A brave fighter

Surika Braverman, the last of the Jewish parachutists from the Yishuv and part of a mission to aid the Jews of Europe died last month, but her legacy lives on

surika braverman (photo credit: Jeremy D Kark)
surika braverman
(photo credit: Jeremy D Kark)
‘When we were in the partisan camp, they didn’t know who we were. They knew we were English soldiers and we were not the only foreigners there – there were also Americans. Every morning there would be a partisan girl who came with a cow and she would give each of us some milk. We were all in English uniforms with officers’ insignia. When she saw that I knew about livestock, she was sur- prised to see an Englishwoman who knew such things. But of course, for me it wasn’t surprising, I had taken a course in farming in Ness Ziona [in Mandate Palestine].”
In the mountains of Yugoslavia in 1944, Surika Braverman was one of several Jewish soldiers await- ing orders while serving with Tito’s partisans. Their cover was as British officers serving alongside the British commandos of the Special Operations Execu- tive who were in Yugoslavia to aid the partisans in their fight against the Nazi occupiers. But Braverman and her Jewish colleagues were fighters from the Yishuv in Palestine, part of a mission to aid the Jews of Europe and to show England that the Jewish Agency was committed to the war effort.
For most of her life, Braverman lived in the shadow of war at Kibbutz Shamir, which is located on the eastern side of the Hula Valley, where it abuts the Golan Heights as they rise precipitously from the plain. After the War of Independence, the kibbutz was just 100 meters from Syrian territory. It is dotted with bunkers and relics from those days. Yet she always remained optimistic that peace with Syria would one day come.
Braverman was born in Romania in 1919, in the city of Botosani in the far north of the country. It had a prosperous and thriving Jewish population, even up until 1947, when 20,000 Jews lived there. Today its Jewish population is estimated at around 100. Braver- man came from a family of Zionists and joined Hashomer Hatza’ir as a child. She arrived in Palestine in 1938. With the outbreak of war in 1939 and the Romanian alliance with the Nazi regime, contact was lost with the Jews who stayed behind.
In 1939, the British government sought to end an Arab rebellion in Palestine by issuing a White Paper that restricted Jewish settlement and immigration.
Beginning in 1942, the Jewish Agency in Palestine began seeking ways to aid the Allied war effort with the intention that if it participated in the war, the British would ease restrictions on Zionist activity in the country. Saving the Jews of Europe was the other major motivation, as David Ben-Gurion told Jewish volunteers to fight in Europe; “the Jewish survivors will knock en masse on the locked gate of Palestine.”
Agency representatives put out a call for volun- teers for a special mission to aid in the war effort that might involve parachuting into enemy territo- ry. In all, 240 people volunteered, of whom only 110 were selected for training and 37 accepted as compatible (only 33 participated).
The idea for the group was conceived by Reuven Shiloah, who would go on to found the Mossad, and the Jews who were selected were not necessarily the militarily fit. Instead, the objective was to find people who spoke the local language and were young so they would be able to blend into the countries that they were sent to. They were told “Wherever there is a Jew- ish community, there also exists a Jewish under- ground organization, which may prove of value to the Allied war effort... those Jews are in need of help...
therefore, contact must be established with them.”
Almost half of those selected were Romanian and many of them were members of Hashomer Hatza’ir.
Almost all of them were Eastern European.
The reason for the focus on Eastern Europe was that the British were already operating a large mis- sion to aid the partisans in Yugoslavia. Part of Churchill’s “setting Europe ablaze,” special forces leader William Deakin had been parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 with several other English sol- diers. One of them was Peretz Rosenberg, who was born in Palestine and who worked as Deakin’s radio operator. At this time, Yugoslav partisans, led by the Communist Josip Tito and the monar- chist Draza Mihailovic, faced dire circumstances fighting the Nazis. British aid was essential to keep them fighting. At the same time, the Allies had begun bombarding Romania’s oil fields so as to deny the Nazis fuel. This was a costly campaign, with some 5,400 aircraft lost. Numerous Allied pilots, unable to speak the local language and dis- tinguish friend from foe, found themselves lost in the forests of Eastern Europe in desperate need of assistance.
HERE THE Jewish volunteers could fill the essential role of finding Allied pilots and bringing them to safety. Braverman recalls that “the head of the Jewish community said, ‘Let’s find something that the British want and that we also want,’ so we told them that there were Allied pilots who had crashed and that we could help them. The idea was that we would do both, help the Jews and help the pilots.” In retro- spect it probably seems like a harebrained scheme; parachuting 32 Jewish volunteers into Eastern Europe with the mission of aiding Jewish communities and saving Allied pilots.
Braverman remembered that she and the others selected for the mission were very realistic about its ability to change events. “You have to understand, we didn’t go to Europe to overthrow the Third Reich...
We didn’t think they would make of us heroes, we wanted to go to the Jews of Europe and say that we had come to help.”
When I last saw her in December 2009, Braverman spoke excitedly about her experiences in World War II as though they had happened yesterday. Although almost everyone in Israel, and many Jewish commu- nities abroad, learns the story of Hanna Szenes, the most famous of the Jewish parachutists, who was exe- cuted by the Nazis in Hungary in November of 1944, few people knew that one of Szenes’s colleagues was still alive in the country.
In 2009, Braverman came to meet us at the gate of Kibbutz Shamir driving a golf cart, a typical kibbutz sight. She lived in a modest house where she wel- comed us for tea and cookies.
“I was born in Romania. They [Jewish Agency officials] had found people who had come out of Europe and were living in Palestine. Hanna was from Hungary, Haviva [Reik] was from Slovakia. We were not leaders, just normal people,” she said.
Aharon Ben-Yosef from Bulgaria was the oldest, at 44. Enzo Sereni, who was born in 1905 in Italy, was almost 40 and was one of the few who had come from an important family. His father had been physician to the king of Italy. “He alone was some- one who had known important people in Europe,” recalled Braverman.
Although the Jewish volunteers were supposed to be trained to parachute into Europe, Braverman remembered being traumatized when she was asked to jump out of an airplane. “I remember when they brought me up to jump from the plane and it said ‘exit station’ and they said ‘Go, go’ and my reaction was to go back in the plane. It was traumatic.”
Other volunteers were not so lucky. Sereni was dropped into Italy in May 1944, directly onto a Nazi bunker. He was captured, shipped to Dachau and murdered. Peretz Goldstein was captured in Hungary and sent to the Oranienberg concentration camp, where he died. Abba Bardiczew was killed at Mau- thausen. Rafi Reiss and Zvi Ben-Yaacov infiltrated into Slovakia and participated in the uprising there in 1944, but were killed in battle. In all, 12 of the para- chutists were captured and seven were executed, including Szenes in Hungary.
Braverman was flown into Yugoslavia in July 1944. Like most of the parachutists, her cover was as an English officer and journalist in the army.
The partisans called her Sarah.
According to Jovan Culibrk, a Serbian researcher who carried out a study on the partisans and the Jewish parachutists, many of the partisans who came into contact with the Jews quickly learned of their mission. Dr. Makso Snuderl, a Yugoslav doc- tor, recalled in 1975, “They invited us for dinner and gave us wine and provided a pleasant evening for us... Hanna spoke a lot about the relations in Palestine between Jews and the British and Arabs, collective labor and Hebrew language and life in general. The girl was extremely intelligent.”
Events in Romania precluded Braverman from being sent there and no other mission could be found for her, so she spent much of the war at the partisan camps in the mountains of Yugoslavia. She remem- bered seeing Germans who had been taken prisoner, and milking cows and taking care of the wounded.
Eventually she was evacuated back to Italy and then through Cairo to Mandate Palestine.
Back in the Jewish homeland, she returned to her work with the Palmah and her kibbutz. However, with the outbreak of the War of Independence, she received a request to go to Tel Aviv and meet with chief of staff Yaakov Dori. Waiting for her was another woman, Shoshana Gershonowitz. Dori turned to them and told them that the Israeli army needed to have a women’s corps, as it was scheduled to draft so many former Hagana female fighters into its ranks. Braverman remembered asking him in Yiddish, “How do we do that?” Dori told them to come back in several days with answers. “In the end, we went out and found 32 women who had been in the Hagana. We took them down to the Borochov quarter, in today’s Givatayim, and we trained them with firearms. They signed up to the army, and I signed last, so I received military number 33.”
BRAVERMAN’S WORK with promoting women’s service in the army and her heroism in WWII inspired many of those she met. Prof. Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem remembers how she met her. “I had known Surika since 1958, when she was responsible for the contact between the Hashomer Hatza’ir ‘Garin Tamir,’ of which I was a member and which was earmarked to settle in Kib- butz Shamir after our military service in the Nahal.
“She was a revered icon with an aura of unique World War II heroism. During my formative years she was a role model for me. I never ceased to admire her as a courageous independent woman, one who always led from the front; a pioneer, a Palmah mem- ber, a feminist, and an idealist until her last day, with an inner compass that always read true. She will be remembered for her invaluable contributions to the Jewish people, to the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael and to the State of Israel. And I have lost a dear friend.”
Israel memorialized the paratroops in several loca- tions. Hanna Szenes became lionized in Zionist histo- ry, like the martyrs of the Nili and other heroes, because of her death. The Jewish National Fund com- memorated the fighters in a forest near Jerusalem called the Forest of the Paratroops. At Kibbutz Ma’a- gan, a memorial for Peretz Goldstein was built along- side a museum for the paratroopers. “When it was dedicated, everyone from the country was invited – all of the surviving parachutists were there,” recalled Braverman.
In 2010, Braverman was one of those invited to light a torch on Independence Day. The last of the Yishuv’s parachutists, she died on February 10, 2013.