In the summer of 1993, shortly before I was to participate in an international conference on the concept of the hero in Jewish history, I began researching how Israeli society had perpetuated the memory of the Yishuv (Jewish community in pre-state Israel) parachutists from World War II.
These were a group of some three-dozen young parachutists (including three women) from Eretz Yisrael who were dropped by the British behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe and the Balkans during World War II.
The young parachutists, most of whom had arrived from Europe only a few years earlier, faced a double mission. Their British mission was to make contact with pilots who had jettisoned over enemy territory and assist them in making their way back to Allied occupied lands. Simultaneously, their Zionist mission was to contact Jewish communities in Europe, assist them in rebuilding the local Zionist movement, and, when necessary, help their members escape from the Nazis.
Seven of the parachutists, including two of the women, lost their lives during the operation. The most famous of them was undoubtedly Hannah Szenes, a young Jewish immigrant from Hungary who had been in the Yishuv for only four years before volunteering for this mission.
Having made contact with those parachutists who had returned from the operation and relatives of those who had not, I became determined to continue the project. And when I was knee-deep into the documentary section – burrowing through dozens of archives containing material on one parachutist or another – I realized that the book I would write had essentially been conceived at the intersection of three incidents during my childhood. Two and a half decades later, the seeds planted in me at this time ultimately sprouted into a decision to study how the parachutists underwent a metamorphosis from ordinary people to “perfect heroes.”
The first incident took place when I was four or five. Every Shabbos afternoon my father and I would go for a walk in our New York neighborhood, heading toward the nearby park, with its huge statue of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. To while away the long summer afternoons my father would tell me stories about the hero who bore the world on his back, whom he called koyach (“strength” in Yiddish).
I often confused that Greek hero with the ancient Jewish fighter Judah Maccabee, about whom he also spoke, but the message was clear. Every generation needs heroes – contemporary heroes, my father insisted, and not only those from the distant past.
The second incident took place during my early school years. Throughout the hour-long ride to my school, the younger children often tormented each other with shouts and shoves, but, when tired of mischief, would exchange stories as well. A favorite friend of mine on these rides was Danielle, and my mother often spoke about Danielle’s distant cousin, a true heroine who had been killed in the Holocaust. She was a parachutist who had been sent to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Danielle’s last name was Reik and the parachutist was named Haviva.
The third incident occurred a few years later. In my summer camp the directors and counselors took advantage of every opportunity for “Zionist brainwashing.” It seems to have succeeded since many of my fellow former campers now live in Israel. Not only were all camp instructions given in Hebrew – an unusual policy in an American Jewish summer camp – but every age group had a Hebrew name and every activity cabin bore the name of someone whom the camp directors of the 1950s and 1960s considered a Zionist hero.
We would start our morning roll call in Hannah Szenes Hall, hold afternoon activities in Haviva Reik House, and finish off the day with an evening campfire outside Enzo Sereni Cabin. No one ever explained to the campers exactly who these heroes were; the directors and counselors apparently adhered to the policy that it was the symbolism that mattered. Nevertheless, my bunkmates, many of whom were also my schoolmates, understood how great an honor it was to conduct activities in a building named after a Jewish hero or heroine from Eretz Yisrael.
A quarter century later the three incidents metamorphosed into the basic coordinates of what would become my book Perfect Heroes: heroism, Zionism, and parachutists – more precisely, the Yishuv parachutists of World War II. What began as an investigation into the history of the parachutist-emissaries (as they preferred to be called) gradually became an exploration of how the concepts of heroism and the hero evolved in an emerging state and a developing society.
To this day the parachutists’ mission is considered the pinnacle of Yishuv activity within the framework of the British army, on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust. At its height the operation encompassed some 250 volunteers who came from settlement movements, the military, and the Palmach, a Zionist military home guard originally established by the British to defend Eretz Yisrael against invasion. Of those, 110 were trained in various preparatory courses in Eretz Yisrael and abroad. Thirty-seven men and women were assigned to the operation and thirty-two of them did, in fact, participate reaching Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Italy during the war or immediately thereafter.
On the night of Rosh Hashanah 5704 (October 1, 1943) the first two volunteers – Liova Gukowsky (Ahisar) of Kibbutz Yagur and Arye Fichman (Arany) of Kibbutz Beit Oren – parachuted into Romania. It was a cold, moonless night. The operation had been planned down to the last detail and, at least on paper, the chances of success seemed high. Jewish Agency personnel in Istanbul had notified Zionist activists in Bucharest of the two parachutists’ arrival, and a sum of money had already been sent to someone in the local Zionist underground to be passed along to them. In a picturesque passage in his memoirs Gukowsky described his fears and hopes as he jumped:
We knew that an alarm had been sounded all over the country and that the plane was being watched . Your heart pounds, thick sweat floods your body, the opening to the depths below darkens before your very eyes … and suddenly, after the torments of expectation, the signal is given. The shades of light playing on the airplane gave the command: Jump! My comrade jumped first, and I instantly slipped out after him. When I jumped, the parachute opened and I felt enfolded in its secure arms. The cry “Shema Yisrael …” flashed like lightning in the darkness of my soul – a sort of feeling of the sanctification of God’s name that passed, was cut off . And along with this came a sense of death. My ears perceived the bullets buzzing around me, a hail of bullets. “I won’t make it” was the thought that passed through my mind.
The operation that had begun hopefully ended in disaster with both parachutists captured by the Romanian authorities, their location having been revealed by double agents working both for the Yishuv and for the locals. During the next few months additional groups were sent to Europe, some to Yugoslavia from where they were supposed to make their way to Romania and Hungary, others to Slovakia where there was a free enclave. One parachutist, Enzo Sereni, was parachuted into Italy where he fell directly into Nazi hands. He spent the next months in detention camps and finally was deported to Dachau where he was murdered in late 1944.
The group in Yugoslavia waiting to enter Hungary – Hannah Szenes, Peretz Goldstein and Yoel Palgi – had a unique problem to deal with that totally disrupted its original plans: just after they reached Yugoslavia Hungary had been occupied by the Germans.
Despite this situation in June 1944 Szenes and later Palgi and Goldstein crossed the border from Yugoslavia to Hungary in an attempt to aid the Jews of that country. Szenes was caught immediately and put in prison, and through a set of circumstances Palgi and Goldstein were forced to later turn themselves over to the Nazis. The three spent the summer and early autumn of 1944 in a Hungarian jail, waiting for the Russian forces to advance and liberate Budapest, to no avail.
On October 28, Szenes’s trial opened in Budapest. All three parachutists were originally supposed to appear in court, but only Szenes was actually brought before the judges, who refused to issue a verdict on that occasion. Despite a valiant speech she made before her judges she was not set free and no judgment was issued.
On the morning of November 7 the Hungarian prosecutor entered Szenes’s small cell and informed her that the sentence that had just been passed – death by firing squad – would be carried out immediately. The brave parachutist vehemently refused to ask for clemency. Before she was executed she wrote two notes that she entrusted to her cellmate, one for her parachutist comrades and one for her mother who lived in Budapest and for a time had been incarcerated with her in the same prison.
While Szenes was marching in the snow to face a firing squad (she refused a blindfold), her mother was waiting in the Hungarian prosecutor’s office for permission to visit her daughter. A few minutes after the young woman had been shot the prosecutor cruelly informed Katherine Szenes that she no longer had anyone to visit.
As the Germans advanced toward Budapest, it seemed that the fate of the two other parachutists was sealed. Peretz Goldstein was transferred to the Oranienburg concentration camp in Germany where he was murdered. Yoel Palgi managed to escape from the deportation train and made his way back to Budapest where he hid until the liberation.
During that same summer of 1944 another group of parachutists – Haviva Reik, Rafael Reiss and Zvi Ben-Yaakov – had been sent to Slovakia where they assisted Jews living in the free enclave of Banska Bystrica. At some point they were joined by parachutist Abba Berdiczew who later left for Romania. With the advance of local Nazi-collaborating forces, they were forced to retreat to the mountains where they were assaulted by the Ukrainian auxiliary army and captured.
Reik and Reiss were executed along with 250 Jews who had been imprisoned with them and their bodies left in a ditch covered with dirt. Ben-Yaakov, who had pretended to be a Canadian soldier, was sent to Mauthausen where he was executed. So was Abba Berdiczew, who had been captured by Nazi forces on his way to Romania and sent to that same camp.
Meanwhile, no one in the Yishuv knew of the parachutists’ fate. Word of Szenes’s death reached the Yishuv through Palgi, who had learned of it from Szenes’s mother even before the liberation of Budapest. In June 1945 Yishuv representatives got final word of Reik and Reiss’s murders. As for Berdiczew, in June 1945 British intelligence decided that in all probability he had been murdered shortly after his capture.
Only at the end of the summer of 1945, when the British army had obtained confirmed evidence that most of the missing parachutists had indeed perished, were official death notices sent to the families. Katherine Szenes – the first to officially join the family of the bereaved – was now joined by the Reiss, Reik, Sereni, and Berdiczew families. In the absence of verified information about the fate of Goldstein and Ben-Yaakov, their families had to wait several months longer for official notices and letters of condolence.
The last missing parachutist was also the oldest of the group, Enzo Sereni. The Labor party functionary, founding member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner and scion to an aristocratic Italian Jewish family, had accompanied the parachutists as liaison with the Yishuv authorities and only at the last moment had decided to join the mission and parachute with them into Europe.
Only in October 1945, almost a year after his death, did Enzo Sereni’s widow, Ada, who was on a Yishuv mission in liberated Europe, learn that her husband had died in Dachau on November 18, 1944.
Every nation needs heroes but often finds it difficult to cope with giants who are also flesh and blood. The process by which those who died became tiles in the mosaic of national heroism sometimes requires cosmetic touch-ups to their image, to the story of their lives, and even to the depiction of their political loyalty – all in order to make them blend in with the collective portrait of Yishuv heroism at the time.
This trend was manifested even before the ink had dried on the letters of condolence sent by the British army. Perhaps it is precisely this that the parachutists feared when they asked not to be considered heroes. In his last letter to his wife Zvi Ben-Yaakov had written: “Please don’t let them make me a national hero because this wasn’t heroism. Only here did I see just how much too weak we are to be called heroes.”
His request, like that of Rafi Reiss, was ignored. As long as they remained alive, the parachutists belonged to their families, their friends, and their kibbutzim. However, when they died new rules applied to them, a different dynamic that removed them from the personal framework of those who knew them and mourned their loss and transferred them into a national framework in which they would fulfill completely different functions.
For as soon as the parachutist died, the hero was created; as soon as the person dies, the symbol is born.
Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is chair of the graduate program in Contemporary Jewry and teaches in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. This essay is adapted from her new book, “Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory,”