Nathan Yellin-Mor: The Underground Fighter Who Became a Peacenik

The incredible life story of the former leader of the Lehi underground movement, whose personal archive is preserved in the National Library

Yaron Sachish | 05.11.19 |
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At the Bernadotte murder trial with Mati Schmulevitz, 1949. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album

A week after the outbreak of the Second World War, two couples left Warsaw—Aliza and Menachem Begin and their friends, the newlyweds Frieda and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. Following an arduous, month-long journey by train, horse-drawn cart and mainly on foot, they reached Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, which was still a free country. There, they parted ways. Begin, the head of the Beitar movement in Poland, was soon arrested by the Soviets when they took control of Lithuania, while the cautious and wary Friedman-Yellin managed to make his way to Mandatory Palestine. Here they eventually met again.

Begin arrived in British-controlled Palestine as a soldier in the Polish force known as Anders’ Army following his release by the Soviets. He was soon appointed commander of the Irgun underground movement. Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Friedman-Yellin, who would later become Yellin-Mor, joined up with Avraham (“Yair”) Stern’s Lehi organization, otherwise known as “The Stern Gang”. After Yair’s murder, Yellin-Mor would form part of a triumvirate command along with future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Israel Eldad.

Another young leader of Polish Jewry who also reached Vilna around the same time, on his way to Palestine, Dr. Moshe Kleinboim-Sneh, was appointed shortly after his arrival to be head of the national military headquarters of the Haganah – the de-facto Defense Minister of the country in the making. Once World War II had come to a close, all three met again (Begin, Yellin, and Sneh), and founded the Jewish Resistance Movement, an umbrella group for the three underground movements, with the goal of expelling the British from the Land of Israel.

 

A “Wanted” Poster for Yaakov Eliav, Yitzhak Shamir and  and Nathan Friedman-Yellin

“How often does one meet someone and upon parting, feel and know that he is no longer the same person? That from now on his life will take another course, different from the one taken so far? That all that has transpired is only preparation for that which is to come?” writes Yellin-Mor in the introduction to his memoir Shnot be-Terem [“The Years Before”], about his meeting with Avraham “Yair” Stern.

Yellin-Mor’s life changed after meeting Yair in the summer of 1937. Then a member of the Irgun’s leadership, Stern was in Poland organizing recruits for the underground. Yellin-Mor, despairing of the gap between the declarations and actions of the Revisionist movement, enthusiastically adopted Yair’s new prospect: a war of independence against British rule and establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Yair’s vision was to build a forty-thousand strong army of trained young men who would invade the country by ship and join forces with the members of the Irgun who would declare a revolt against the British.

That same evening, Yellin-Mor joined the war for the liberation of the country. As Yair’s emissary, he traveled the length and breadth of Poland by train, recruiting Beitar members to the Irgun. Some succeeded in immigrating and joining the struggle, but the gates of the country remained shut to most of the members of the vibrant mass youth movement, and they were murdered in the Holocaust. In 1938, Yellin-Mor, along with his lifelong friend Shmuel Merlin, was appointed editor of the newspaper Die Tat, which reported the position of the Irgun on the news from Palestine to the Jews of Poland, while calling on them to flee the country before it was too late. As noted, with the outbreak of the war, he reached Vilna and a year later, in January 1941, he and his wife Frieda arrived in Tel Aviv and immediately joined the Lehi.

Yellin-Mor, whose underground name was “Gera,” became the close aide of Yair, who six months earlier split the Irgun on the grounds of his opposition to ending the war against the British and established what would come to be known as Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). The British saw them as a “fifth column” that sabotaged the war effort against the Nazis, while Yair searched for a way to reach an alliance with the Germans, using the mindset – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He believed that an agreement could be reached that would save Jewish lives and achieve Jewish independence with German support.

Yair sent Yellin-Mor to meet with the leaders of the Balkan countries in an attempt to attain permission for Jews to leave. Under the guise of an engineer, Yellin Mor left for Aleppo, where he was arrested by the British after they searched his home in Tel Aviv and discovered his address in Syria. His wife Frieda was arrested and imprisoned in the women’s prison camp in Bethlehem for five years. She was released only at the end of 1947. In the Yellin-Mor archive in the National Library is a small notebook in which he wrote down his daily schedule as an engineer tasked with building a British army camp until his arrest.

“February 9, 1942, Monday… I was brought to Prison in Aleppo” Pages from Yellin-Mor’s daily diary with reports of his work and his arrest in Syria

It was then he also learned of Yair’s murder. Although the underground had been all but wiped out, its members and commanders retired, arrested or in despair, Yellin-Mor decided to keep up the struggle. There were now three at the head of the underground: Yitzhak Shamir, known as “Michael,” was responsible for operations, Israel “Eldad” Scheib, in charge of propaganda, and Yellin-Mor, the political brains of the underground movement and the man responsible for its external relations. Throughout the remaining history of the organization, at least one of the three was in jail and contact between them was maintained through notes or letters written in secret code.

He published the article “Breaking the Prisons,” in the renewed Lehi newspaper, calling on members of the underground to do everything in their power to return to the fight. He would later order members to carry a pistol and fight to the last bullet in order to avoid arrest. Shamir escaped from prison and began to rebuild the underground. On November 1, 1943, the guards at the Latrun detention camp awoke to a scene that was straight out of the movie The Great Escape. That night, twenty Lehi members, handpicked and headed by Yellin-Mor, escaped from the camp though a 75 meter tunnel they had dug underneath one of the shacks, disposing of the earth by moving it to the garden they tended at the shack’s entrance.

Yellin-Mor was a partner in Lehi’s major decisions, including the use of terror tactics against individuals, including the attempted assassination of High Commissioner Sir Harold McMichael, and the murder of British Colonial Minister Lord Moyne on November 6, 1944 in Cairo by underground members Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri. The two turned their trial into a propaganda platform through which they promoted Lehi‘s objectives, winning sympathy and even demonstrations of support from Egyptian youths.

In Israel the organization began to gain sympathy among youth from the Labor movement, in including members of the elite Palmach force.

It is possible that this was the reason Yellin-Mor remained unharmed during what was known as “The Saison” or “The Hunting Season” (November 1944 to February 1945), when members of the Irgun were hunted down and arrested by a special unit of the Palmach before being handed over to the British. Yellin-Mor himself offered a different explanation.

While Begin ordered his people not to resist, Yellin-Mor arrived with a pistol in his belt to his meeting with the commander of the Haganah, Eliyahu Golomb. Placing his pistol on the table, he announced that any attack on a Lehi member would be met with a response. “For us the British are foreign rulers. It is our duty to fight them, not to ask for their help… There will be no more one-sided civil war. Since we do not benefit from the same conditions as you do, we have only one response available to us: to execute those responsible for harming our people” This was the threat he issued to Golomb, as described in his book Lohamei Heirut Yisrael (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”). Later on, he also was in contact with members of the Irgun and Haganah regarding the establishment of the Jewish Resistance Movement. The three underground groups cooperated for approximately nine months, until the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun.

When Shamir was arrested in 1946 and exiled to Africa, he entrusted Yellin-Mor with Lehi‘s operations.  By then, it was already a mixed organization of the left and the right, religious and secular, former Beitar and Irgun members alongside socialists who had served in Hashomer Hatzair. What they all had in common was the belief that independence was achievable only through war with the British. He outlined a new path for Lehi – that of an armed political organization which aspired to “naturalize the Middle East,” while sending his men to establish cells and ties abroad.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 it was decided that Lehi would be dismantled. Yellin-Mor surveyed a final honor guard of his men at Sheikh Munis. They were now emerging from the underground to enlist in the newborn Israel Defense Forces. The group was still active however, in Jerusalem, and it was there that the UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by Lehi gunmen.

Yellin-Mor was tried in a military court together with Matityahu Schmulevitz, later director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. After spending a year in prison, he was released in a general amnesty and was elected to the first Knesset as the head of the Fighters’ List (Reshimat Lohamim), founded by Lehi veterans. At the first national assembly of the young party it became clear that the majority identified with Yellin-Mor and Yitzhak Shamir who tended toward a socialist platform. The right-wing minority headed by Israel Eldad withdrew and the party quickly faded into obscurity.

 

The cover of the final edition of Etgar, featuring IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, on the eve of the Six Day War, 1967

“If you had asked someone at the beginning of 1949, which of the three key members of Lehi has the best chance of being prime minister of Israel, they would have answered without hesitation: Nathan Yellin-Mor,” wrote Uri Avneri. But Yellin-Mor did not fit in with the existing parties, and like many of the veterans of the underground who had a hard time finding work in the young state, he turned to private business.

Due to his opposition to Israel’s alliance with Great Britain and France in the Sinai campaign of 1956, Yellin-Mor, along with Uri Avneri and his friends from Lehi Boaz Evron, Shlomo Ben Shlomo, Yaakov Yardor and others, founded the political group “Semitic Action” (HaPeulah Hashemit), and worked diligently to publish a platform under the title “The Hebrew Manifesto(Haminshar Haivri ), which for the first time presented the option of establishing a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The group published Etgar, a bi-weekly political-literary magazine which ran until 1967. Yellin-Mor, as editor, recruited young writers such as Meir Wieseltier, Dalia Ravikovitch, Mazim Gilan, Dan Almagor, Ehud Ben Ezer among others. Avneri said that Yellin-Mor, with his enviable mastery of Hebrew, was the best editor he has ever met. He also noted his remarkable talent for raising money from donors, which kept the paper afloat.

In 1960, at the height of the honeymoon period between Israel and France, Yellin-Mor and his friends from Semitic Action established the “Committee for a Free Algeria,” and contacted underground fighters who were fighting against French colonial rule in the North African country. Lehi, the infamous “Stern Gang,” had garnered respect among members of the world’s underground movements and the Algerians were interested in knowing if they could receive help and guidance from its veterans.

 

A letter from David Ben Gurion, who agreed to meet with Yellin-Mor personally, but not with the editorial staff of Etgar.

 

With Ben Gurion at Sde Boker, at a family event for Yehoshua Cohen, a former Lehi member who served as the prime minister’s personal bodyguard, early 1960s. Cohen was also the man who fired the shots that killed UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album

 

 After the Six Day War, Yellin-Mor became one of the leaders of the Israeli peace camp, calling for the return of the captured territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He was not afraid to act with the reviled members of the Israeli Communist Party (Rakah) and sign petitions against IDF actions in the territories, which raised strong opposition among the public.

 

Visit to the Soviet Union, Yellin is in the bottom row on the right. Next to the monument to Pushkin in Odessa

In September 1971, he traveled to the Soviet Union, which had forbidden Israelis to visit, in a special six-member delegation sponsored by Rakah.

During this period, Yellin-Mor made his living by editing a daily financial newspaper published by his friend from the underground, the advertiser Eliezer Zurabin. He wrote political columns and personal memoirs in Haaretz and was a popular writer in a Yiddish newspaper in New York that was close to the Chabad movement, Der Algemeiner Journal.

Those same years the estrangement between Yellin-Mor and his friends from Lehi grew into a hatred on their part for their former commander. He was vilified, ostracized and persecuted, while a minority remained true to him throughout. With Eldad and his followers it was a rift that never healed. He and Shamir maintained a strong friendship for years. When Shamir was elected Speaker of the Knesset, Yellin-Mor came to his office and the two shared a long embrace. When he died on February 18, 1980, Shamir eulogized him at the grave: “The heart weeps for the great talent that did not find the right channel.”

Yellin-Mor was a man with a healthy sense of humor who could hold his liquor, and who enjoyed good food and good conversation. Nevertheless, throughout his life, he was a tough and loyal warrior to his cause, who did not bend or give in but also avoided holding grudges. When it was decided to recognize the service of Lehi members in the underground for the purposes of pension funds, it was Yellin-Mor who had to issue each one of them, even those who had attacked and slandered him, a certificate of membership, a task he completed without hesitation.

 

“Holding the Territories – Bad for Israel” – A poster for a political gathering in Tel Aviv against the continued control of the territories, 1969

Yellin-Mor did not understand those who were unable to comprehend his shift from revisionism to communism, from the extreme right to the extreme left, from his support for a Greater Israel controlling both banks of the Jordan River to his adoption of the principle of “two states for two peoples”. In a letter from September 9, 1974 to the journalist Yossi Ahimeir which was published in the journal Ha-umma, Yellin-Mor wrote:

“In my opinion, every person must always fight for the cause he sees as central to the life of his society. More than thirty years ago I believed with all my heart that the achievement of freedom, independence and political sovereignty was the determining factor for our future. I was sure that if we failed in this mission, there would be no revival of our people, not in Israel or the Diaspora … I therefore would have given my life to achieve this greater goal. We succeeded. We have in our hands the tool to do much for our future. On the condition that this achievement is not a brief episode. I therefore believe, once again, with all my heart, that in our time, the greatest and most sacred goal is to register the existence of the State of Israel as a fact, acceptable to the world, an indisputable fact. This we can achieve only through peace with our neighbors, through a historic reconciliation with them. For the achievement of this goal, – on which I believe, the life of my people and country depends – I am willing to sacrifice a great deal, as I was then …Therefore it is not I who must answer the question, why do I follow the path I follow. Others, must answer: Why have their brains become overgrown with rust? What has polluted their minds?  Why has their understanding frozen in time?”

 

Nathan Yellin-Mor’s personal archives are preserved at the National Library of Israel

 

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Yaron Sachish

Yaron works in the Archives Department at the National Library

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