Flight to freedom

The riveting stories of Shlomo Hillel, Operation Babylon and Atlit.

Shlomo Hillel at home in Jerusalem (photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
Shlomo Hillel at home in Jerusalem
(photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
ONE OF the unanticipated joys of writing my stories has been the feedback I receive from readers all over the world – some known, but many others unknown to me. As a result I have been led on unexpected journeys and met some memorable characters. One such person is Shlomo HIllel. The day I first met him was the high spot of five years working on my book, “Unexpected Israel.”
Two years ago I wrote a story about the bullet factory (the Ayalon Institute), built clandestinely by the Hagana at Rehovot in 1945 during the British Mandate. Shortly after it was published, I received a phone call from a quietly spoken formal gentleman saying, “Thank you for writing about the Ayalon Institute. It is a very important story.” It was Shlomo Hillel. I asked why it interested him, to which he replied, “I was there.”
We arranged to meet at his home. I sat captivated for over two hours as he told me how, in 1945, aged 22, he was the oldest of a Youth Aliya group and in charge of a dozen teenage boys and girls, one of whom – Temima – from his kibbutz, Degania, would later become his wife. Together they built this secret underground factory, the size of a tennis court. I asked how they did it. “Like this” he said, showing me his hands. What they achieved defies belief. In the next two years over 2.5 million bullets were manufactured to help the Jews defend themselves when the British left and the State of Israel was established in 1948.
After it was completed, Hillel did not stay at the Institute. Instead, in 1946 the Hagana sent him for a year to Baghdad, his birthplace, to plan the exodus of Iraq’s Jews.
After his return home, from 1949-1952 he worked tirelessly to smuggle Jews out of Iraq to Iran and then on to Israel – 130,000 of them eventually reached Israel, almost the entire community. Years later the story of this operation was published in his book “Operation Babylon.” It reads like a master spy thriller.
We keep in touch by phone. On my last visit to Israel we met again and I was fascinated to hear about his latest project as president of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, involving the Atlit Detention Camp near Haifa. Constructed during the Mandate, it served as an internment camp for illegal Jewish immigrants captured by the British from 1939 to 1948, illegal inasmuch as they were attempting to defy the strict British entry quota. Shlomo HIllel also had a more personal connection as his late wife, Temima, was held there with her family on arrival as a child refugee from Austria.
I visited the museum. At first sight it was chilling, evoking images of Nazi concentration camps. The original camp was 90,000 square meters – today’s camp is smaller but still lined with rows of wooden huts and the entire camp is surrounded by heavy barbedwire fences and watchtowers. I went first to see the disinfection building, where the arrivals undressed, showered and were sprayed with DDT.
One can understand the need for this, for when they eventually reached the Land of Israel they were dirty, disheveled and carrying who knows what kind of parasites. But for those who had left the death camps it must have been traumatic to find themselves once again behind barbed wire. Men were separated from the women and children, another reminder of what they had endured under the Nazis.
However, at Atlit, the men and women were allowed to meet once daily and walk along a central “boulevard.” Archive photographs show smiling and hopeful faces – something never seen in Auschwitz.
The accommodation huts contain rows of beds and domestic items such as a sewing machine, toys and books – evidence of a slow return to normality. The local community set up help groups to assist the newcomers while they waited either for their permit to stay or, sadly, to be deported.
At the museum, I watched a short film about the successful Palmach raid in October 1945 to liberate the detainees. It was powerfully moving and I was reduced to tears by the finale.
Most illegal immigrants (“ma’apilim”) arrived by boat, beginning in 1934 and the accounts of their hazardous journeys are recorded in the archives. Following WWII, in spite of their knowledge of the Holocaust, the British intensified their policy of restricting the number of Jews permitted to enter the country.
To counter this, a complex international network was established to get survivors onto boats and to the Land of Israel. Many eluded the British but several unpleasant incidents occurred. Refugees were dragged off boats and in some cases returned to Europe. Others were shipped to camps in Mauritius.
These stories made worldwide headlines. An Italian boat was detained in La Spezia on the orders of the British and all the passengers went on a hunger strike. The Exodus left France carrying 4,515 survivors. The British fired at the ship, lives were lost and the boat was towed to Haifa where the passengers were forcibly returned to Germany.
Atlit was now so overcrowded that the British built additional camps on Cyprus. From August 1946 until the British Mandate ended in 1948, 52,000 Jews were deported to Cyprus and held there.
When I grew up in England I remember the pride in knowing that our British soldiers behaved better than others and didn’t engage in atrocities. It was only when I came to Israel for the first time did I realize that our troops were not exactly squeaky clean, nor was our government. (A sad realization!)
THE MAJORITY of refugees arrived by sea. To commemorate this, a boat from that era is installed at Atlit for visitors to enter and experience how life was on board.
Curiously, the British assumed that only ships would be used to bring “illegals” to the country, so Hillel and the Hagana decided to bring some by air. In August 1947, the first flight took place with Hillel and 50 Iraqi Jews who landed undetected at Yavne’el in the lower Galilee. A month later a second flight arrived from an unused airport in Italy, again landing secretly. The pilots then returned to Iraq and brought out 50 more.
While these flights involving 150 refugees may seem insignificant numerically, it was a major development. Hillel wrote, “We took great satisfaction from knowing that we were the first in the history of the Aliya Bet to successfully bring in Ma’apilim by air.”
Recently the museum spent years looking for a plane of the same type as that originally used. They eventually found one in Alaska. The story of how it reached Atlit is an adventure in itself. It was taken apart and reassembled in its original condition in Alaska, then transported to Seattle and on by ship to China, and then overland to the Suez Canal. It now takes pride of place on the site and will soon open to the public to tell the tale of its exploits.
What I find quite remarkable is to know that Hillel, the man who 70 years ago helped to save so many Jews, is still, at the age of 94, actively involved in projects such as this. His enthusiasm and energy never diminish.
He is one of the true pioneers of this country, having served as a member of the Knesset, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, police and interior minister, ambassador to five African nations, speaker of the Knesset for five years and so it continues. He was also awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in 1998 for his special contribution to the State of Israel.
Hillel will not welcome this living eulogy, regarding it as totally unwarranted, (he being the most self-effacing person I know). When I asked if I could put a credit from him on the back of my book saying, “Thank you for writing the dramatic story of the Ayalon Institute – I was there,” he replied, “Don’t say that. It wasn’t dramatic. We had a job to do and we just got on with it.” This is typical of a truly special person – a role model for us all.
Ruth Corman’s book, ‘Unexpected Israel,’ is available from Gefen Publishing, or signed copies from [email protected]