1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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1947: Three Jewish terrorists and two British hostages

1 comment July 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1947, three members of an Irgun commando team who had engineered a massive prison break of Zionist terrorists were hanged for the affair.

The Acre Prison Break was a meticulously coordinated operation by the Zionist underground in British Mandate Palestine that, a Conservative MP later charged, “reduced British prestige to a nadir.”

A team of guerrillas attacked the prison from the outside, coordinating with imprisoned Irgun and Stern Gang operatives who had explosives smuggled into their cells to help detonate their way through the walls. Hundreds of prisoners — most of them Arabs availing the opportunity — escaped.

According to the London Times (May 6, 1947), 16 escaping prisoners were slain in the affray, with eight British guards and police wounded.

More crucially for our purposes, five of the guerrillas who assailed the prison were captured. Three — Haviv Avshalom, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar — were taken armed, and sentenced to death by the British.

To browse the contemporaneous western press coverage is to visit a Holy Land very familiar to the present-day reader, filled with “terrorists” and “extremists” and “fanatics” and “murderers” abetted by “those who incite them from a safe distance and supply the funds and the weapons which they put to such deadly use.”* Except that this discourse was directed at Jews, not Arabs.

One good way to earn such an imprecation would be to kidnap two British soldiers and hold them hostage against the execution of the sentence. That’s exactly what the Irgun did.

The British searched for their men, but disdained to stoop the majesty of the law at the pleasure of some seditious blackmailer. So, early this morning at that same Acre Prison they had lately helped to liberate, Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar went to the gallows.


Left to right: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar.

Palestine awaited with anxiety the expected discovery of two kidnaped British sergeants whom the Irgunists have vowed to kill in retaliation. The Mosaic law of vengeance applies and any show of clemency would be regarded by the extremists as evidence of cowardly submission.

New York Times, July 30, 1947

The Irgun had already applied that Mosaic law of vengeance.

On the evening of that same July 29, it hanged its two hostages, intelligence corps sergeants Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice. The bodies were moved and strung up in a Eucalyptus grove near Netanya, to be discovered the next day, booby-trapped with a land mine. A scornful note announced their condemnation for “criminal anti-Hebrew activities.”


The bodies of Sgts. Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice, as discovered on July 31, 1947, hanging from Eucalyptus trees.

Moderate, mainline Zionists were horrified.

Of all the crimes that took place till this day on this land, this is the most grievous and disgusting one and will stain the purity of our peoples struggle for freedom. May this act of hanging remain as a sign of Cain on the doers of this disgraceful deed! The heavens and the earth are my witnesses that most of our population took desperate measures to free the hostages and prevent this shame.

-Netanya Mayor Oved Ben Ami

Said disgraceful deed-doers were far from apologetic.

And you could say they had a point, since although the threat did not prevent the death sentences at hand from being carried into execution, its example proved to be a lively deterrent: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar were the last Zionists executed by the British. Then-Irgun leader, and later Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin made no bones about the trade.

The Brits were a little less sanguine about “the sergeants affair”.

A Times editorial for Friday, Aug. 1 fulminated against “the violent deeds of the Palestine terrorists [that] will not readily be effaced,” comparing them to “the bestialities practised by the Nazis themselves.”**

Over the ensuing long weekend’s summer bank holiday, racist riots against Jews shook Britain. Jewish businesses, cemeteries, and synagogues were smashed up and vandalized all over the island, to the horror this time of milquetoast liberals like the Manchester Guardian, with again-familiar lines like: “to answer terrorism in Palestine with terrorism in England is sheer Hitlerism. We must be desperately careful to see that we do not let ourselves be infected with the poison of the disease we had thought to eradicate.”

Fine points for debate in Britain, which within months was bugging out of the Levant as open war engulfed Palestine — the violent birth pangs of modern Israel and its embrace of its own subject populace with its own frustrated national ambitions pursued by its own violent extremists.

* London Times editorial, May 21, 1947.

** Irgun propaganda’s riposte: “We recognize no one-sided laws of war. If the British are determined that their way out of the country should be lined by an avenue of gallows and of weeping fathers, mothers, wives, and sweethearts, we shall see to it that in this there is no racial discrimination.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists

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