She was a towering heroine in the struggle to achieve Jewish independence in the Land of Israel. Time and again, she risked her life during the years she fought with the Irgun and the Lechi underground movements against the British occupation of Palestine. In my novel, “The Lion’s Roar,” her fearless character inspired my portrait of one of Tevye’s daughters, Naomi, who, like the young Geula Cohen, was incarcerated by the British in a ghoulish prison from which no one escaped. Geula Cohen herself wrote about her harrowing experience in an unforgettable book, “Story of a Warrior.” May her memory be for a blessing.
TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT, as Sholom Aleichem would say, in my book, Tevye asked Rabbi Aryeh Levine to visit Naomi in the prison. The saintly Rabbi was known as the “Rabbi of the Prisoners” because he was a regular visitor of Jewish prisoners imprisoned by the British.
Now that Jewish women were incarcerated in the women’s prison in Bethlehem, he made a point of visiting them twice a month, always stopping on the way to pray at Rachel’s Tomb. And always, he carried messages to them from the Irgun and from their families. His warmth, spirit, and optimism had a strengthening effect on the downcast prisoners, and his visits were known to save despairing souls from depression and even suicide.
Without touching Naomi, the holy Rabbi succeeded in warming her frozen heart with the elixir of concern in his eyes:
“Don’t give up hope,” he told the young woman. “G-d will save you. Right down the road, our mother, Rachel, is pleading for your welfare, along with the welfare of all of her children. Trust in Hashem. Pray to Him, and purge all the anger from your heart. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not like ours. We cannot fathom His doings. But all of his paths are just, and all his ways are kindness. Do not blame Him for the evildoing of men. King David, the most saintly of G-d’s servants, who was born here in Bethlehem, didn’t he also suffer from the deeds of the wicked, and even from the righteous Saul who sought to slay him? Yet he never complained. Who are we to question Hashem’s doings? Always remember, ‘The L-rd is near to the broken hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A good person may have many ills, but the L-rd delivers him from them all.’”
Reb Aryeh arranged for Naomi to be transferred to the cell for political prisoners. There, the Jewish women lovingly nursed the traumatized girl back to health, gradually restoring her confidence in life. Though everyone had a sad tale of their own, they all gathered around her side to rescue her from her pit of depression. Their faith and optimism were like a healing balm.
The Rabbi returned the same week to learn how Tevye’s daughter was progressing. Naomi grew stronger each day. One morning, a flicker of light appeared in her vacant glance. One afternoon, she smiled. She began to speak. Urged by her friends, she even sang along with them, singing Zionist songs while a guard in the hallway shouted, “Mamnua! It’s forbidden!” Their love returned the young woman to life. Though hesitant and still fragile, she even joined them in dancing a lively hora. Finally, Naomi allowed herself to cry in the arms of Rachel Ohevet Ami, who had become a friend, a sister, and a mother to her. She wept and wept until her tears could have irrigated a dry, unfertile wasteland, transforming it into a verdant valley yielding bushels of fruit.
Naomi made up her mind – she was going to escape. When she confided her decision to her cellmates, everyone tried to dissuade her. No one escaped from Bethlehem Prison. Any attempt was dangerous. If she wasn’t killed, she would be caught and punished. Guards were posted on the roof at night. During the day, policemen patrolled the perimeter. And if a prisoner managed to somehow sneak out from the compound, the territory back to Jerusalem was filled with hilly terrain and hostile Arabs.
Willful young girl that she was, Naomi wouldn’t back down. She gathered all the information she could. During her daily walk in the yard, she observed all of the guard posts and barb-wire fences. She learned the times the sentries changed their watches. She stared at the stones of the five-meter-high wall, as if her eyes could bore through rock to freedom. In a corner of the yard, the old wall had been weathered by streams of winter rainwater flooding down from a hill directly behind the building. Some of the large stones had been slightly dislodged. Here and there, they jutted from the wall, making ideal hand and foot holds.
Naomi felt certain she could scale the high wall at nighttime when guards often left their stations to chat with each other, while others slept, never dreaming that a prisoner would try to escape. At the top of the wall was a two-meter-high fence of barb wire, and coils of barb wire waited below in the ditch on the other side of the wall to greet anyone who was crazy enough to jump to the ground.
A lawyer for the Irgun came to visit the prisoners. He told Naomi that they were going to disclose her identity and request a trial. As a mere accomplice, she would receive a few years in jail, no more, and a way would be found to free her while she was taken to or from court. Naomi refused. She didn’t want to jeopardize her family. “Anyway,” she informed the lawyer, “I am planning to escape on my own tomorrow night.”
“Does anyone know?” the surprised lawyer asked.
“No,” Naomi answered. “Beside my friends here, I haven’t told anyone.”
“Don’t you think you should ask the advice of the Organization?”
“No,” the determined girl replied. “I am doing this on my own.”
That afternoon, her cellmates wrapped strips of blankets and floor mats around her arms and legs, her chest and her waist. For added protection, she wore long johns and a pair of gym shorts. Under her prison uniform, she wore her street clothes. When dinner ended, after her shift cleaning the kitchen, she hid in a supply closet. Taking out a roll of bandage, she wrapped the cloth again and again around her hands, to buffer the spikes of barb wire.
Upstairs in the prison corridor, the night count was lackadaisical as usual, and when Naomi’s turn to call out her number arrived, Rachel said it for her. When Naomi heard the monastery bells chime nine, she hurried out of the closet and lifted a chair onto the kitchen counter under a small window that was always left open for ventilation. One shoulder after the other, she squeezed through the frame and dropped to the ground.
The yard was dark, but she knew every meter by heart. Running to the back corner where the wall could be climbed, she thanked G-d that the footholds held firm. Within seconds, she reached the top of the wall. The guard tower was deserted. Before the new guard arrived to begin his shift, she grabbed hold of the barbed wire and scaled the fence, shutting her mind to the pain.
Opposite her, the bell tower of the monastery rose up in the darkness. Down the hill, the lights of Bethlehem shone in the night, and in the far distance the twinkling lights of Jerusalem. Grabbing the bar at the top of the fence, Naomi scrambled up and over the merciless spikes. She thought of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva, how the Romans flayed off his skin with sharpened iron combs, and how the body was just the vessel which houses the soul.
Instead of leaping blindly to freedom, she froze when she glanced down at the coils of barb wire awaiting her on the ground. The height of the fall scared her less than the thought of the pain. But if she hesitated any longer, the sweep of the guard-tower searchlight would expose her for sure. “Trust in Hashem,” she thought. “Trust in Hashem,” she repeated and jumped. Bracing her head in her arms, a miracle occurred. Instead of ripping her flesh to pieces, the coils of wire cushioned her fall like a spring, as if an angel had reached out its arms and caught her. The spikes of the wire cut into her skin wherever there was no bandage or extra clothing, but none of her bones felt broken. Sheltering her face in her arms, she rolled over and over on the buoyant coils of wire until she was free.
“Halt!” a British voice called out.
Without glancing back, Naomi scrambled to her feet and started to run. A rifle fired. The bullet made a whooshing sound over her head. The prison bloodhounds started to bark. Heart racing, she ran down the hill, stumbled, fell, got up and kept running as fast as she could. Leaving the winding road, she dashed down a dark alley, but met a dead end.
Retracing her tracks, and losing valuable time, she heard the roar of a truck engine in the distance and the loud clanging of the prison’s emergency bell. Another gunshot sounded. The wild barking of dogs came closer. Naomi raced off down the road. A volley of gunshots rang out. Making an impulsive decision, she ran into a grove of olive trees in the direction she hoped was Jerusalem. Leaving the grove, she came to the main road, bordered by a few houses and shops which were sealed for the night. Crossing the deserted road, she ran toward the hills in the distance. Another olive grove afforded her some shelter, but the roar of a truck sounded behind her, along with the frantic barking of the bloodhounds and more gunshots. The bullets tore through the branches of the ancient olives trees which dated back to the time of King David.
“Please Hashem,” she prayed in her mind, too out of breath to speak. “In the merit of our Matriarch Rachel, please save me. In the merit of King David, come to my aid.”
The frantic barking of the hounds grew closer. Realizing that the slope up the hill was slowing her progress, she veered back down toward the road. Reaching a terraced hillside, she ran and ran, tripping over rocks, rising and running again. Footsteps pounded the earth behind her. Gunshots roared in the night. A bullet slammed into her thigh. “I’m finished,” she thought, still running, dragging her wounded leg behind her. The bloodhounds howled, smelling her blood. Her vision began to blur. Up ahead, Naomi saw the dome of Rachel’s Tomb. She ran toward the holy site, summoning all of her remaining strength. At least, if she had to die, she would die in Rachel’s embrace. Out of breath, she reached the stone building.
“Halt!” a voice called out. “Halt or we’ll shoot!”
Naomi turned to face her pursuers. In surrender, she held up her hands. The bloodhounds barked furiously, tugging at their leashes, ready to tear her to shreds. Five soldiers pointed rifles her way. The headlamps of a truck shone in her eyes. The dark figures of policemen appeared. Another vehicle screeched to a stop.
Exhausted, she fell back against the wall of the tomb. Suddenly, an angry volley of gunshots resounded over the hillsides where the Maccabees had battled the Greeks, and where the army of Bar Kochba had ambushed Romans legions. Naomi closed her eyes, expecting to die, but none of the bullets hit her. The headlights of a truck went black. Another roar of gunshots exploded around the tomb like thunder. A grenade shook the earth. A truck exploded.
One after the other, the soldiers facing her spun around in a twisted dances of death. Grunting, they crumbled to the ground. The bloodhounds whelped. After another blaze of automatic fire, a sudden stillness filled the air. Then she heard a cheer and running footsteps. Her brothers, Tzvi and Boaz ran to greet her, their rifles held up victoriously in the air. Then she saw Avraham Stern and Nachshon, Akiva and Yaacov Eliav. Behind them she saw her father, running toward her with outstretched arms. “Abba!” she shouted, running to him and collapsing in his embrace. “Abba!”
“My little lioness,” Tevye said. Naomi fainted in exhaustion. Tevye lifted the bleeding girl in his arms.
“Let’s go!” Stern shouted.
Surrounding Tevye and his daughter like a squad of angels, the fighters of the Irgun led the way to two sedans parked on the road. A police siren sounded in the night and a police car sped toward them, its red light flashing. Eliav loaded a grenade on a special launcher he had fashioned and aimed the weapon at the road. With a squeeze of the trigger, he fired the missile. A moment later, a great explosion sent the police car tumbling off the road in a tower of flames. “Yalla,” Stern called out. Gently, Tevye set his daughter in the back seat of a car.
“Thank the good L-rd,” Tevye said.
His daughter slept on his shoulder all of the way back to Jerusalem.