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On an ice-cold night in 1942, while taking part in a demanding Palmach training course in Juara in north Israel, Chaviva Reich made the treacherous descent to kibbutz Ein Hashofet to bring back some grapes for her colleagues and raise their morale. She was caught by a kibbutz guard, the grapes were confiscated, and she was sent back to her base. Her act, a combination of daring and caring, was typical of the selflessness of the thirty-two Jewish parachutists who, between 1943 and 1945, landed in Nazi-occupied Europe to bring relief and rescue. Three of these parachutists were women.

 

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Channah Senesh

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In 1939, eighteen-year-old Channah Senesh emigrated from Hungary to Palestine to study at an agricultural school. Two years later, she joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group that laid the foundation of the Israel Defense Forces. Two years after that, answering the joint call of the Jewish Agency Defense Department, the Palmach (the elite strike force branch of the Haganah underground military organization), and the British Army, she became part of a group of over 250 volunteers training as parachutists for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The British needed these emigres from Europe, who had an intimate knowledge of the countries to which they would be sent, to aid in the rescue of allied pilots who had been shot down and captured. The volunteers had a second aim in mind: to organize resistance against the Germans and to help Jews escape the inferno.

On March 14, 1944, Channah parachuted into Yugoslavia with two male colleagues and joined a partisan group. When they learned that the Germans had already occupied Hungary, the men called off the mission. But Channah headed for the Hungarian border. In June, Hungarian gendarmes, who found the British military transmitter she used to communicate with the SOE and other partisans, arrested her and her companions. Channah was taken to a prison, stripped, tied to a chair, then whipped and clubbed for three days. She refused to reveal the code for her transmitter, as this would have led the Hungarians to the other parachutists. Transferred to a Budapest prison, Channah was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. However, she stood firm, revealing only her name, even when her mother was also arrested. While in prison, Channah used a mirror to flash signals out of the window to prisoners in other cells. She communicated using large cut-out letters that she placed in her cell window one at a time and by drawing the Magen David in the dust. She was tried for treason and on November 7, 1944, she was executed by a German firing squad. Her poems, written in Hungarian and Hebrew, have eternalized her.

 

Chaviva Reich

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In 1939, twenty-five-year-old Chaviva Reich, who grew up in Banská Bystrica in Slovakia, in the Carpathian Mountains, immigrated to Palestine and joined Kibbutz Maanit. Torn between her love for a Tzvi Arison, a wealthy orchard owner, and her idealism, she chose to enlist in the Palmach. She later volunteered as a parachutist in the SOE and completed her training as a sergeant. Sarah (Surika) Braverman, a fellow parachutist, remembers Chaviva at a farewell party held in Tel Aviv saying, “I’m sure I’ll carry out everything that I’ve been charged with. I’m sure that I’ll return from the war to the kibbutz and that I’ll remember that I’m a woman.”

In September 1944, Chaviva, together with three male parachutists, was scheduled to land in Slovakia. The British retracted permission for Chaviva’s mission. They knew that the Germans had copies of their standing orders prohibiting female soldiers to cross enemy lines, and thought that if Chaviva were captured, she would almost certainly be executed as a spy rather than taken prisoner as a soldier.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.

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