In July 1945, a tight-lipped David Ben Gurion met with 17 prominent Jewish businessmen in the Manhattan apartment of Rudolf Sonneborn. Ben Gurion’s urgent message to the group was that the Jews of Palestine would soon fight a war with five Arab states and the Jews could lose. The loss would not be because of a lack of resolve. After the blood-soaked tragedy of the Shoah, fighting for a Jewish homeland was a matter of survival and honor. Ben Gurion’s plea was for the weapons needed to fight against the well-equipped Arabs. His plea struck a responsive cord with the men listening in Sonneborrn’s apartment. Their response was to form a Jewish underground that would supply weapons to the embattled Haganah .
Ben Gurion’s choice of Sonneborn to head the secret operation made sense. Sonneborn was a wealthy industrialist who had visited Palestine as a young man. He became friends with Ben Gurion and maintained interest in the affairs of Jews in Palestine. Thus was born the Sonneborn Institute, an innocent name for an organization of American Jewish businessmen who would risk criminal proceedings as they illegally bought and shipped weapons to Palestine.
The Institute’s search for weapons was simplified by mountains of surplus war materials at the war’s end. To auction off as much of this surplus as quickly as possible, the U.S. government set up the War Assets Administration. Price was no object for the WAA; highly sophisticated military equipment was sold for $70 a ton (3.5 cents per pound) as scrap. The government auction process made Jewish salvage yard operators the most important members of the Institute. They had the experience of dealing with government auctions, attending and buying from these auctions and distributing the purchased materials for overseas shipment.
The Jewish underground went into action and materials started pouring into a Bronx warehouse purchased as a storage area. Tents, blankets, canteens, sweaters, shoes — all nonmilitary items — came under the heading of White Goods. Rifles, ammunition, explosives, machineguns — implements of war — fell into the category of Black Goods. This White and Black distinction was crucial in shipping goods through American and British customs.
White Goods could pass easily through the customs security of both countries; Black Goods required special handling. Together, American and Palestinian Jews developed innocent appearing labeling to escape attention from custom agents. Soon, boxes and steel drums marked “Agricultural Equipment” and “Industrial Machinery” left American ports and arrived in Palestine to the waiting hands of the Haganah. Included in the surplus materials sold by the WAA were four-engine Constellation cargo planes. Realizing how important these planes could be in transporting war materials by air, bypassing the British sea blockade of weapons, Jewish agents bought three of them for $15,000 a piece. But registering these planes in this country would have meant too many government restrictions on their cargoes and destinations. The solution was to register the Constellations in Panama. From their new Panama base, the Constellations, together with newly purchased Douglas C-54 cargo planes, were free to airlift supplies to Palestine.
As the Israelis began to win their struggle for a homeland, the source of military supplies for the Haganah shifted to more readily available sources in Europe and the work of the Sonneborn Institute came to a silent end. Its work had always been illegal — private American citizens shipping arms to a foreign country broke U.S. law — and public acknowledgment of the Institute’s work could not be made. When asked about their role in the secret underground, Sonneborn members would smile and shake their heads in silent, but self-satisfied, denial. One of the Sonneborn group put it this way, “It was a great period in our lives. I don’t think we’ll ever get over it …it gave us a feeling of accomplishment that nothing else we did before, that nothing we did since has equaled.”