They are in their 80s and 90s now, but when the British ruled eretz Israel they were teenagers, or maybe in their 20s.
Their faces were on “wanted” posters; those who were caught went to prison or were exiled to Africa. They are the remnants of the most feared Jewish militia that fought the British – Lehi, commonly known as the Stern Gang. Every Chanukah they met in Tel Aviv, lit candles, shared some doughnuts, and watched their numbers dwindle.
They chose to meet on Chanukah because it commemorates the victory of the few against the many. They, too, began as a group of a few dozen extremists in 1940; even in 1948, when they all joined the Israeli army, they numbered under one thousand.
Since 1932 Abraham Stern, their future leader, had been writing songs about “anonymous soldiers” who would “live underground” while fighting to liberate the homeland. By 1941 his followers were killing officials of the British regime who had promised to make the holy land a Jewish home but more or less reneged, and they were bombing the British offices that were preventing Jewish immigration. By then Stern was on the run and many of his men were in jail. His imprisoned troops crafted an olivewood Chanukah lamp and smuggled it to him with a note: “To our days’ Hasmonean, from his soldiers in captivity.”
Chanukah was a special time for the fighters. “We are a handful of freedom fighters, possessed with a crazy desire for sovereignty, and according to our detractors of little strength,” Stern wrote. “But this is not so. The little strength is much greater than it appears. Like the Hasmoneans’ oil, the fire of zealousness and heroism burns in the temple of our hearts, a divine flame. The day is coming soon when we will use this flame to light the candles of our Chanukah, the Chanukah of the Hebrew kingdom, in a free Zion.”
Stern was captured by British police in a rooftop apartment in south Tel Aviv and shot to death. The veterans have held their Chanukah gatherings in this hideout, now an Israeli museum. They were joined every year by Stern’s son, Yair, now 70. He was always the youngest “veteran” in the room. Though he was 6 years old when the British left and Israel was established, he paid the price for being his father’s son.
During the War of Independence, an Israeli army unit drove past his house on its way to battle. The commander jumped out of a jeep and ran to Yair, who was playing in the yard. “We have an army and a state thanks to your father,” he said, then drove off. “If I hadn’t heard that, I don’t know how I would have turned out,” Yair said recently. He became a sports reporter and ultimately the director of Israel Television. Now retired, he promotes the memory of his father and the 127 Lehi members killed by the British or in the 1948 war with the Arabs.
Over the years the number of fighters attending the party dropped and the number of grandchildren rose. One regular was Hanna Armoni, now 87. In the 1940s she brought food to the underground’s prison escapees and blew up bridges. Her husband, Haim, helped blow up some British oil refineries and was one of 19 Lehi fighters sentenced to death for it. Hanna took out an ad in a local paper to inform Haim that he’d become a father, but he was killed escaping from Acco prison before he met his daughter. The daughter attended last year’s party with her own children.
“Lehi was violent,” Hanna says, “but in all the years of our war with the British, Lehi never targeted a woman or child. Our targets were British police, soldiers, and government officials.” Tuvia Henzion, 92, was a synagogue choirboy who had studied auto mechanics. He fought with British Colonel Orde Wingate’s raiders before joining Stern’s militia. When Stern was killed, Henzion reorganized some of the remaining fighters into secret cells of three or four members; Lehi kept this structure for the rest of its war. One of the young people he drafted into Lehi was Armoni. In recent years, the two organized the Chanukah parties.
Stern himself had liked parties. He had been considered the life of any he was at, and usually he led the guests in songs and dances.
When he died Stern was hated by the British and by almost all Palestinian Jews, who did not understand his insistence on throwing the British out of the homeland, especially during a world war. Today, Stern has been honored by the Knesset and has streets and even a town named for him. His followers, once “the few against the many,” today are the consensus in Israel.
But every year, fewer of the original “few” meet on Chanukah, because fewer survive. This year they decided not to spend the time and money on invitations and refreshments. Instead, they appealed for contributions and have hired someone to put their literature online and revamp an old website. They haven’t given up hope, and plan on having a party next year.
Perhaps Judah Maccabee’s troops also gathered on Chanukah to celebrate their victory until none of them were left, and history was left with their stories.