December 3, 1995
Matti Shmulevitz, a member of the underground Lehi and an advisor to Menachem Begin, passes away at the age of 75 one day after collapsing during a chess game in Tel Aviv. He was born in Lodz, Poland and made aliyah when he was 17, with other members of the Beitar youth group in 1938.
Shmulevitz joined the Ha-Irgun HaTzevai HaLe’umi B’Eretz Yisrael (“National Military Organization” known as the Irgun or Etzel). In 1940, following the Irgun’s decision to employ restraint against the British during World War II, Shmulevitz was among a small few who left the Irgun to join the newly established underground group Lochamei Herut Yisrael (“The Warriors for the Freedom of Israel,” known as Lehi or the Stern Gang). Lehi’s primary mission was to target British troops and bases in Palestine in hopes of ending the British Mandate.
Shmulevitz was arrested by the British and sentenced with no trial in 1941 for his actions against British presence. He was sent to the British jail near Kibbutz Mizra in the Jezreel Valley before being transferred to a jail in Latrun. There he spent 7 months digging a tunnel under the electric fence of the camp, eventually escaping with several other prisoners on November 1, 1943.
A year after his escape, while assuming the alias Raphael Birnbaum, he was wounded and again captured following a shootout with British police. During the gunfight, Shmulevitz injured a British officer. In June 1944, he was found guilty of carrying illegal arms and firing at a British officer. Shmulevitz, then 24, was sentenced to death and jailed in Akko. Upon hearing the verdict, Shmulevitz arose and sang Hatikvah. Public outrage eventually forced the British to change the verdict to life imprisonment.
On May 4, 1947, Menachem Begin and the Irgun organized a massive jailbreak from Acre prison. Shmulevitz along with other Lehi and Irgun prisoners, including Tzipi Livni’s father Eitan, collected key information about the prison and passed it to his comrades on the outside. During the escape, he was wounded, captured and returned to prison. He would escape once more in February 1948 posing as a sewer worker.
After the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte in September 1948, Shmulevitz was arrested still again and sentenced to eight years in jail. He was pardoned in February 1949 by the Israeli State Council, the precursor to the Constituent Assembly.
In 1972, he joined the Herut Party and in 1977, Menachem Begin appointed him to be the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office. In that capacity he was put in charge of distributing compensation to settlers who were evacuated from the Sinai as are result of the Israeli withdrawal required in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.
Photo Credit: Lehi leaders David Yellin and Matityahu Shmulevitz (with beard) outside Acre prison following their pardon in February 1949.