The British origins of Israel's first cutlery factory - in four parts

From England during the Nazi era to Jerusalem, here is the story of Dr. Yosef Burg.

 One of El Al’s first two aircraft, Douglas DC-4 ‘Herzl’, registration 4X-ACD, at Lod Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel. This aircraft operated EL AL’s first scheduled passenger flight, on 31 July-1 August 1949 from Tel Aviv via Rome to Paris. (photo credit: OZZIE GOLDMAN PHOTO, MARVIN G. GOLDMAN ['MGG'] COLLECTION)
One of El Al’s first two aircraft, Douglas DC-4 ‘Herzl’, registration 4X-ACD, at Lod Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel. This aircraft operated EL AL’s first scheduled passenger flight, on 31 July-1 August 1949 from Tel Aviv via Rome to Paris.

Encounter One

Touring Israel’s sunny and budding country in the late 1950’s from England’s gloomy climes, my husband, Neville, and I drove my parents, Regina and Aron, for a jaunt along the coast. A briefly planned stopover in Herzliya’s only beach-side hotel hardly prepared us for what lay in store that calm afternoon. Stepping into its lofty marbled lobby came ringing exclamations of: 



“It’s really you.... After so long?”

Nicknamed Gina, my mother, Regina, clasped and then untangled herself from the embrace of Yossele, the eminent Israeli parliamentarian and worldwide traveler, Dr. Shlomo Yosef Burg. What a reunion!

 Regina Markiewicz (credit: Courtesy) Regina Markiewicz (credit: Courtesy)

Two long ago neighbors from Dresden shared their memories, and Israel’s history, with nostalgia. Oblivious to onlookers’ smiles, raised eyebrows or involuntarily rattled coffee cups, their ecstatic tones echoed:

Wie geht’s, Gina?” 

Geht mir gut. Und du, Yossele?” 

Their “How are you getting on?” and “Fine!” greetings in the informal “du” revealed close family ties. Inviting us to a cup of coffee, Burg declared: 

“For more than 10 years, since the State of Israel’s miraculous 1948 formation, I have been a member of Israel’s Knesset.” 

My mother could hardly contain herself. “You? The teenage joker who endlessly entertained me and my best friend, your sister, Margaret, when you came over to visit my parents!”

“True. We loved visiting your parents’ beautiful Dresden home as youngsters. Especially hearing your father, Reb Berish Langerman, sing Sabbath Zmiroth songs with such feeling.” 

“Yes, Yossele. How very fortunate that he had no premonition of the fate that awaited him and my mother, Malka. Aron and I lived in Leipzig after marrying. What a disaster awaited my parents who were visiting from Dresden in late October of 1938. Who was to know that the Nazi regime was arresting 17,000 Jews living in Germany with Polish citizenship, like my parents. We were all taking a bus ride with baby Pessy when a Nazi inspector got on screaming “Papieren, papers!” Trembling, we handed him our documents. To us he shouted “Gut”! To my parents, “Nein. Nicht Gut – Heraus!” he shrieked. As they stumbled off, I saw my dear father with his white beard, running after the bus, desperately shouting “My tefillin, my tefillin, I’ve left my tefillin on the bus” That was the last time I saw my beloved father and mother.”

“A tragedy – your pious father must have been more than heartbroken.”

“Then, came our turn. In 1938, murderous Nazis stormed cities on Kristallnacht, the night of the Broken Glass. Jews in Leipzig did not escape their systematic searching Jews out for murder. Aron and I, with Pessy in our arms, frantically raced upstairs, begging our gentile neighbours to hide us. Overcoming their fears that our baby would cry and give them away, sending them also to their death, these righteous gentiles pushed us into their bedroom wardrobe full of clothes. Next day, ever resourceful, Aron persuaded a farmer travelling from town to town delivering hay, to help us escape across the border to Belgium’s Antwerp. 

Two years later, Nazis rounded up Jews in Antwerp’s main streets, sealing their fate, piling them high in trucks which rumbled away into the night. The following morning, just with the clothes we stood up in, stuffing a few documents into my handbag, Aron hoisted little two year old Pessy onto his shoulders, and we ran for our lives. Where to? Wherever there is water there is hope! So we made for, and finally reached, the beaches of Dunkirk. There hundreds of small shipping vessels were evacuating British soldiers retreating to England from the Nazi bombardment.

Desperate, in my best English, luckily always my strong point, I begged an officer to take us. He refused shouting that he was urgently evacuating his British soldiers, many dropping like flies. Frantically managing to pull the gun from his holster, I pointed it at Pessy’s head and screamed, “If you do not take us, I will shoot my child, my husband and myself before your eyes.” Fearfully, he retrieved his pistol and pushed us into one the tiny vessels. Dropping into its watery refuge, gasping with grateful thanks, we managed to reach Britain’s shores. A new life, not without challenges, began for us all.” 

 Regina and Aaron Markiewicz (credit: Courtesy) Regina and Aaron Markiewicz (credit: Courtesy)

“Miraculous, Gina. Yet I see nevertheless you and Aron have created a lovely family!”

“Indeed, Yossele. We are so happy that our Zionist couple, Pessy and Neville, who married only a year ago, plan to settle in Israel one day.”

Turning to us all with his jovial smile, Burg extended a warm handshake, as well as an invitation to his Knesset office on our next visit. 

Encounter Two

Almost 20 years later, Neville and I made an appointment to visit Burg – this time not leaving our meeting to chance – accompanied by my father-in-law, Armin Krausz. He had come on a visit from Sheffield, his North of England home town. Burg beckoned us into his office. Pointing to the Givat Ram Campus view, he explained how 1966 saw the beautiful, expansive, new Knesset move from its humbler King George Street address.

 Armin Krausz (credit: Courtesy) Armin Krausz (credit: Courtesy)

“Ah! We meet again! The now not quite so young newlyweds, Neville and Pessy, daughter of Gina Langerman of Dresden’s Kleine Bruder Strasse!” Smiling, and with another display of his phenomenal memory, he turned with delight to greet Armin.

“My old friend, hello! Marvelous to see you in our Holy City – and with your son and his wife.”

“Indeed. I am staying with them in Jerusalem, not in a hotel as before. Wonderful to tell you that they have recently made aliyah!”

Both impeccably dressed, their melodious German and Hungarian tones intermingled. Not remarkably tall in stature, nevertheless each a giant in his own way, their exchanges continued. 

“I remember visiting you and your dear wife, Leah, in your lovely home many years ago. Tell me, how is she keeping?”

“In good health, thank God. Making sure the homestead is not neglected! “

“That I can well imagine. I recall her hospitality in the 1950s on one of my European public relations trips. Pinchas Sapir also can well attest to that! He accompanied me as minister of trade and industry on one of our fundraising North of England missions. No wonder he later became our minister of finance!” 

Pointing to the numerous portfolios piled on his desks, he proudly declared that presently he held no fewer than three portfolios simultaneously, those for health minister, welfare minister and internal affairs minister. Eventually were added many more, including religious affairs minister and minister without portfolio, endorsing his brilliant role as longest serving minister spanning 40 years! 

Jovially he continued: “Of course, Armin, at some time I must hear of your children’s aliyah and other experiences of Israel. But since you are here on a visit, please give me a firsthand account of the rumored hair-raising experience you had back in 1949. I believe it was when you were flying to Israel from England with the first British commercial delegation”

Graciously seating us, explaining we may be interrupted by secretaries or phone calls, a cool drink smoothed the way for my father-in-law’s barely believable story. Of course, we had heard it before, but sitting as though flies on the wall, Neville and I were nevertheless mesmerized by the tale with which he regaled us all.

Taking us back to his incomplete 1924 medical studies in Romania, rudely interrupted by the quota forcing Jews out, he returned to his native Hungary where his father, Rabbi Shimon Krausz was Chief Rabbi in the town of Acs. A need to make a livelihood took him to England where he continued with his Yeshiva studies, though sadly, not his medical. London’s Yeshiva Etz Chaim rabbis welcomed this erudite student with open arms, and introduced him to his bride, Leah! Armin joined Harris Miller, her father, in his modest efforts at producing silverware, initially in London. Finding that the source of raw materials for the steel and cutlery industry was in Sheffield, Armin, his wife and in-laws eventually moved there. Establishing his own factory, he called it after his worthy father-in-law, who amiably worked for him! Armin continued by mentioning Neville’s great assistance.

“He joined me following the completion of his law degree, improving our output in numerous ways. Our increasingly successful enterprise caught the eye of Eliezer Kaplan, Israel’s first Minister of Finance. He determined in 1949 that a few Zionistically minded industrialists, possibly in a position to develop Israel’s budding economy, be especially flown to Israel in order to examine that possibility.”

“Armin, get to the point of your flight!” 

Encounter Three

With a twinkle in his eye, Armin continued.

“Well, we were not as fortunate as Israel’s first president, Prof. Chaim Weizmann. He was safely flown home in one of the two converted cargo planes owned by the newly created El Al airline. He received a hero’s welcome on returning from a diplomatic visit to Geneva. No! We were on one of Israel’s first passenger flights, on a Douglas DC-4 called ‘Herzl’, which almost ended in disaster.

“We had to fly independently from London to Rome to pick up our connection to Lod, as Ben-Gurion Airport as was then called. The distance from Rome to Lod is 2,280 km. and should take approximately three hours, 20 minutes. However, being that the company had so newly taken to the skies, calculations had not allowed for our plane to hold enough fuel. The little aircraft began to shudder, splutter and slowly cruise down, down and down.”

Continuing with a barely steady voice, Armin described how he looked through a tiny window to see the sea coming up towards him at a frightening pace.

“We swept bouncing across the water, finally sliding to a jolting halt. Bobbing about on the sea, the cabin door was opened. In trepidation I stood at its threshold. I could not then, nor can I now, swim. On the far distant shore I could faintly make out tall Arab kafir dressed men, not known to be over friendly. I thought my last moments had come. To drown or be captured by them? 

At that time, I smoked a few cigarettes. Hastily removing my silver cigarette case, a slip of paper and pen from my waist coat pocket, I quickly wrote a farewell note to my family, placed it in the case, and, with trembling hands, back into my pocket. Then I made my choice. Silently saying the “Shemah”, taking my courage in my hands, breathing deeply, I jumped! 

Astonishingly, the sea came up only to my knees!! Seemingly we had landed off the coast of Libya near Tobruk. There – miraculously – the tall kafieh- dressed men were friendly Arabs. They provided us with glasses of hot tea and blankets as the increasingly cold night encroached. Gradually, we all dropped off into dreamland, to gratefully face our maker, and another day! To their credit, our “hosts” had alerted Tel Aviv. Next morning Israel flew a plane over to pick us up.

Of course, I must add that I made my stupendous journey in August, during England’s summer holiday break, when our Sheffield factory was closed. Amazingly, shortly afterwards that same year, those Israeli planes, supplemented by British and American aircraft, airlifted the first 45,000 Jews from Yemen “home” to Israel in the momentous Operation Magic Carpet!”

Barely containing myself, I had to interrupt “Yes, like the realization of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. From the east I will bring your descendants; from the west I will gather you.”

Burg turned, smiling, to me. “Pessy – You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head! Although this covert operation to save the Jews of Yemen and bring them to Israel was popularly known as “On Wings of Eagles” from Exodus which stated, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” from Exodus 19:4. 

 Dr. Yosef Burg meets with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Alexandria in 1979. (credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO) Dr. Yosef Burg meets with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Alexandria in 1979. (credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)

But Armin, your story is astounding! What of the successful outcome of that visit? I understand you made an incredible contribution by creating Israel’s first cutlery industry.”

Encounter Four

My father-in-law proudly described the process of setting up Israel’s first cutlery factory – a challenging 1950s project in Azur, outside Tel Aviv.

“Neville!” he exclaimed, “You, of course, remember flying over regularly from England in the early years to provide know-how for people. How eagerly, and quickly, they learned to use the machinery we sent over to produce knives, forks and spoons.”

Neville, enthusiastically, responded.

“Indeed! Then David Ben-Gurion declared Dimona, Israel’s city in the Negev desert, a new development town. So, we were asked to move the factory there as work was sorely lacking for the first 36 Jewish immigrant families from North Africa. Soon the population was supplemented by refugees from Eastern Europe which grew to 5,000! It was wondrous how we were able to expand production still more – and even begin exporting! Now that we have made aliyah, I travel there twice a week to improve manufacturing methods.”

 Trade and Industry Minister Pinchas Sapir speaks at a cornerstonelaying ceremony of a new textile factory in Dimona in 1958. (credit: NATIONAL PHOTO ARCHIVE/GPO) Trade and Industry Minister Pinchas Sapir speaks at a cornerstonelaying ceremony of a new textile factory in Dimona in 1958. (credit: NATIONAL PHOTO ARCHIVE/GPO)

Armin interposed that this journey of nearly three hours is quite precarious, while Neville continued.

“I carry a licensed pistol with me as I have to travel through the West Bank. What a journey through Hebron on poor roads. Luckily I enjoy driving, but even so. Now I stay at the Desert Inn Hotel overnight in Beersheva where Pessy and the boys sometimes join me. The steak is delicious!” 

Burg nostalgically mused, “How different Israel was twenty-five years ago. How blessed that we all are striving to contribute to its development. I recall the words of our founding father, David Ben-Gurion, our first prime minister. ‘To be a realist in Israel, you must believe in dreams.”

Rising to our feet after this remarkable encounter, we decided that though dreamers we be, yet realists we are. Reluctantly parting, we agreed to continue tales of our experiences and endeavors another time.

Footnote: in 2019 Dimona’s population grew to 34,500 from its 1950’s initial 36 families.

The Dimona cutlery industry became a source of work and pride. Only years later when it became impossible to compete with the Far East, was the factory reluctantly closed. By then, however, the younger generation had established itself in other ways.