Veterans: Rafi Lewysohn: From Frankfurt to Mikve Yisrael

'I ended up in No'ar Oved because its quarters had the least bed bugs and since then I'm a lifelong socialist.'

Rafi Lewysohn 88 248 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Rafi Lewysohn 88 248
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
With his military bearing, clipped white moustache and perfect English, Rafi Lewysohn looks and sounds like a British officer of the old school. And in a sense he was, although the total time he spent in England was about five years when he was a teenager. He was born in Frankfurt in 1922. His father, a physician who had fought in World War I and won the Iron Cross, decided that he would send his sons to be educated in England after Hitler came to power in 1933. "On April 1 a boycott against Jews was declared," remembers Lewysohn. "We were five or six Jewish boys out of a class of 20, and we were told not to come the next day. Signs appeared telling people not to buy from Jews and my father's nameplate at his office was defaced." On April 20, 1933, Lewysohn and his brother arrived in Brighton and went to Arye House boarding school and later to Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School where they boarded, and were often punished. "The more canings I got, the more I was accepted by my colleagues," says Lewysohn. "The education I got there gave me the basis of my success in life." Although not Zionists, by 1938 they decided to immigrate to Palestine. His father had been lucky up till then, had stayed in practice and was not arrested or harassed. "I had a feeling his luck was running out," he says. PREPARATION The plan was to learn farming and Lewysohn was sent to training first in the Jewish cemetery of Frankfurt - "We did a bit of growing carrots" - and then to the Warburg estate near Hamburg to do some more advanced farming for four weeks. "We were allowed to transfer £1,000 for agricultural purposes and with this we were going to start a farm," he says. They packed up with the help of their German nanny, who had worked for them for 18 years and was now breaking the law by working for Jews. THE JOURNEY He and his father went by train to Trieste and then took a boat, the SS Jerusalem, arriving in Jaffa on October 30, 1938, 10 days before Kristallnacht, as he points out. Lewysohn was taken to the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school by armored bus, while his father stayed in Tel Aviv. ARRIVAL "I did not know a word of Hebrew," says Lewysohn. "At Mikve Yisrael the sleeping quarters were divided according to youth groups and I was asked if I was left wing or right wing. I ended up in No'ar Oved because its quarters had the fewest bed bugs - and since then I'm a lifelong socialist." SETTLING IN He spent two years in Mikve Yisrael qualifying in chicken farming and flower gardening. The plan was to buy a farm, as many "Yekkes" did, in Yedidya. "To get my mother out of Germany we had to pay a fine and for an exit visa, so we were left without money for a farm. Instead I joined the British army." DAILY LIFE For six years he served in the Royal Army Service Corps, as the British would not let Jewish volunteers into fighting units. "There were 30,000 of us out of the 500,000 Jews of Palestine. I learned my Hebrew in the British army." He spent three years with the Eighth Army in the Western desert, and three years with the Fifth Army in Italy. He was a driver and worked in supplies. In May 1942 he was commissioned and by the time he left the army he had reached the rank of major. LIFE SINCE ALIYA Soon after his discharge from the army, Rafi joined BOAC, now part of British Airways, as a traffic clerk at Lod Airport and stayed there until the War of Independence. "I was recruited by the Hagana before the Brits left, and it was decided I would go to the air force as my experience in aviation counted for more than my years in the British army. I ended up in the Kirya with all the air force big shots and was sent by Aharon Remez [the first commander of the IAF] to requisition a hotel in Tel Aviv which was going to be the first headquarters of the IAF. I remember the owner cried. Later I was put in charge of transport. We used to stop Buicks and Chryslers in the streets and tell the drivers their cars had been requisitioned. We told them they could join the air force or give the car and often they chose to join up and came as drivers." After independence he went back to BOAC and later joined El Al. In 1952 he met and married Clara, who was also from Germany and had arrived in England on a Kindertransport. They have two children, now 53 and 50, and five grandchildren. In 2001 he finally retired to enjoy his children, grandchildren and hobbies including stamp collecting. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "That we have a state of our own and we are at home." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Patience. It's only hard for the first 10 years and then you get used to it." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: