Conventional wisdom has it that Israel was caught by surprise in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Indeed, the official record on the Foreign Ministry website refers to Israel being caught “off guard” in its first sentence. But veteran army and government photographer Moshe Milner, who retired from his post after 30 years, says Israel was warned.
As a photographer with the Army Spokesman’s Office and then the Government Press Office, as well as foreign publications, Milner traveled abroad with most of Israel’s presidents and prime ministers, along with other ministers and IDF top brass, accompanying them to meetings both official and secret. Newly retired after 30 years in the GPO, he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky had warned Golda Meir that Egypt and Syria planned to strike.
Meir, who was then prime minister, had met with the Council of Europe and was due to fly back to Israel. But she changed her plans and flew to Vienna after Kreisky gave in to the demands of the al-Sa’ika Palestinian terrorist organization based in Syria.
On September 28, 1973, al-Sa’ika hijacked a train on the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border and made hostages of Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union who were passengers.
The terrorists threatened to kill the hostages, including infants and children, unless the Austrian government closed the Schoenau transit camp, which the Jewish Agency operated as temporary accommodation for Soviet emigrants en route to Israel. The terrorists also demanded safe passage out of Austria to an Arab country.
Golda was irate that Kreisky had yielded to the threat, especially given the transit facility’s important function.
Milner was the official photographer documenting Meir’s visit to the Council of Europe, and he continued with her to Vienna. She failed in her mission there, unable to convince Kreisky to backtrack on his decision, and she refused to believe his warning that a war was brewing. Milner, who understands German, said he heard incredulous whispers around the room as Meir refused to take note of what Kreisky was telling her. She was too angry with him for having closed Schoenau.
“She was with Kreisky on Thursday, and the war broke out on Saturday,” Milner said.
The revelation came at the close of a farewell meeting between Milner and President Shimon Peres at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Milner, who had been photographing Peres since the start of his career in 1965, came with 17 members of his immediate and extended family, along with the photographers and administrative staff of the GPO photographic department.
Peres praised him as a photographer who not only served his profession, but his country.
He said that Milner was always there when needed, and nothing was too difficult for him when trying to get the image he wanted. “He has captured the history of Israel in his camera, which is a friendly and not a hostile camera – and I’m proud of him.”
“Now it’s my turn to photograph you and your family,” said Peres, as he grabbed Milner’s camera.
The president jokingly said he had only one complaint – that Milner had not made him sufficiently photogenic during his visit with the pope.
Although leaving the GPO, Milner is not retiring from the workforce. He plans to carve out a new career for himself as a tour guide for Israelis traveling abroad. He said he figured that he had visited around 90 countries, many of them more than once or twice, at the taxpayer’s expense, and therefore was in a good position to guide Israelis abroad.
German-born and the son of Holocaust survivors, he also serves as a volunteer photographer for the March of the Living.
His father Abraham had to gone to Germany as an aliya emissary to bring Jews from DP camps to the Holy Land.
His brother is an engineer, but Milner didn’t fancy being stuck in an office. He wanted something with more time outside the office, more diversity and more adventure.
He is looking forward to starting his new career – but of course he will always take his camera with him.
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