned aside next to him, totally motionless. I approached, my weapon trained on him. He was the first dead Arab, which I had encountered during our battle. He must have been lying there from the night before, in the same position

We continued that day with our line of passages from house to house through interior and exterior walls, breaking new openings and putting sandbags to create a sheltered tunnel for our people. We continued our progress towards the sea, using the same passages for supplies and food flow, as well as first aid equipment. All of us, holding the rifle and the hoe, the shovel or the sandbags, we worked hard for the same goal: the conquest of Jaffa and the liberation of Tel-Aviv.

During those hours of breaking through, reinforcement and advancement, of digging sand and filling up sandbags etc. the British and Arabs bombarded us continuously, and we continued to advance upon their positions. We pushed forward towards the west, in the direction of the sea, trying to surround and disconnect the enemy.

We took a short rest from the labor of filling and piling the sandbags. We placed the sandbags around the passages, in open places that could be under fire.

Our commander came back running and urged us to hurry and get up. We followed him. Upon trying to cross the street, snipers began shooting at us. We spread ourselves flat on the ground behind the sandbags and instinctively opened fire. We heard some exchange of words in Arabic, from quite near, but we stayed silent. Our commander divided us into two groups. One group stayed behind to cover for the other, which advanced crawling through the ruins on the right, in order to outflank the house from which they were firing at us. I was with the second group, flanking the house. The first group found shelter between the sandbags, and returned fire from time to time, to give the Arabs the impression that they were going to attack from there. As you all know, we were equipped with small arms only, a limited supply of ammunition and a small number of hand-grenades.

In a fast crawl we got behind where the snipers where hiding and realized there were no guards outside. Two of my friends advanced towards the door, opened it up and threw a grenade inside. They took cover immediately by the outside walls, one of them to the right of the door, the other to the left, while the rest of us covered for them opposite the door. There was no reaction from the inside, and the shooting stopped. We waited a while longer and the door opened, and there we saw an Arab falling out, heavily bleeding, severely injured. We waited a few more minutes, and our commander jumped inside, firing his Sten in all directions. He came back out and said: "guys, three are finished and the fourth is right in front of you, the house is ours."

Spirits were high, and we sent a message to the other group to join us while we continue our attack. In this battle we discovered a commander full of initiative, creative soldiers and a courageous unit. When our unit presented itself for census again, we were glad to have found out that no one was badly hurt. My friends felt good, and we wished each other before going out to battle: "Abi Gezhunt," so it was, we all came out healthy, safe and sound.


On that same day, some other units were breaking their path towards the direction of the sea. From within the houses, between the passages that we had created, the units made their way, from house to house and alley to alley, and attacked the positions of the enemy. New houses and new positions were conquered, one after the other. We progressed systematically and insistently against the enemy. For most of us this was a difficult experience of work and fighting, for conquest and advancement. This was just the beginning of a brutal fight, but on that particular day we could already sense the end of it, at least here in Manshia.

The passage to the sea was now opened for us. We all ran towards the beach, to soak our feet in the water. Our boots came off, and we cooled our feet in the blue water of the Mediterranean, jumping and singing. Our commander ordered us out of the water, after a while. We were to clear the beach and wait for new instructions. At lunchtime we had some Matzah sandwiches with a drink, and then we took a rest.

Gathered around our commander, he strictly explained that it was still too early to celebrate. He pointed at a tower rising on top of Hasan Bek mosque, and said: "The mosque and its surroundings are still in the hands of the Arabs. They are blocked in a pocket, which is surrounded by our forces. They are disconnected from the city of Jaffa. We have to be ready for their attack, to be careful. "This is no time for celebrations."

The counterattacks were not late in arriving. They were the work of not just the Arabs but also, to our regret, the British. They confronted us with enormous force, with tanks and cannons, with machine-guns and sub-machine guns, with mortars and airplanes. The British with their large standing army, well equipped, joined the Arabs to fight against us, a small army of Jews, soldier-citizens of an underground, poor in arms and ammunition. The mandate authorities declared that the British Army would see to it that the Arabs are returned to all of the places conquered by the Irgun. The attack against us began the next day, the fifth day of Pesach. Throughout that day, we entrenched ourselves deeper among the ruins. They bombarded us for hours, with mortar bombs, guns and heavy tanks. We had no antitank weaponry to stop them apart from the prayer in our hearts and our courage.

We had strict instructions not to leave the shelters we were in while we were bombarded. Despite the precautions one of our unit members was killed in the afternoon, when he was out to get some water for us. I also found out that another unit which was advancing along the beach and got close to Jaffa's port suffered casualties; some were killed and some injured. When we progressed we did not see any Arab inhabitants, only a number of armed Arabs, especially in concentrations of British troops.


from the April Passover 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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