Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Exhibited here is an invitation to the July 29, 1954 ceremony at Kibbutz Ma’agan commemorating the 10th anniversary of the parachuting of Hannah Senesh and other volunteers into occupied Europe and the unveiling of a monument honoring Peretz Goldstein, a young Palmach fighter who parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia, surrendered to the Nazis, and was murdered in a concentration camp.

Also shown here on kibbutz letterhead is a letter from Yitzchak Ayalon, executive secretary of the kibbutz, to D. Nemri at Ashdot Yaakov (a kibbutz south of the Sea of Galilee near the Jordanian border), which he sent along with an invitation to attend the ceremony and dedication. Ayalon, responsible for organizing the entire event, managed the commemoration down to the most minute detail and scheduled the ceremony down to the minute.


The invitation reads:

We are honored to invite you to attend the memorial assembly with the unveiling of the monument in memory of our chaver,

the parachutist Peretz Goldstein, z”l

The assembly will take place at our kibbutz on Thursday, July 29, 1954 at 6:30 p.m.
Kibbutz Ma’agan, Jordan Valley
(this invitation is personal and for two people)
The rally will be accompanied by a military ceremony, including paratrooper units and the IDF orchestra. Attendees are invited to partake in light refreshments at the end of the program.

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The military ceremony, however, was not completed, the orchestra did not play, and refreshments were not served because an airplane tragically flew into the crowd in the middle of the proceedings and killed 17 people and injured 25 others. The disaster, which devastated Israel, launched a frenzy of denials and cover-ups, and many issues remain unresolved to this day.

Ma’agan, a kibbutz in northern Israel located on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee, was founded in 1949 by immigrants from Transylvania on land that had belonged to the Arab village of Samakh, which was depopulated in 1948. Ma’agan was chosen for the ceremony because three of the Hungarian parachutists – Yona Rosen, Yoel Palgi, and the late Peretz Goldstein – had been members of the kibbutz.

There were also political motives: The event took place against the background of the furor in Israel over the “Kastner Trial,” and Prime Minister Moshe Sharett planned to deliver a message to the nation regarding perceived failures of his Mapai Party to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. He planned to give a speech characterizing the paratroopers’ mission as a heroic rescue operation initiated by the leaders of the Jewish Agency, but instead almost got himself decapitated.

Rudolf Israel Kastner (1906-57) was a Hungarian-Jewish journalist and lawyer who became famous – or infamous – for negotiating a deal with Adolf Eichmann in 1944 pursuant to which 1,684 Hungarian Jews designated for the gas chambers would be permitted to leave for Switzerland (on what became known as the “Kastner train”) in exchange for money.

Less known is that Kastner also played an important role in the fate of the parachutists, including Peretz Goldstein and Yoel Palgi, who parachuted into Yugoslavia and found their way to Budapest, where Palgi was arrested. Goldstein managed to elude arrest by hiding in the Budapest ghetto, but the Nazis halted the Kastner train (with Goldstein’s parents on board) and threatened to massacre all its passengers unless Goldstein was delivered to them.

After Goldstein turned himself in, in a deal mediated by Kastner, the train was permitted to continue safely to Switzerland. The Nazis subsequently murdered Goldstein, a great and largely forgotten Jewish hero, at the Oranienburg concentration camp.

Kastner moved to Israel after the war and, based primarily upon his dealings with Eichmann, was charged with being a Nazi collaborator (1953). After an 18-month trial in Israel, Judge Binyamin Halevy convicted Kastner, finding that in collaborating with the Nazis, he had sacrificed the masses of European Jews to save a chosen few. (Kastner was murdered by a group of Lehi veterans in March 1957 and, the following January, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned most of the judgment against him, finding in a split decision that the trial court had committed serious error.)

The original lower court verdict triggered the fall of the Israeli Cabinet. Sharett, the leader of the Mapai Party – who had led the political department of the Jewish Agency during the time of the Kastner debacle; had refused to testify at Kastner’s trial; and was blamed by many for the failure of the parachutists’ mission – planned to use the platform presented by the Ma’agan ceremony to defend his actions and those of the Zionist leadership. (As the invitation exhibited here notes, Sharett was scheduled to deliver an address about “Hungarian Jewry, the unification of the kibbutzim, and the organization of the friends of the Palmach and the parachutists.”)

In response to Ayalon’s solicitation for assistance in arranging the Ma’agan commemoration, the Sharett government assigned Moshe Shilo, a Defense Ministry official and director of the IDF, to provide support. Among other things, Shilo obtained a squad from the newly-created Paratroopers Unit to serve as an honor guard and secured the IDF orchestra to play at the event.

Shilo also tried to arrange for an air force flyby over the kibbutz from which parachutists would jump during the ceremony, but the IDF, citing Kibbutz Ma’agan’s proximity to the border, vetoed the request on the grounds that the parachutists might drift into Syria.

Ironically, at the precise time of the commencement of the Ma’agan tribute, a ceremony for laying the cornerstone at Yad Vashem was being held in Jerusalem, which was attended by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who otherwise would have been at Ma’agan. Most the leaders of Mapai, however, including Sharett, Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek, Pinchas Sapir, and Yigal Allon, chose party loyalty and opted to go to Ma’agan.

The flyover would never have happened but for action taken by the Aero Club of Israel (ACI) which, founded in 1933 with the support of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, played a major role in the post-state development of Israel’s Air Force. In serious need of funding, and seeking some way to generate publicity, ACI came up with the idea of having two Piper J-3 Cubs fly over the Ma’agan site to drop a metal tube containing a message of greeting attached to a small parachute.

Shilo vetoed the proposal for two reasons: first, because the IDF had already rejected a similar idea and, second, because the proposal came too late for all the required authorizations to be obtained.

The senior leaders of ACI, however, many of whom were active Mapai members, brought tremendous pressure to bear on Shilo, who finally agreed to permit the flyover. There is substantive evidence, including testimony from members of Kibbutz Ma’agan, that permission was granted so that the pilot could parachute out a message from President Ben-Zvi, who could not personally attend because of his attendance at the Yad Vashem ceremony, but ACI later claimed that it was always understood that the only thing to be dropped from the plane was a message from the Aero Club.

(It is interesting to note that the program on our invitation exhibited here provides for a “President’s message,” which would be presented by his “personal representative,” who was Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Carmel.)

In any event, on a clear day with excellent visibility, two ACI Piper planes took off from Sde Dov in northern Tel Aviv, the first piloted by 27-year-old Uri Galin with Avshalom Strud, who was tasked with coordinating the flyover with the authorities on the ground, in the passenger seat behind him. The second plane was piloted by Gad Gutman, a graduate of one of the first Israeli air force flying courses.

Galin took off first and led the way up the coastline and eastward over Hadera toward Afula, maintaining an altitude of about 3,000 feet. Neither pilot had radios, maps, or a compass aboard, but both knew the route very well. When they approached Kibbutz Ma’agan after flying 90 minutes, the two pilots encountered a virtually empty ceremony site and understood that they had arrived too early.

Israeli stamp issued March 31, 1955 in memory of the heroes who parachuted into occupied Europe during the Holocaust. Of the 37 volunteers, 12 were captured, seven of whom were executed, including Hannah Senesh in Hungary; Chaviva Reik in Slovakia; and Enzo Sereni, captured in Italy, at Dachau.

Pursuant to a contingency plan developed by Strud, the two planes circled overhead and waited for a pre-arranged signal from the ground. When Galin spotted the signal sometime later, he prepared to drop the tube but, ironically, Galin – who was Israel’s long-time discus-throwing champion and had represented Israel at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – muffed what should have been a simple toss; the parachute opened too soon, and its thin cords became snagged in the plane’s wheel.

When it became obvious on the ground that the planned release had failed, Carmel, Ben-Zvi’s designee, was invited to read the president’s address. Meanwhile, Galin put a protesting Strud, who had no flying experience whatsoever, in charge of the Piper’s control stick and proceeded to lean almost his entire body out of the aircraft to make several failed attempts to disengage the parachute from the wheel. Gutman screamed at Galin from his Piper to get back in the plane and resume control, but Galin either did not hear him or ignored him.

Galin finally freed the parachute after four or five attempts, but the plane at that point, in violation of the country’s civil aviation rules, was only about 100 feet above the ground and was being controlled by a non-pilot with no flying experience. According to Gutman, by the time Galin realized that the plane was mere feet from the ground, it was too late to take any action to avoid the ensuing crash. Galin, however, later testified before the Inquiry Commission that he had regained full control of the airplane, but the plane did not respond when he pulled the stick back to regain altitude.

The Ma’agan event, attended by about 2,700 people, ended as an elegy when the plane, crashed into the audience and continued into the stands, killing some spectators and slicing up others with its rotors. It only narrowly missing Sharett’s head and Senesh’s mother, killing 17 people in total, including four of the parachutists who had survived their original mission: Aryeh Orani, Shalom Finchi, Yehuda Ahishur, and Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari, who was one of the founders of the Paratroops Corps.

Also among the dead were Daniel Sereni, the son of the parachutist Enzo Sereni, and Daniel’s pregnant wife, Ofra. Galin and Strud, whom Galin pulled unconscious from the plane as it began to burn, sustained non-lethal injuries and were released from the hospital the following morning.

After recovering from their initial shock, rescue forces at the site began to evacuate people and treat the injured, but there were insufficient paramedics available to handle the emergency. As an emergency convoy sped toward Tiberias, ambulances were summoned from all over the area, and the emergency rooms in Tiberias were filled to capacity. Without explaining the reason for the sudden great need, radio broadcasters urged volunteers to donate blood.

Sharett prohibited news of the disaster to be disseminated until the next morning, claiming that this delay would spare the families of Ma’agan attendees unnecessary worry, but the morning papers carried the full details, including the names of the victims. At the end of the shiva period following the disaster, Sharett eulogized the victims on Israel radio and read the speech he had been unable to deliver at Ma’agan. His fundamental theme was that the Yishuv had done everything possible to aid European Jewry during the Holocaust, culminating with the holy mission of the faithful parachutists.

On the day following the disaster, Sharett appointed a commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of Yizhar Harari to examine the events at Ma’agan, which ultimately determined that there had been serious violations of aviation procedure and found fault with the conduct of virtually everyone involved in the affair, most of all Galin and aviation officials. After indicting Galin for involuntary manslaughter, Attorney General Haim Cohn later decided to drop the charges against him for reasons never made clear.

The Israeli government made a one-time payment of 160,000 pounds to the families of those killed or injured, which the finance minister described as a “payment of mercy.” A few months after the disaster, work commenced at the site building a commemorative museum dedicated to the Jewish parachuting project in Europe during World War II.

The building, which is rarely visited, contains a modest memorial hall, a small archive, a few exhibits and photographs from the lives of the parachutists, and a commemorative wall with portraits of the kibbutz’s deceased members. A metal plaque commemorating those who died in the 1954 disaster lies hidden in a corner.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].