In mid-April 1947, a thin, attractive French woman arrived at the customs stand at the port of Dover in England. The officials asked her where she would be staying in England. After thinking for a moment, she replied that she was headed toward a famous Chinese professor who lived in Sussex and was teaching her the secrets of Chinese philosophy.
Although the reply sounded strange, apparently there were few English customs agents who could withstand a girl’s smile, eventually he was convinced and let her enter the United Kingdom. Thus entered a woman who was related to the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov and was carrying three kilos of explosives.
All about Betty
Before we begin with the story of Knut and the explosives in Britain, chronological accuracy forces us to go back a few years to the beginning of the complex life story of the heroine of this tale.
Betty (Elizabeth) Knut/Lazarus was born in Paris in 1928. Her mother, Arianna Skryabin, was a Russian noblewoman, niece of the Soviet Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov and daughter of the famous composer Alexander Skryabin. After her first marriage (to Betty’s father), she converted and married the Jewish poet, David Knut.
At the age of 12, Betty’s world turned upside down when Nazi Germany occupied France. Like many children of her generation, the war abruptly ended her childhood. At the age of 14, she was already serving as a liaison to an anti-Nazi underground cell established by her parents.
In 1944, she lost her mother when a French militia cooperating with the Germans shot Arianna. After the Allies invaded France, the 16-year-old Knut became a reporter for a military newspaper but was forced to quit when a mine wounded her in a battle.
At the age of 18, Betty published her war memoir “La Ronde De Mouche” (Circle of Flies). Despite her relative success, she did not find fulfillment in writing. Her mother, who became an enthusiastic supporter of aggressive Jewish nationalism after her conversion, inspired the budding writer to join the Zionist struggle and Betty joined the European branch of the Lehi underground organization.
Years later when asked in an interview to explain her decision, she answered: “The truth is that Etzel came to me before Lehi. But I was drawn to Lehi. I heard that their leaders were killed and there were only a few of them. Certainly those were not the only reasons - the main one was my mother.”
In 1947, Lehi began to organize violent acts against British targets, both in Israel and abroad. As part of this process, Knut trained for weeks in the assembling and activating of explosives. During her training, she retold, she innocently asked: “What happens if the explosive wires get tangled and become too short?” Her trainer answered: “You die”.
When she arrived in London, Knut rented a hotel room and spent her days surveying her target- the British Colonial Office (in charge of mandate rule in Israel). On Tuesday, April 16, she shut herself up in her room and began assembling the explosives, only to discover that the clock that activated the timing mechanism was broken. After a feverish night trek through the stores of London, she found an alternate clock.
The next morning, Betty left her suitcase in the Victoria train station and made her way to her target, wearing a fancy hat, a fur coat, and a lethal explosive package that was ticking and set to explode.
At the entrance to the building, she observed a group of guards preventing access. (Coincidentally, the day before, Dov Groner, a member of Etzel was hanged and security was tightened).
Despite this, the young terrorist continued on her assignment. She calmly approached the group of guards and asked to use the restroom. Due to their orders, they refused. With three minutes remaining on the timing mechanism, Knut managed to use wily feminine charms and entered the building without showing any ID.
She simply said: “I’ve heard that Englishmen are gentlemen, yet here is a woman who needs a few minutes of privacy, and you are asking her to show papers just so you will know how old she is.”
With two minutes remaining on the timer, Knut passed the guards and hurried to the restrooms where she noticed the cleaning lady and stopped. She waited a few seconds until the woman left and then entered one of the stalls, attached the bomb to the toilet seat, left the building and quickly escaped.
A few minutes later, Lizzie Hart, that innocent cleaning woman, returned to the restrooms and saw a package in one of the stalls. She removed the wrapping paper and inadvertently disconnected the explosive wires. Miraculously, the bomb did not explode in her hands. British sappers quickly came and diffused the bomb.
One of the heads of Scotland Yard describes the event in his memoir: “One of the clock hands was too close to the glass panel, and the clock stood still right before it reached zero hour. We were lucky. Otherwise, the British Colonial Office would have had a bigger explosion than the one at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem the previous year.”
While the British sappers were dismantling the bomb, Knut managed to escape from Britain. When she arrived in Paris, she heard about the failure and burst into uncontrollable tears.
A few months later, her luck ran out and she was caught in Belgium with nine kilos of explosives meant to destroy British ships, as well as a suitcase whose false bottom contained envelopes of explosives which were meant to escort several British leaders to the London cemetery.
Terror, like pornography evidently, is a matter of geography. The Belgian legal system was not very sympathetic towards Lehi’s activities in their jurisdiction. After a stormy trial, Knut was sentenced to a year in juvenile prison.
Years later she described her ordeal: “Ten years of deprivation and underground danger were nothing compared to the year in one of Dante’s circles of Hell- the women’s underworld prison of Belgium.”
In 1948, she was released and she returned to France. The French government remembered her activities in the Resistance and welcomed her with open arms, albeit a little suspiciously. For example, when Queen Elizabeth of England came for a visit, the French police strongly recommended to Knut to take a short vacation on the Riviera until the end of the visit.
During the War of Independence, Knut came to Israel as a military reporter for a newspaper. After Lehi murdered Count Bernadotte, she was arrested for a short time. Afterwards she announced that she was retiring from the underground in general and Lehi in particular.
In 1951, Knut arrived in Beer Sheva and opened its first nightclub under the symbolic name “The Last Chance”. In 1960 Eliyahu Amikam, a Yedioth Ahronoth reporter, interviewed her and she revealed for the first time her role in the bombing attempt in London.
The establishment of the club in the southern city invited many struggles for the grown up rebel, and caused her to die of a heart attack at the young age of 37.
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