'Then I saw a giant cloud – like in Hiroshima'
Former Irgun fighter recalls bombing of British headquarters in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, which left more than 90 people dead. Sarah Agassi says armed Jewish group warned occupants to evacuate building. 'My conscience is clear,' she says 64 years after the operation, 'it was war'
"Amatzia, one of our fighters, passed by me in disguise, with a little cart pulled by one of our boys, and winked at me. His job was to pour gasoline on the road and set it on fire it in order to prevent the advancement of reinforcements. A few seconds later the fire erupted, and I remember shots being fired from above. Then I was approached by British soldiers. One of them asked for my name. I hesitated for a moment, and then said, 'My name is Mary'. I said to myself that soon enough they'll know what kind of Meri (Hebrew word for rebellion) had taken place here."
Last week was the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel, which served as the British headquarters during the mandate's first years. The bombing was carried out in response to "Black Shabbat", during which British soldiers and police searched for arms and made arrests in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Haifa, as well as in several dozen settlements in an effort to quell the armed Jewish forces.
The bombing was the largest and most lethal attack carried out by the Jewish underground against the British. Even the members of Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in the British mandate of Palestine between 1931 and 1948, did not anticipate the amount of damage the attack would cause or the shockwaves it would send.
Sarah Agassi, who was part of the small group which carried out the attack, was tasked with calling British headquarters personnel and telling them they have thirty minutes to clear the building before it explodes. "Techiya (Adina Chai) and I called the King David Hotel. She spoke in both English and Hebrew. 'This is the Irgun. We have placed bombs and ask that you evacuate the building'. Then we called the nearby French consulate and said, 'Open your windows, because the blast will be powerful'. We also informed two newspapers, and that was the end of it. We hung up and dispersed," she recalls.
"The unrest in Jerusalem had already begun. We heard gunfire, and a fire had erupted on the street. People started talking, closing shops and disappearing from the area. I ran to my father, who had a shop on Agripas Street. I told him, 'Dad, let's go home.' As soon as we closed the store I saw a giant mushroom cloud rise above Jerusalem, like in Hiroshima. Everything was black and grey."
What went through your mind at that instant?
"That we did our job."
Officially, 91 people – British, Arabs and Jews – were killed in the bombing, though this figure has been disputed throughout the years.
"I learned of the death toll only after a couple of days," says Agassi, who was 19 at the time. "There was no radio or Internet. Among the victims was a woman whose brother served in the Irgun with us. He did not tell her not to go to work. Apparently he had no idea we were going to bomb the building. She worked as a secretary."
Agassi, now 83, has rarely spoken about the bombing, and for good reason. "Years after the incident we visited friends. I bragged a little, and then it turned out that our host's father, an attorney, was killed in the blast. It was painful for me, and I vowed not to speak of it again."
"I thought they would evacuate the building. We all did. What does a rational person do when he is told there are two bombs? But there was a problem with that bastard, Shaw," she says, referring to Chief Secretary for the Government of Palestine, Sir John Shaw, who, according to one account, refused to evacuate the building.
"It was later reported that he said the 'damn Jews' won't tell him what to do. So many people died because of him.
"I did what I had to do. I don't regret it for a second. There were other acts we carried out against the British that were just as courageous, such as the bombing of armored vehicles. The King David attack struck at the heart (of the British mandate) - that's why it gained such publicity," Agassi claims.
Agassi was born Sarah Goldschmidt into a religious family of 12 brothers and sisters. Her father was among those who fought at Givat Shaul during the Ottoman era. "I still remember the weapons he would hide along the fence. He was very nationalistic. We had relatives in America who wanted to come and visit, but he told them, 'If you are not making aliyah, don't come at all.'"
At the time Givat Shaul was a secluded neighborhood whose residents would frequently clash with the residents of Deir Yassin, a nearby Arab village. In search of social identity, Agassi took part in activities organized by the Tzofim (scouts), Poalei Tzion (Workers of Zion) and even the Hashmonaim, an extremist group. "I was almost recruited to the Palmach by a friend. I also tried the religious Bnei Akiva movement, which was affiliated with Betar (Revisionist Zionist youth movement), where I eventually found my place," she says.
"I was part of a small group consisting of six girls. We studied ideology and learned about weaponry. They sent us to Petah Tikva to learn how to fire a rifle.
"After the course I was given command over three units. In August 1944 I ran away from home to go to a Betar summer camp. That's where I met Zvi, my future husband. He is the best thing that came out of my time in Irgun," says Agassi, who also went by the pseudonym "Yael".
Tensions between the Jewish settlement and the British peaked in 1946. "In January I took part in an operation at the central prison in Jerusalem's Russian Compound. I almost set off a grenade out of sheer excitement," she says.
When did you learn that Irgun was planning to blow up the King David?
"I wasn't told anything. They only asked me to participate in some preliminary patrols. One evening my commander, Aviel (Eliyahu Levy) told me, 'Come, get dressed.' I took one of my sister's dresses and bought stockings.
"We entered the hotel. I was very impressed with everything. I was only 18. Everything was so beautiful. Only kings and barons stayed there. I am not stupid, I knew why we were there, but I remained silent. At some point, after we had entered the nightclub area of the hotel, Aviel told me, 'Go into the bathroom and take a look around.' I made a mental note of every small detail.
"Then we danced, and while we danced we scoped out other areas. Suddenly a British officer asked me to dance with him. I said, 'Sorry, I don't want to.' Aviel came up to me and asked why I refused to dance with the officer. I said, 'There's a limit to what I am willing to do.' Aviel, who was disguised as an Arab, said, 'You'll dance with an Arab but not with a British officer?'"
What do you remember from the day of the operation?
"I didn’t know anything ahead of time. In the Irgun, those who didn't have to know - didn't know. The less you knew, the better off you were. On the eve of the operation, our guys were briefed at Beit Aharon. I wasn't there. I only learned of the operation in the morning," Agassi recalls.
"It was Monday, July 22. Avinoam, commander of the Jerusalem District, told me, 'Look, Yael, you are taking part in an operation.' He took me to my position opposite the hotel. Techiya was with me as well. He told me, 'You stand here and wait. When you see the last of the fighters exit the hotel, go make the phone call.' We were told what to say over the phone.
"The operation was planned for 10 am, but Avinoam told me that it had been pushed back and that we should wait outside the hotel," she recalls.
The Irgun used milk jugs filled with explosives to blow up the hotel. Agassi saw the fighters carry them into the hotel through the service entrance. They took the kitchen staff hostage at gunpoint and activated the delay mechanisms inside the jugs. Then the fighters proceeded to release the hostages, who were instructed to evacuate the building, and began fleeing the hotel under heavy British fire. A number of fighters were hit.
"The last fighter out of the building was my brother," Agassi says. "He had no idea I was taking part in the operation. He was a charming guy. I could tell how excited he was. He told me, 'Sarah, I'm hurt.' I put my hand under his overalls and said, 'Yehoshua, you aren't injured.' But he was carrying two grenades and a pistol.
"I told him, 'Give them to me. If you're caught with a pistol you'll be hanged. They won't hang a woman.' He gave the weapons to me and ran off. I put them in my handbag and then chucked the grenades in a rocky area opposite the hotel. But I didn’t want to get rid of the pistol. Techiya and I ran to a store, where they let her use the phone. People in the second store we entered recalled hearing her say, 'This is the Irgun' before they hung up on her. I took her to a third shop – my brother's shop."
The British have claimed that the warning was not received on time.
"What are they going to say? That they were warned but failed to act? We informed them on time. Two minutes after 12:30. Everything happened so quickly. They had a half-hour. Had they evacuated the building at 12:35, things would never have developed as they did."
Jews were also killed in the hotel.
"So, what could I have done? We gave the warning. My conscience is clear. And when they killed Jews over nothing – for hanging posters – was that not also painful? It was war. We operated like soldiers. We did not hesitate. I merely carried out orders. That's all."
Yehoshua was killed in the Independence War.
"The King David operation was the last one. I got married and became a coward. I was transferred to the Tel Aviv headquarters and got pregnant. Ten days passed before anyone knew that my brother had been killed in Jerusalem. The Jordanians were bombarding (the Jewish forces), making it impossible to bury the dead. He was a great kid," Agassi says.
"After I gave birth I remained in the hospital for a month due to a fever. (Deceased Irgun commander and prime minister) Menachem Begin
attended the circumcision ceremony and congratulated me," she says.
"To us (Begin) was a god, but I became disappointed in him later on. While in London in 1972, journalists called him a terrorist and a murderer. He told them that upon his return to Israel he would gather testimonies from the people who were there (King David operation). When he returned he summoned me to Metzudat Zeev (Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv) to talk about the explosion. He wanted me to speak at a special press conference he had organized," Agassi says.
"I told him, 'Mr. Begin, I work for the Histadrut's executive committee. If they see me in Metzudat Zeev with you tomorrow, I'll surely lose my job.' He said, 'Don't worry; I'll take care of you. You'll work for us.' I appeared on television and was fired the next day. I told him I was out of a job, but he said, 'The party doesn't have any money.'
"I was very angry, but we stayed in touch. He was a very nice man," says Agassi, who agreed to speak of the incident to promote a 13-minute film about her life, which is being produced as part of the international jewishbiography.net project, which documents the lives of Jews and Arabs.
Agassi, whose husband died a few years ago, is carrying on her family's legacy with pride.