In all the madness that has gripped the country since the Netanyahu-Deri-Ben-Gvir government was elected, we may have lost sight of why we created the State of Israel.
This memoir should serve as a timely reminder.
It was a cold February day in Vienna, 1964. The Ostbahnhof in Vienna. The railway station of the East. Western Europe’s face to the Iron Curtain, separating Communist East Europe from the West.
“How will you recognize them?” I asked Zvi. “You’ll see,” he replied.
A long train stopped at the windswept platform. Men and women in long, old-fashioned black overcoats reaching down to their ankles stepped onto the platform. Some strode purposefully; those who hesitated somehow seemed familiar. Zvi Garcy, the Jewish Agency station chief in Vienna, walked over to them and quietly said, “Shulem Aleichem,” purposely using the Yiddish Ashkenazi accent. The people stood with sealed faces, no emotion. Perhaps they remembered other stations, other carriages, other days. Perhaps it was just the fear of the unknown. Zvi quietly told them in Yiddish to wait near a pillar. He went from Jew to Jew, family to family, from one single old person to another lonely old one. The same litany. “Shulem Aleichem, wait near the pillar.”
We led them to a chartered bus. It was spotless, freshly painted. New. They sat unmoving, silent. The bus driver was an Austrian, “normal, bored, smoking.” They with their sealed faces. No one spoke. No one uttered a sound. Zvi stood at the front of the bus and quietly, reassuringly, said in Yiddish, “You come from a cold country. I am taking you to a warm country.” The bus began moving to Korneuburg.
I was flying through Vienna, and then on to Marseilles to see immigrants transit “camps,” en route to Toronto, to spend four weeks speaking at fundraising meetings throughout Ontario organized by the United Israel Appeal, an affiliate of Keren Hayesod.
Once a castle of the Hapsburgs, then a Gestapo barracks, Korneuburg was now a transit camp for Jewish immigrants being bought out of Romania. The transactions then were quite secret and somehow, years later, I recall a payment per capita of $5,000. I assume it was split by the dictator and the Securitate (secret police). In the 1980s it was $15,000. In addition, the Romanians extracted all sorts of payments.
The immigrants stopped at Korneuburg for a few days to rest, to eat, and sleep and perhaps to go into Vienna and buy a few things. Very few. Later, in my two-day visit, Zvi walked me through Vienna airport, into the areas closed to ordinary mortals. The guards and policemen wore black peaked military-type hats and shiny leather boots. I felt thrown back into a B-horror movie of the anti-Nazi World War II type and felt uneasy seeing the Aryan faces and Nazi-like uniforms. Zvi marched up to the barriers, flashed a pass, and snapped “Palaestiner Amt” – The Palestine Office. The name Jewish Agency representatives used under the Nazis. The policeman snapped to attention, clicked his heels and opened the gate with a curt “Jawohl.” I felt Israel had played out its horrible irony, with the bloodstained Austrians all but saluting the Israeli. “Jawohl!
Zvi was a pleasant, soft-spoken and hard-working man, dedicated to his mission. He had been brought out as an adolescent in the first Youth Aliyah group from Berlin in the mid-1930s; he had his own accounts with the Germans and Austrians.
Zvi left me on my own the first day. It was 18 years after the Holocaust. I did not want to let myself enjoy a minute in Vienna. Perhaps I was a son of Polish immigrants, too Eastern European Jewish in my soul to be at ease. No sightseeing. No Sachertorte.
That evening, Zvi told me about the trains. The Romanian customs and border police were not above looting and arbitrary confiscation. In one case, a little girl was wearing small gold earrings. How large can a child’s earrings be? A border guard just ripped them out of her earlobes.
In a compartment, on a different train, sat a family: father, mother, grown married children, grandfather. The strain and stress were too much for the grandfather. He died on the train before it reached the border. (There were two borders to pass – Hungary and Austria). The authorities and police behind the Iron Curtain were all-powerful and much feared. A dead man on the train would probably mean removing the family from the train and returning them to Romania. The corpse was propped up in a corner, wedged in by a close one. At inspection of documents, which happened at least twice by two sets of police, “He is old and asleep.” The Jewish Agency received in Vienna an intact family, including the dead grandfather.
I admit the tears came. Standing on the windy railroad platform, only 18 years after the liberation, and the trains, and sounds and the sight of the railway employees, uniformed, of course, and efficient, of course, revived too many memories. Now we were taking these survivors to a warm land. I know it sounds like propaganda. That’s how it was, engraved unforgettably in my memory….
The next morning, Zvi and I drove to Korneuburg. Zvi said he had things to attend to, since the immigrants would shortly be bused to the airport. I asked to meet them and talk to them. They all looked old to me. I was only in my early 30s; perhaps even a person of 45 or 50 was old looking. Two quite old-looking women had come from Russia, telling the KGB, who got sick of their coming week after week, fearlessly, demanding to be let out to be able to get to Bucharest, and then on to Israel. “Kill me. I have nothing to live for, anyway.“ The Nazis had killed her children, and a crazy Ukrainian ran berserk in the town and beheaded her husband with an axe. “Either kill me or let me go. I have nothing more to lose.”
Most of the immigrants had eaten and were wrapping up and packing their belongings upstairs in the dorms the Jewish Agency provided. I entered the dining room, a simply lit bright room with perhaps a dozen or more long tables set along the length of the room in two rows. Each table could seat eight or 10 people. Most had gone, but Zvi pointed out “the young one.”
He was at the last table, which was covered with oilcloth, and on it were remnants of the breakfasts I remembered from the kibbutz: coarsely cut darkish bread, margarine, vegetables, tea in metal pots, overly sweetened and not quite hot enough. Facing me sat a tall youngish man; later I discovered he was 27 years old. He sat with the wall behind him, eating slowly, deliberately. I sat facing him. I told him in English that I was from Jerusalem, and asked which language he preferred, English or French. His English was limited then. Somehow, we discovered each other and liked each other. This was a friendship that was to last two decades. Somehow he told me that he had been expelled from medical school six weeks before the end of his final – sixth – year, when he would have received his degree. There was the usual peer trial, condemnations, and brave patriotic statements by his former friends castigating the – was it traitor? – for applying to leave for Israel. He had lived in the shadows for four years and finally was free. I asked if there was anything I could do for him. Only one thing, he said. He wanted to complete his medical studies. Could I recommend that he be sent to Jerusalem, where Israel’s one medical school was located? I explained that I could, but that it was very hard to get into medical school, and in that regard I could be of no help. He made it clear to me that he wanted no help. Just the location. I asked Zvi to have the Agency direct him to Jerusalem, which anyway was a national priority.
I joined the immigrants’ bus to Vienna airport. Again, they were overawed, but the few days away from Romania had loosened their stance and their bearing. Now some of them whispered, others even spoke aloud. Through the large glass windows of the lounge, they saw the Boeing 727 with the blue-and-white El Al livery, and the Star of David rearing up on the tall aircraft tail. “Amerikanska. Amerikanska.” The plane, wonder of wonders, was American. Technology, comfort! “Izrael. Izrael.” The familiar colors and insignia were Israel.
I waited to see the immigrants board the plane. “Izrael!” ■
Avraham Avi-hai welcomes queries and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.