The Dov Gruner story
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Who was Dov Gruner? Those who have studies modern Jewish history immediately know who
he was, but unfortunately his name and story are not household knowledge, even in Israel.
Born in Kisvarda, Hungary on December 6 1912, Dov emigrated to what was then Palestine in
1940. By the time he emigrated Europe was at the twilight of the Second World War and times
were very chaotic.
A few years earlier, in 1938, at the age of 26, Dov joined a Zionist youth organization called
Beitar, headed by the legendary Zionist leader, Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky had
warned Jews that “ a fire is raging in Europe” and urged all Jews to go to Eretz Yisroel. His
youth movement Beitar, was a world-wide movement, advocating settlement in the Land of
Israel. With chapters in all the European countries, it boasted a membership in the tens of
thousands. What set Beitar apart from the other Zionist youth groups was their more militant
approach toward settlement of Palestine, the ancient ancestral home of the Jews.
The British who promised to develop a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine changed
course and began to limit Jewish immigration instead.
As a result of the new British policy , Dov arrived in Haifa aboard an Illegal ship carrying scores
of other illegal immigrants. However, the ship that was immediately apprehended and Dov
and the other passengers were all interned in the notorious prison in Atlit, near Haifa.
After a six month stint in captivity, Dov was released and promptly joined the anti British Jewish
underground army, the Irgun. The Irgun or Irgun Tzvai Leumi known by their Hebrew acronym
the Etzel, was also the brainchild of Jabotinsky. Many Beitar members, upon coming of age
“graduated” into the ranks of the Etzel and fought for the independence of the Jewish state
from British control. The Etzel was also involved with organizing illegal emigration of Jews from
the European death trap.
Shortly afterDov joined the Etzel, the Irgun leadership declared a truce in fighting the British,
opting to have all able bodied men actually join the British “Palestine Jewish Brigade”. Their
rationale was, that as long as the British were fighting Hitler they would declare a truce and join
in the anti Hitler fight.
Dov and his comrades fought in Europe and aided the anti German war effort. He spent five
years in the Palestine Brigade. After the war, Dov helped Holocaust survivors by organizing
illegal transports to Palestine.
By 1946 he was demobilized and back in Palestine. Shortly after returning, he rejoined a
combat unit of the Irgun. By this time, the truce with Great Britain was over and the Irgun along
with the other fighting unit, the Lehi (Lochamei Herut Yisrael) were waging full scale operations
aimed to dislodge Britain from controlling Palestine. Dov as a former British sergeant, naturally
spoke English fluently with the appropriate British accent.
The Irgun, always in need of scarce weapons, mounted many “procuring” missions.
In one such operation, several British soldiers came with a number of Arab prisoners to the
Ramat Gan police station. Once inside, the officer informed the desk sergeant that he had
several prisoners that needed to be housed in the police station’s holding cells.
As the sergeant went to take control of the prisoners, much to his surprise, the “Arabs” lifted
their long galabiyas to reveal not hands cuffed but holding guns. The prisoners, as well as the
“British soldiers “,were, naturally, all Irgun soldiers.
They quickly emptied the police station of their weapons arsenal, loaded it onto their waiting
truck and made their get-away. Unfortunately, a detachment of real British soldiers came from
Petach Tikva and realizing what was happening, gave chase, opening fire. Dov was shot in the
jaw and fell off the truck. The speeding truck had to keep going, allowing Dov to be captured.
After a lengthy stay in a hospital recovering from his wounds, Dov was finally brought to court
to answer charges of attempting to murder a member of “His Majesties armed forces”
The judge asked Gruner “how do you plead? Guilty or Not guilty?
Dov rose from the defendants block, raised himself to be fully erect and told the judge-
“I do not recognize your authority to try me. This court has no legal foundation, since it was
appointed by a regime without legal foundation” He continued:
“You came to Palestine because of the commitment you undertook at the behest
of all the nations of the world to rectify the greatest wrong caused to any nation in
the history of mankind, namely the expulsion of Israel from their land, which
transformed them into victims of persecution and incessant slaughter throughout
the world. It was this commitment – and this commitment alone–which constituted
the legal and moral basis for your presence in this country…. You turned your
commitment into a mere scrap of paper…
“When the prevailing government in any country is not legal, when it
becomes a regime of oppression and tyranny, it is the right of its citizens– more
than that, it is their duty– to fight this regime and to topple it. This is what Jewish
youth are doing and will continue to do until you quit this land, and hand it over
to its rightful owners: the Jewish people. For you should know this: there is no
power in the world which can sever the tie between the Jewish people and their
one and only land…”
He stated that the British were far away from their home and in fact, he Dov, was home in his
homeland. According to Dov the British had no authority to try him.
His announcement provoked an international outcry. By 1947 there was plenty of precedent of
Irgun and Lehi fighters being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences with some sentenced to
hang on the gallows. But this was the first time that an Irgun prisoner openly defied the British,
questioning the legality of their authority. Newspapers from all over the world covered this
story much to the discomfort and embarrassment of the British Empire.
Dov was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. His five years of service, participating in
heavy fighting and suffering severe injuries on behalf of the British Empire didn’t mean a thing.
But the British were in a bind. If they hang this prisoner, the subsequent international outcry
will be devastating to the political standing of the Crown. So, to avoid this, they came to the cell
of Gruner and encouraged him to ask for clemency from the Empire. They assured him that if
he signs such a declaration asking for clemency it will be surely granted.
A defiant Dov said If “ I ask for clemency I am defacto submitting to the authority of the British”
No Thank You!
From his cell in the Jerusalem Central Prison in the city’s Russian compound, he sent an
immortal letter to the commander of the Irgun, Menahem Begin:
……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’ and meanwhile enjoyed life and be contented 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 either as a Jew or as 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 nothing but another transaction. They are not prepared to make
any sacrifice, and therefore they have to make concessions and accept compromises.
Perhaps this is indeed a means of delaying the end but, in the final analysis, it leads to the
ghetto. And let us not forget this: in the ghetto of Warsaw alone, too, there were five hundred
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 homeland 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 exact same path,
regardless of the consequences for myself.
Your faithful soldier, Dov.
On April 15, the British transferred Gruner along with three other Irgun fighters ( Mordechai
Alkachi, Yehiel Drezner and Eliezer Kashani )
from the Jerusalem prison to the Acre Fortress. The move was carried out in secret with the
British careful to hide their intentions from the public.
At 4 am on the next morning April 16 th , they were awakened and one by one were led to the
gallows. Each man sang the Hatikvah as they walked to their death. The prisoners in Acre all
rose from their sleep and accompanied the singing of the Hatikvah. The four were hanged within
a half hour. Due to the secrecy, the British decided to forego with the last comfort of a rabbi.
Shortly after, the Irgun announced that any more hanging of Hebrew soldiers would be met by
hanging a British officer in return. The arrogant and incredulous British laughed and stated” who
would dare harm an officer of His Majesty?”. After the next Irgun fighter was hanged, two
British sergeants were found hanging outside the city of Netanya. The British never dared to
hang another Jew after that.
Within the year, the British evacuated Palestine and the State of Israel was declared.
I write this story as a tribute to the life and bravery of Dov Gruner. His stirring words and his
sacrifice ring true and are an inspiration for us today. It should serve as a reminder to those
who would forget such sacrifice and are ready to compromise and surrender parts of Eretz
Yisroel to the Arabs. May the memory of the Irgun and Lehi fighters be a blessing for Israel.