Veterans: Yitzchak Mayer, from Marseille to Atlit

I lived in a world without Israel and one with and to me living here means to participate in one of the most noble exercises in history.

Yiyzchak Mayer 88 224 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Yiyzchak Mayer 88 224
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
'In 1940 I fled Belgium and in 1946 I was expelled from Switzerland, but I had the good fortune to return to both countries as the Israeli ambassador," says Yitzchak Mayer, today living in Kochav Yair with Rivka, his wife of 50 years. His story is a microcosm of Jewish suffering and renaissance, an inspiring account of his survival as a child in the war, of his arrival in Eretz Yisrael in 1946 and his fascinating life in education and diplomacy. His biography is due to be published shortly. LIFE BEFORE ALIYA "We fled from our Antwerp home on May 10, 1940, two days before the Germans came. I was five years old but remember it distinctly. We took the only train to France and were bombed on the way, but two carriages managed to arrive in the south of France where we were detained at the border with Spain and imprisoned in a camp. My father escaped to join the resistance and we got out and got to Marseille where we lived as gentiles. "My father, who was forging papers for the underground, was denounced and arrested in January 1943 and deported to Auschwitz with thousands of French Jews. I saw the trucks taking the Jews to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz. They were throwing out notes hoping people would discover their fate. "We decided to try to get to Switzerland, and it was decided that my mother would feign being deaf and dumb as she knew no French and we were passing ourselves off as French. So at nine I became the spokesman. My little brother of six - who was later killed in the Six Day War - was very scared. I was quite convincing, but not enough and we were taken off the train. My brother and I were sent to a monastery and my mother, through bribes - we had smuggled out diamonds in a block of soap - came to take us out and we carried on with our escape to Switzerland. It took two months to get from Marseille to Switzerland. At one point we were taken in a truck hidden by hay to a village on the Swiss border and there we walked across the mountains, sleeping in barns and walking by day in the snow. We had a paid guide, a passeur, who disappeared at the border. "The soldiers at the border were going to send us back, but I pleaded with them. My mother was pregnant, so they called a doctor who said she must not be sent back. She gave birth to my brother there on March 31, 1943. We waited out the rest of the war in Switzerland and came to Palestine in 1946 on an illegal boat." PREPARATION The small family, mother and three boys, were waiting in a French army camp in Marseille with thousands of survivors of the concentration camps. During the Seder that was celebrated there, Mayer asked the Four Questions. The survivors danced and sang, watched over by Jews from the Yishuv who were going to smuggle as many as possible into Eretz Yisrael. "My brother and I had certificates from Youth Aliya and could enter legally, but my mother and baby brother didn't," he recalls. THE JOURNEY The boat, a French military craft called the Champollion, built for 700 passengers, was bursting at the seams with another 2,000 survivors. "The toilets didn't work, there was nothing to eat, but these orphans and widows who had seen hell were singing and dancing," says Mayer. Somewhere at sea, the Hagana boarded the ship and confiscated all the certificates and threw them into the sea so the British authorities would not be able to differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants. ARRIVAL All the passengers were put on trucks to be detained in Atlit. "There was barbed wire on both sides of the road from Haifa to Atlit, and thousands of Jews stood behind it, shouting out names to try to discover a missing relative. Every time a boat arrived in Haifa they did this. You could hear the shouts as you drove up north - 'Rosenberg,' 'Schechter,' 'Bloom.' Suddenly we heard 'Winkler' and my mother looked across the crowd and saw her sister Olga. It was the first time either realized the other was alive. Later Olga came to Atlit and took us back to her room in Bnei Brak." SETTLING IN "We were six people living in a rented room. My mother took in sewing to make ends meet, and I was on the streets, but eventually she reached an agreement with a children's home that I would be there and she would pay for me by sewing clothes for them. I also started working for a carpenter, and learned how to make small wooden toys which I would in turn teach. As I got older, I became a counselor in the institution and later in summer camp." DAILY LIFE Mayer always worked from his early teenage years and found his vocation first in education. He studied literature and education at the Hebrew University, worked as a teacher and married Rivka, who is an artist and studied at Bezalel, in 1957. They have three daughters. LIFE SINCE ALIYA Soon after their marriage they were sent as Bnei Akiva emissaries to London. Mayer soon discovered that his Shakespearean English sounded all wrong when used to speak to his pupils. "I was saying things like 'thou art' and 'I beseech thee' and they looked at me very oddly. When I needed to buy a pair of trousers, I realized I had no idea what the word should be." Today he speaks beautiful English and seven other languages. After the sojourn in England, he became the principal of the Yemin Orde youth village, where he introduced concepts of art and music to the totally religious curriculum. "I wanted to enrich the lives of the children and put into practice my beliefs in freedom of choice and aesthetics," he says. At about the same time he became involved in the National Religious Party and was a member of the Jewish Agency executive with an interest in education in the Diaspora. This caused some problems with his party which did not like the fact that he instructed his emissaries to help all the branches of Judaism and not just the Orthodox. In 1979 he joined the Foreign Office with a first posting to Zurich as consul-general and another to Montreal. But it was the return to Belgium and Switzerland as ambassador, in 1991 and 1997 which was the highlight of his diplomatic career. "I was welcomed back to the village where I had hidden during the war with a big ceremony," he recalls. Still active in education as an adviser in international relations at Netanya College, he moved to Kochav Yair 10 years ago. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "I don't think there is anything better than Israel. I lived in a world without Israel and one with and to me living here means to participate in one of the most noble exercises in history." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Shed your immigrant status and become Israeli. The day I arrived, I became a veteran. I started to belong." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]