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Leon Katz Jewish Heroes


Leon Katz, former Inspector General of New York prisons and veteran New York City policeman, is currently a major in the Israel Police volunteers, having made aliya in 1981. Only recently has Katz agreed to reveal the heretofor secret story of how a group of Jewish policemen in New York helped procure arms for the Irgun freedom fighters in British- controlled Mandatory Palestine.

In 1946, Katz was approached by his rabbi, the late Mordechai Morduchowitz, a vice-president of the Agudas Rabbonim of North America, on behalf of the Irgun and asked to form a cell of Jewish police officers to obtain arms and ammunition. Katz then turned to his father, who replied: "Help them."

That advice spurred Katz on to gather together his "minyan" of Jewish policemen including boyhood friends from the Lower East Side. As a front for the organization they established a day care center for deprived children of all denominations and named it after a childhood friend who had fallen during World War II, Sidney Friedman. Its basement provided the clandestine arms storage depot.

Katz and his coterie procured arms in two ways. One was via his rabbi's connections with other rabbis through Agudas Rabbonim. Appeals to congregations in towns and villages resulted in frequent sorties by Katz upstate to speak at secret meetings in private homes to persuade synagogue members to hand over their arms to him.

Even more clandestine was the procurement of arms via the police department itself. The department took weapons from the public on a regular basis owing to the granting of an amnesty to all former soldiers returning from the war with weapons. No questions were asked and no receipts given. Through Jewish policemen in that unit, more than 90 percent of the firearms and weapons turned in found their way through Katz to the Irgun. Cell member Harry Bassin obtained a specialist firearms repair licence from the police department that enabled him to service vital equipment at home for the Irgun supplies.

Katz's wife and young sons accompanied him on many a trip to collect the arms and he and his colleagues always wore uniforms. Both the presence of his family and the uniform meant that no questions were ever asked.

After a Haganah arms shipment was discovered on a New York pier when a crate was dropped and broke open, apparently Teddy Kollek, then the Haganah representative in New York and later Mayor of Jerusalem, traded information on the Irgun operation in return for covering up the incident. With Kollek's tip-off to the FBI, a raid was planned on the Irgun group, who received advance warning.

Two FBI agents of Irish extraction arrived to find a garage full of arms, but, after being plied with welcome liquor and having their shared hostility towards the British aired, they soon appreciated the threats made to them by the Jewish policemen who "had seen them lurking in the area with guns." As a result, the FBI agents were more than willing to report that they had found an empty garage, which it was, after the removal trucks arrived.

The whole operation nearly exploded into the public eye after the establishment of the state in 1948 with the threat of ruined lives and police careers. At Rabbi Mitchell Eskolsky's eulogy to honor cell member Wolf Silberstein at his tombstone consecration, he revealed that Silberstein "supplied pistols that were smuggled into the homeland." Katz and the rabbi then approached the press table and asked the chairman of the Newspaper Association to forget the story. The man, a director of the children's institution set up by Katz, that also cared for Catholic children, agreed.

(Adapted from Lucille Cohen, _In Jerusalem_, 3 Nov 95, p. 8).


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