“You can recover from this”: When Past Captives Told Their Stories

When they finally returned home, the Israeli POWs of the War of Attrition decided to do something unusual for their time – they shared their experiences. The decision to put things down in writing did not dull the pain, but it did allow them to connect to their own inner strength, to a sense of enduring hope and to the shared experience in captivity that helped them survive. For their relatives, it offered a glimpse of what could rarely be discussed face to face

715 537 Blog0

24-year-old Giora Romm, arriving home after four months in Egyptian captivity, December 1969, source: family album

By Yael Ingel

In 1973, Lieutenant Dan Avidan returned home after three and a half months in Egyptian captivity. On the outside, he looked physically fine, but the years in captivity had forever left their mark on his health: the injuries and torture he suffered damaged his legs and diabetes spread through his body due to his emotional state. Like many of those released from captivity, he tried to go back to a normal life with his family and his daily work routine at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, but the shadows of his haunting experience followed him everywhere.

Young Dan Avidan and his father Shimon, who was commander of the Givati Brigade during the War of Independence. Some feared that Dan was treated particularly cruelly because of his father’s past and the Egyptians’ hatred for him. Photo courtesy of the Kibbutz Ein Hashofet Archive

Years afterward, there was one thing Avidan took with him everywhere and with which he refused to part – a book. A signed copy he always carried with him – to the point that when he was rescued from a serious car accident and all his personal items were destroyed, the first thing he tried to do was to get a new signed copy.

The book is called Chutz Mitziporim (lit. “Aside From Birds”, later translated into English as Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs). It is a faithful recounting of the long stretch of time he spent with nine other Israeli soldiers in Egyptian captivity. The book is based on interviews with the ten former prisoners of war. The author, Professor Amia Lieblich, still clearly remembers Avidan’s appeal to her for a new copy: “He treated it like a lucky charm,” she recalled. “It was a source of pride for him, his source of strength, and this is why he always kept it close wherever he went. Always.”

What did the book contain to make it so meaningful for Dan Avidan, the former captive, as well as all those mentioned in it?

Did they gain strength from reliving the descriptions of how they fell into captivity? From reading about the interrogations, the torture, and the isolation they endured? The book in fact reveals something far greater: the incredible mental strength these ten soldiers already possessed at the time, the internal world of those who endured three unbearable years, and perhaps most importantly – their social organization, which included a weekly assembly where decisions were made on a democratic basis, joint study sessions, board games, and even schedules for dishwashing and making food – all the ways in which the captives tried to restore a sense of routine and normality in an utterly abnormal situation.

Chutz Mitziporim(lit. “Aside From Birds”) by Amia Lieblich [Hebrew]. Cover: Ofer Echo. The Hebrew title is taken from a quote of Menachem Eini, one of the captives: “It was the first time we came out of the courtyard without our eyes covered – I discovered the horizon. All those years, I didn’t see anything beyond the 18 meters of the room and the courtyard. Aside from birds that flew in the sky”

In an era when the concept of psychological trauma (or PTSD) was not yet widely recognized – indeed, it doesn’t even appear in the book – the idea of writing and publishing a book about the experience of captivity was groundbreaking. The internal feelings which helped the prisoners survive in Egyptian captivity for so long likely also helped them understand that sharing their story and experiences would be of value, to themselves and to others. The book includes their own insights from their period in captivity and interviews with the spouses of some of the captives, effectively seeking to encompass this difficult experience from all angles.

They were not the only ones who did this. More than a few former hostages and prisoners of war have felt the need to document their own history. For some, exposing and working out the story was no less important an experience than the captivity itself. I set out on a journey to learn the story behind these revelations, and discovered them to be an incredible source of strength and even comfort.

A Book is Born

The year was 1986. Amia Lieblich was then a particularly busy scholar and author, when she got a phone call from Col. (res.) Rami Harpaz. He, like Avidan, was among the ten soldiers who were in Egyptian captivity together and who were released 13 years earlier. Since that time, an idea had been brewing in his mind, and he now felt the time had come to realize his vision.

Harpaz had read some of Lieblich’s books and understood that she was the woman he was looking for: a scholar and social psychologist, who knew how to weave together the stories of a number of individuals who have something in common, into one fascinating tome.

He thought there was value in a joint investigation of what happened during those years in captivity, and was hoping that she would acquiesce and write about it. Lieblich knew of Rami and his comrades from the well-publicized story of Israeli pilots translating JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit while in Egyptian captivity, but she was up to her neck in prior obligations at the time. When he asked, she responded: “Get back to me in a year.”

As befits a person raised on a kibbutz established by German Jews, punctuality was a must for Harpaz. Therefore, exactly one year later, Harpaz appealed once again to Lieblich: “Are you free, now?” Surprised at his diligence, she read one of the journals he left her, a document from the joint assemblies in captivity managed by each of the prisoners in turn, and immediately understood that she had to write their story.

She had only one condition: Harpaz had to speak to all his other comrades from the period of captivity and ensure they were all interested in taking part in the book. The sense of pride that Harpaz and his friends shared concerning how they spent their time in captivity and the desire to talk about what they went through emotionally, got them to agree. They felt they had a story to tell the world and Israeli society in particular.

Another 48 Captives Returned From Egypt, Including the 9 Long-Term CaptivesAl Hamishmar, November 18, 1973

“It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that”

Among those ten IDF prisoners of war who were held in the notorious Abbasiya prison were both senior pilots and civilian IDF employees who operated mobile canteens. Many testified that the interrogations and torture were not the worst part of the experience. The uncertainty and isolation, not knowing whether people in Israel were even aware they were alive – this is what burdened them in their first months in captivity, which they spent isolated from one another. When they were finally transferred to a shared cell and began receiving letters and Red Cross visits, the improvement in their state of mind was enormous.

When the ten released POWs summarize what their experience in captivity gave them in the book, they mention the education they acquired and the social skills they learned in finding ways to all get along. They made particular note of Rami Harpaz’s critical role in organizing their shared life in the cramped, difficult conditions in which they were living.

One of them, Motti C., recalled: “…[Rami] was our teacher. He he built us all in the proper way. I have never said it to him, but living with a man like him in one room for three years proved to be an experience for a lifetime. It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261). Motti did not suffice with what he told Lieblich in the interview for the book, but also took care to repeatedly tell it to Harpaz himself when they would meet to mark the anniversary of their release from captivity, Lieblich told us.

But not everyone managed to go back to normal life. Another released POW, Motti Bablar, described the heavy burden he carried with him, sometimes too heavy. In an interview he gave many years after the book was published, he described the trauma he dealt with, a concept that didn’t exist in Israeli society at the time: “It was easier in Egyptian prison, at least there I only had to worry about myself! At home, I had a wife and three children I had to care for.”

“Egyptians Denied Medical Care From Captive Pilots; Left Their Fractures Open to Break Their Spirit.” Maariv, December 7, 1969

“These are the boundaries of the field – act!”

Rami Harpaz’s name comes up again and again and his exceptional stature among the captives comes through across the pages of the book. His strong personality, the quiet leadership he displayed, his decision-making abilities, his charisma and humanity are all mentioned over and over. Even after he was released, Harpaz continued to rise through the ranks of the Air Force and moved up in the management structure of a successful factory in his kibbutz, Hazorea.

How did he do it? What are the tools he used to successfully deal with being held captive for three years? Harpaz developed an existential philosophy during his time in the Egyptian prison, influenced in part by books sent to him, such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He concluded from these that it is in the power of any person to determine how they feel in regards to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. During captivity, he formed a deep understanding that he had no control over what was happening – but that he was the only one who could determine how he would respond to it all. It would seem this approach positively affected everything around him. When asked to explain the approach that kept him optimistic and active throughout this period, he said:

“You have no control over the facts, naturally, but you have control over your attitude toward them. This principle worked for me in jail and seems to be working for people everywhere […] I told myself, this is your field, go play the game. That was the difference between me and the others […] Feelings like rage, frustration or helplessness, questions like ‘Why me?’ don’t exist for me.” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261-262)

Rami Harpaz welcomed by the members of Kibbutz Hazorea. Photo from Hashavui Ve’Eshet Hashavui: Nurit Ve-Rami Harpaz (translated as Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife)

Not only was this the most successful of the dozens of books Lieblich wrote – it was even translated into English – she claims this was the book that most deeply affected her personally, and she attributes much of it to Harpaz’s life philosophy. This can be seen in Lieblich’s decision to establish a discourse group that meets annually to discuss the topic of death, and her book Café Mavet (“Café Death”), which came out in 2019. This group conducts itself much like the group in captivity, with a different member leading the discussion every time on a rotational basis.

Seasons Of Captivity
Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs, by Amia Lieblich, the English translation of Chutz Mitziporim

After the terrible events of October 7, when many people were taken hostage by Hamas and held in captivity in Gaza, journalists turned to Lieblich, asking to interview her on the psychological state of the hostages – both those that were eventually freed, as well as those still being held hostage by Hamas. She refused.

Amia agreed to speak with us about past cases involving former captives and made it very clear that “there is no similarity at all between captivity then and captivity now: those were soldiers and these are civilians, then it was a sovereign state subject to international law and now it is not, then the Red Cross was involved and here they are not. And these are just a few examples.”

Still, when asked what she would say if she encountered someone released from Hamas captivity, and what she could offer them from her own experience of speaking to those freed after the War of Attrition, she gave a very clear response:

“Those who underwent terrible things and returned – they should tell their story. Let someone write it up. Letting experiences out, not necessarily in therapy, perhaps alongside it, is meaningful, it helps. I saw it with the captives of the War of Attrition.”

Yair Dori, a paratrooper who was seriously wounded and taken prisoner in 1970. He spent some ten months in Egyptian captivity, some of which was with the ten captives Lieblich interviewed for her book. Right: “hospitalized, wounded and dying, in a military hospital in Cairo.” Left: “with his mother upon returning, hospitalized in Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.” From: Yair Dori – Sipuro Shel Tzanchan Yisra’eli Bashevi Hamitzri (“Yair Dori – The Story of an Israeli Paratrooper in Egyptian Captivity”, Aharon Dolev and Yair Dori, published a year after his return in 1972)]

The Children Waiting at Home

In difficult situations, sometimes a very human and understandable need arises for a third, outside person, who isn’t family, to intervene and help someone open up and tell their story. Sometimes it takes this type of external figure to help unload and overcome feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt, as well as any sense of distance that can form between those who have returned from captivity and their relatives, due to the lengthy period of separation.

Yitzhak (Jeff) Peer is another former pilot. He was also among the group of ten captives interviewed by Lieblich. He was one of those who used Lieblich’s work as an aid that helped him tell his family what he went through in captivity. Jeff was born in the United States and made Aliyah at age 14. He played a significant role in putting together the famous translation of The Hobbit into Hebrew. After returning from captivity, he moved back to to the United States and became a test pilot. Lieblich flew to meet him there:

“He asked me if his 17-year-old daughter could join the interviews I conducted with him. I said of course, and then I realized that this was the first time she was hearing from him about his experiences in captivity. Before this, he simply couldn’t tell her. It was precisely this framework of an interview for a book that helped them become closer. It was a rare opportunity for both of them.”

The children of these captives did not find it easy to overcome the absence of a missing father during the period of captivity. Dalia Harpaz was one of the twins born to Rami while he was being held in Egypt. They only first met each other when she was three and a half years old. In conversation with her, she said that because her father was absent during the critical early childhood phase of bonding between parents and children, she never really managed to truly believe and internalize that Rami was indeed her father.

Over the years and after growing up, their connection strengthened, but something fundamental was always missing. As an adult, Dalia stresses that she never lacked for anything. She describes her father as an incredible person, a good-hearted man who was a source of inspiration for her in how he faced adversity.

Newspaper report on the birth of twins Dalia and Deganit Harpaz, whose mother Nurit was eight months pregnant when her husband Rami was taken captive. Haaretz, August 8, 1970

Towards the end of his life, while struggling with Parkinson’s, Rami wrote a book with his wife entitled Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife. The book is a dialogue between the two of them about the long stretch of captivity, in which they describe the difficulties and small victories along the way.

Dalia tells of how the books on her father’s time in captivity sparked a conversation between the two of them on the subject, which was hardly discussed beforehand at home:

“Until I read Chutz Mitziporim [Seasons of Captivity], I didn’t know what my father went through! And until I read the drafts for the book he wrote with my mother – I didn’t know what she went through, these were really new revelations for me – her heroism, the pressures she experienced, the difficulty in raising girls alone and maintaining hope, the dreams she had that were shattered.”

“Captivity doesn’t pass”

Giora Romm, a pilot who fell captive in 1969 and returned home before Rami Harpaz and his comrades were taken captive, eventually published his book, Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot. He only got around to writing it when he was in his sixties, after having served in a number of public roles.

In the book, Romm wrote about the four months he spent in captivity. Getting back to normal life was not simple, but he was determined – he wanted to live. The book also describes these challenges – the difficulties of life after captivity.

A year after he returned from Egypt, Romm was back flying a fighter jet. When he flew over the Nile Delta, the region where he’d been shot down two years previously, he experienced uncontrollable shaking, extreme dryness in the mouth, and a rapid heart rate.

Rom passed away in August 2023, after years of service in both the Air Force, which he left with the rank of Major General, and the public sector. Neta Gurevitch, his daughter, was born some two years after he returned from captivity. When we spoke with her, she stressed that although her father lived a full and fruitful life after returning from captivity, and would invest in and be present for her, traces of that time in captivity remained with him: “captivity doesn’t pass. The captive spends their whole life trying to integrate that experience into the rest of their life.”

“Air Force pilot Giora Yaakov Rom, whose plane was shot down on the 11th of the month in Egyptian territory, was photographed in a hospital in Cairo, where he is recovering from his wounds”. Haaretz, September 21, 1969

When she says “Literature is dear to my heart because it is a tool which allows one to undergo the experience of another and internalize it,” it seems to me that she is mostly talking about the life story of her beloved father.

As far as Neta is concerned, the book her father wrote can help us during these difficult days, when we pray for the safe return of all the hostages:

“This book is testament to the fact that you can recover from this thing. There is life afterwards. There is life with meaning afterwards, with all the difficulties along the way. Maybe if people read it, they will connect with that place of hope.”

Giora Romm (left) with his family. Second from right: his daughter, Neta Gurevitch. Photo: Ran Mendelson. From a family album

 

The Search for Meaning Continues: When Viktor Frankl Returns to the Bestseller Lists

In late-1945, Viktor Frankl faced the broken shell that remained of his life: Though he had survived the Nazi concentration camps, he had lost the love of his life, the baby she carried in her womb, his professional status, and the manuscript of his book. He needed to start over. But was that even possible? His answer was an unequivocal - yes

Viktor Frankl with his second wife Eleonore

How does a foreign book – featuring an old-fashioned cover design, written almost eighty years ago in Austria – end up on the bestseller lists in Israel in 2023?

Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book in question (and many others after) would perhaps answer that people are always looking for meaning, no matter what century they are born in or the horrors they are required to face.

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in fashionable and enlightened Vienna in the early 20th century. Already at the age of three or four, he told his father that he wanted to be a doctor and treat people. Within a few years, he had decided that being a physician wasn’t enough for him. Viktor wanted to focus on mental health – psychiatry.

Elsa and Gabriel, Viktor Frankl’s parents. Picture courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut.

His surroundings couldn’t have been more perfect for such a choice: Vienna was the Mecca of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the time. The Viennese educational and research institutions were among the world’s most advanced, and the city was full of well-known practitioners, academics and scientists. Frankl studied with students of Sigmund Freud, and even shared correspondence with Freud himself, to such an extent that when they finally met in person, the father of psychoanalysis shook his hand and asked: “Viktor Frankl, Vienna, 6 Chernin Street, door 25, correct?”

But the city was only the setting; Frankl himself was talented, hardworking, and full of great ideas and an even greater faith in the human soul. He was also a gracious speaker, and at the age of 15 he delivered his first speech, entitled – pretentious as it was for a boy of his age – “On the Meaning of Life”.

Frankl was a resounding and speedy success. He wasn’t yet 20 years old when he published his first paper (with the encouragement of Freud, who later came out against his ideas), and he was barely 25 when he received his first doctorate. It was around this time that he started formulating his own therapeutical approach – Logotherapy, or meaning-based psychotherapy (the name is derived from the Greek word “logos,” defined as “meaning”).

Logotherapy was later called “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy”, preceded by Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology.

Adler himself, who was initially an ardent supporter of this up-and-coming talent, was unimpressed with Frank’s new independent ideas and literally threw him out of the “Society for Individual Psychology,” which he headed.

But that didn’t hurt Frankl. In fact, he became famous in Europe and throughout the world in his own right and was invited to give lectures at leading academic institutions – lectures that filled halls with enthusiastic students and researchers.

Frankl would correspond with famous figures from the fields of philosophy and medicine. A letter to Martin Buber, which he signed: “With a special greeting and sincere appreciation”. The Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel

This description might bring to mind a terrifyingly serious boy and later, young man, who spent all of his time poring over thick tomes and cut off from the world, but that image is a far cry from the vivacious and loving character that was the young Viktor Frankl.

His lectures were so sought after, not only because of his ideas and innovative research, but also because he knew how to explain his theories in a clear, simple manner and was able to pepper the dry information with subtle humor.

Frankl’s personal charm also helped him with the opposite sex. He recounts in his memoirs how he used his position as a young lecturer to attract the women he liked: He’d tell them about “this Frankl fellow” who gave lectures, and then offer to accompany them to the popular scholar’s next lecture. It’s easy to imagine the women’s admiration at seeing the man who had escorted them suddenly walk on stage, to the sound of rapturous applause.

In the meantime, the Nazis had annexed Austria. Frankl, who was an ardent supporter of the Austrian Zionist movement, needed to keep a low profile. He could no longer use the title “Doctor”, which was denied to Jews, and he was forced to close down the private clinic he had opened less than a year earlier.

In 1940, when he was 35 years old, Frankl was appointed director of the neurological department at Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, a Jewish institution. Although he risked his life in doing so, he gave patients false psychiatric diagnoses in order to prevent the Nazis from executing or imprisoning the mentally ill.

Despite his promising academic and social status, it was clear that as a Jew, Frankl’s future wasn’t bright. The Americans opened their gates to him, even as they remained closed to many others, but he chose to stay in Vienna with his elderly parents who weren’t granted the desired visa.

Just then, when the future seemed like a looming black cloud, he met a nurse in the hospital named Tilly Grosser and fell deeply in love. They got married that year, and were the last Jewish couple allowed to officially wed in Nazi-controlled Vienna. But when Tilly became pregnant, the young couple had to give up their dreams of a family; pregnant Jews were immediately sent east, and Tilly had to have an abortion to save her life.

Years later, one of his books would be dedicated “to Harry, or to Marion. Children who were never born”.

Viktor and Tilly on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut

In September 1942, he was taken, along with Tilly, his parents, and the rest of their family, to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, using his skills as a doctor and psychiatrist, he developed psychological programs to alleviate the initial shock of the new prisoners and to prevent cases of suicide.

When his father was dying in his arms from lung disease, he chose compassion over survival, injecting him with the only dose of morphine he had managed to smuggle into the ghetto so that he could die in relative peace.

Two years after arriving at Theresienstadt, the Frankl family was boarded onto one of the transports heading east, to a camp people didn’t return from – Auschwitz.

During the last few moments before he was forced to part ways with his wife, he held her hands and told her in the sternest voice he could muster: “Tilly, stay alive at any cost. Do you hear me? At any cost!” It didn’t work. He never saw her again, but was sure until the end of his days that she was among the 17,000 prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen (the camp where she apparently was held at the end of the war) just after liberation.

The Nazis took more than just his family. In the pocket of Frankl’s coat, which he had to give up upon arrival in the camp, was the almost complete manuscript of his first book on the fundamentals of Logotherapy – The Doctor and the Soul. He later said that on the same day that the manuscript was taken from him, he was given a different coat, the pocket of which contained a page torn out of a prayer book with the words of the prayer “Shema Yisrael” written on it. He took it as a sign that now was the time not only to formulate lofty ideas but also, and perhaps above all, to live by them.

The cover of the first edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, published in Vienna, 1946. It still appears in lists of must-read books to this day. The original title in German was Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager (“A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”)

There was little he could do for his wife Tilly, he could only think and dream about her. But when it came to his book, there was something practical Frankl could do. He continued to write throughout this period – mainly in his head, but also on small scraps of paper that he was able to obtain.

“I am convinced,” he later wrote, “that I owe my survival, among other things, to my decision to recreate this lost manuscript. I began working on it when I was sick with typhus and tried to stay awake, even at night, to prevent a collapse of my vascular system. On my 40th birthday, a prisoner gave me the end of a pencil that he stole almost miraculously, and also some papers from SS documents. On the back of these documents, I wrote down the titles of the chapters, which helped me recreate my book.”

From those chapter titles, and his experiences from that terrible time, he was able to compose a new book. Man’s Search for Meaning was written in Vienna right after the war, when for nine consecutive days, Frankl stood and spoke before several typists who were able to put the flow of his words into text.

The notes on which Frankl wrote the chapter titles for his book while in the concentration camp. Photo courtesy of the Viktor Frankl Institut

Frankl had developed his theory of Logotherapy before the war, but this book, published after years of wandering between concentration camps, was not the book he had originally planned. Now, in addition to his “dry” scientific theory, the book contained the story of his own survival in the concentration camps, an autobiographical story that served as a kind of case study for Logotherapy.

In the midst of the impossible routine inside the camps, Frankl tested his psychotherapeutic theory on himself and those around him. He found that the three main foundations upon which he had based the method of Logotherapy – the will to find meaning, the meaning of life, and freedom of will – were put to the most brutal test imaginable and withstood it.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

― Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl argued that the people who survived weren’t the strongest or the most cheerful but rather those who had managed to find some meaning worth living for. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” may have been a saying of Nietzsche’s, but Frankl leant it some very practical meaning.

The result was a short book, barely 200 pages long, that sold more than 12 million copies and is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written.

With the end of the war and the gradual liberation of the concentration camps, Frankl returned to his hometown of Vienna, to the horrible discovery that his entire family, aside from his sister, had been murdered. Acting as a spectacular personal example – he rolled up his sleeves and set out to rebuild his life. In doing this, he kept in mind the greatest meaning his life could offer – “to help others find their meaning” – as he himself put it.

He got married again, to a nurse named Eleanore, and they had a daughter named Gabriel. This was a loving marriage between a practicing Jew and an equally practicing Christian. She went with him to synagogue, and he accompanied her to church.

Viktor Frankl with students in the U.S. Photo courtesy of The Viktor Frankl Institut

Ever since, Viktor Frankl’s ideas have spread throughout the world. He published around 40 books that have been translated into over 50 languages. He himself continued to live in Vienna until the end of his life but spent many years traveling long distances for lectures and meetings at every important academic institution across the globe.

The fact that Man’s Search for Meaning has again become a bestseller in Israel, precisely when we are in the midst of one of the most difficult and challenging times in the history of the state, shows more than anything how eternally relevant his ideas are.

Since he himself is not with us today to provide words of comfort and meaning, we have no choice but to find some solace in words he spoke in the past, in reference to other terrible events:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”

The cover of the newest Hebrew edition of the book Man’s Search for Meaning – the edition that entered the bestsellers list in Israel in late 2023

Yavnieli and the Yemenite Aliyah

With the birth of the State of Israel, over 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab and Islamic world. In Yemen, however, this was not the first time a mass immigration to Israel had taken place. More than three decades earlier, with the help of a young man named Shmuel Yavnieli, over 1,500 Yemenite Jews started their own journey to the Land of Israel, and embarked on a voyage largely untold…

Shmuel Yavnieli, the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

On November 30, we remember the mass departure and expulsion of Jews from numerous Arab and Islamic countries – the migration, in many cases forced, of literally hundreds of Jewish communities as they were harshly persecuted and left to flee in the mid-1900s. It is no secret that as antisemitism and discrimination towards Jews spread like wildfire across the Arab world, governments all the way from Morocco to Iraq adopted anti-Jewish measures, sometimes actively expelling Jewish citizens, most of whom eventually sought refuge in Israel.

One such country that contributed to the displacement of some of these Jewish Arabs was Yemen. Yemen actually had one of the oldest Jewish communities in the whole Arab world, with roots dating back thousands of years. On top of this, historically, the Jews of Yemen were successful as business-owners and respected members of the community, contributing to both economic and religious growth in the area. However, as the Arab persecution of Jews rose in the mid-20th century, anti-Jewish sentiment intensified in Yemen too, and Jewish life became increasingly precarious as their communities faced discriminatory measures, violence, and economic restrictions, peaking in the 1940s.

Shmuel Yavnieli (right) with a friend, 1910s, the Israel Archive Network, accessible thanks to the efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The unbearable situation for the Jews of Yemen eventually led to Operation Magic Carpet in 1949: a clandestine operation to airlift Yemenite Jews out of danger and bring them to Israel. This covert mission was widely seen as a success, and by its completion, over 50,000 Yemenite Jews were resettled in the new Jewish state.

But what many people do not know is that this was not the first time a mass emigration from Yemen to the Land of Israel took place, despite it being the most significant. The wave of Yemenite Aliyah that took place just a few decades earlier is in fact a largely untold story…

Shmuel Yavnieli, the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

When the Zionist Organization was founded in 1897, they set out almost immediately to increase the rate of global immigration to the Land of Israel, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, despite their best efforts, there was a group of Jews who seemed untouchable: the rich and powerful Yemenites. Yemenite Jews, often jewelers, dealers of precious metals, and coffee merchants by trade, were overwhelmingly well-to-do. While of course not every Yemenite Jew was rich, it certainly seemed that the community had the economic resources to thrive in the Middle Eastern landscape. The Yemenite Jews tended to be religious and often highly mystical, prizing their kabbalistic knowledge, messianic beliefs, modest dress codes, and pious nature. It was also known that much of the community’s accumulated wealth was spent in Judaic pursuit. For example, in the city of Sana’a, where roughly 7,000 Jews resided, no less than 28 synagogues were built by the city’s Jews.

But as new waves of Aliyah were taking place from around the world, the Zionist Organization firmly believed that these Yemenite Jews with their wealth and talents should not be left behind. Their solution to this matter came in the form of one Shmuel Varshovsky (more commonly known as Shmuel Yavnieli). Yavnieli was a young Zionist living in Ottoman Palestine. In the early 20th-century, when the Zionist Organization unveiled plans to send an undercover agent into the depths of Yemenite society and promote a mass emigration, 29-year-old Yavnieli seemed like a good choice for the job: he spoke many languages, could vaguely pass as a Yemenite, and was an ardent Zionist willing to prove his worth.

Shmuel Yavnieli’s summary of his life and missions found amongst his personal belongings, 1958, the National Library of Israel

Yavnieli’s first job was to grow out his sidelocks, as he would be immediately uncovered as an outsider if his haircut didn’t fit in with the common hairstyle of Yemenite Jewry. As a matter of fact, fitting in with Yemenite society was crucial to his plan, as he needed to integrate deep into their community before he could earn their trust and gain some influence. Of course, the sidelocks were not enough. He also purchased some traditional Yemenite items of clothing, including their unique style of tallit, which they wrapped around their shoulders and wore all day like a scarf. He also started practicing Yemenite greetings and local phrases and gestures, slowly improving his skillful imitation.

Shmuel Yavnieli dressed as a Yemenite Jew, with Rabbi Ishack and another respected member of the Aden community, 1911, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

His final step was to collect some money from the Zionist Organization so that he would fit in with the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the elite Yemenite Jews. But Yavnieli wasn’t done yet – he also decided to change his name.

Yemenite Judaism, as mentioned, was highly kabbalistic and messianic, and the Yemenite Jews held an integral belief that the Messiah would be ushered in by a messenger by the name of ‘Ben Yosef’ (Son of Joseph). This idea of a pre-messianic messenger is not found in most Ashkenazi or Sephardi teachings, but for the Yemenite Jews, the presence of Ben Yosef was a canonical event which would certainly occur before the Messiah could arrive. Thus, Yavnieli decided to change his last name to ‘Ben Yosef’ to give himself legitimacy when encouraging the Yemenite Jews to help usher in a new age and begin the messianic global return of Jews to the Land of Israel. His first name Shmuel had to be changed too, as it sounded far too Ashkenazi, and would have revealed him as an outsider within seconds. So, Yavnieli left Israel in November 1910 as ‘Eliezer Ben Yosef’, a man who looked and acted so Yemenite that truly no one would doubt his pedigree.

Signed photograph of Yavnieli, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Yavnieli knew that he had to be subtle if he was to earn any influence in this new land, so the plan was for him to pose as a messenger of the great Rabbis of Israel, who had ostensibly sent him out to learn about Yemenite culture. To give this ruse legitimacy, he carried with him two letters of recommendation which could not be refuted: a letter from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Jewish religious leader who would later become the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine; and Jerusalemite Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel who would become the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. This was a serious misunderstanding of Yemenite Jewry, which Yavnieli assumed would subscribe to one of the two mainstream branches of Judaism, and thus be impressed by at least one of these sponsors.

With the help of Rav Kook, Yavnieli had also composed a list of 26 questions which he would ask the local Yemenite Jews as part of his ‘research’ – questions such as “do you forbid marrying more than one wife?” or “do you practice Jewish custom in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch or the Rambam?” Such questions gave Yavnieli legitimacy as an agent of the two esteemed Rabbis, and also served as a tool to validate the authenticity of the Yemenites’ Judaism in the eyes of their co-religionists.

Newspaper article from 1912 describing how Yavnieli encouraged a wave of Aliyah from Yemen to pre-state Israel, Emigration of Yemenite Jews, The Young Worker, June 21 1912, the National Library of Israel

As Yavnieli arrived and settled into life in Yemen, he met two great influences, who would seriously help boost his social and political standing within this foreign community. The first was the heavily Zionist, and incredibly wealthy, Banin family. This aristocratic family already had close contact with the Jews in the Land of Israel, as they were major philanthropists of Zionist pursuits and had even donated enough money to build at least one large synagogue in Tel Aviv. With their support, Yavnieli’s life in Yemen was made considerably easier. His other vital contact was Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen – the leading Rabbi of the Aden Jewish community. “This man deserves to be written in the book of gold” he wrote of the great Rabbi, who immediately boosted Yavnieli’s esteem, and as we shall see, went on to help Yavnieli significantly with his mission.

Once Yavnieli, with the help of these valuable contacts, had earned both the trust and respect of the Yemenite Jews, he was finally able to start working on his real goal, which was of course initiating a new wave of Aliyah – Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

Notes from Shmuel Yavnieli’s personal notebook, the Habshush Family Archive, the National Library of Israel. The archive was cataloged with the generous support of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel

This process began with a pamphlet, which he wrote and published during his stay in Aden. The pamphlet opened with a description of pre-state Israel, then still known as Ottoman Palestine, promising that it was a progressive and successful country with wonderful doctors, an above-average schooling system, where there were lots of games, sports and leisure activities to participate in. He continued to promote this idealistic vision of a land in which everyone spoke the language of the biblical forefathers, and no other nations would interfere in Jewish matters. Instead of a sultan, the Jews were described as the leaders of their own society!

Sections from Yavnieli’s pamphlet describing the jobs and lives available in pre-state Israel for the Yemenite Jews, Writings, Shmuel Yavnieli, 1951

Yavnieli’s pamphlet explained that there were many Jewish landowners and farmers who needed help managing their businesses. The idea was not for the Yemenite Jews to become laborers, but instead to help with the financial and business initiatives of the existing farmers and factory owners. The pamphlet proclaimed that any Jew who truly loves Zion, is of workable age and ability, and has the funds to do so, should immigrate to the Land of Israel. Yavnieli’s pamphlet promised that if they were to do so, their needs would be entirely taken care of once they arrived, and they would also be assured of life-long employment. To appeal to their religious instincts, Yavnieli concluded with quotes from the Bible to persuade the Yemenite Jews that the time had come for an ingathering of the exiles and a messianic rebirth of a Jewish sovereign nation. He strongly encouraged the Yemenite Jews to be part of this redemption story.

Biblical quote in Yavnieli’s pamphlet, Writings, Shmuel Yavnieli, 1951

The pamphlet had its desired effect.

Soon, Yavnieli had rebranded himself as an ‘immigration officer’ and started to manage the emigration of Jews from Yemen to Israel. Yavnieli began traveling from city to city, stopping wherever he found a Jewish community, now preceded by his well-known reputation. He would come with a glowing recommendation from Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen and, using his recently affirmed high status, he would seek out an influential person in each community to help deliver his pamphlet and recruit potential Aliyah pioneers. The Yemenite Jews were a receptive crowd. Yavnieli described them as having a collective “awakening” to the call of Israel, and soon he had queues of Jews waiting to sign up and board boats headed for the promised land.

Yavnieli’s route through Yemen, 1911, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Rabbi Ishack helped immensely with this newfound demand, and the two men got to work compiling lists of potential immigrants. Once they had gathered enough people to fill a boat, they would send a letter containing the identities of the Yemenite Jews to Dr Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, to arrange their papers. These lists can actually still be found in the Zionist Archives, and to this day they are helping Yemenite Jews discover their heritage.

Letter written by Shmuel Yavnieli, Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at Universität Hamburg

But this wave of Aliyah was not turning out to be what Yavnieli and the Zionist Organization had expected. While their initial goal was to bring the able, working-age men to the Land of Israel, Yemenite culture places a strong importance on family values, and none of the Yemenite husbands would leave their wives, children, or parents behind. Instead of the desired wealthy young men, the boats were quickly filling up with grandparents, children, aunties and uncles! So many families arrived at Yavnieli’s make-shift emigration centers that he had to persuade most of the families to wait until the next Jewish holiday before they made their move! Hence it came to pass that during the Sukkot festival of 1911, roughly 1,500 Yemenite Jews set sail for Ottoman Palestine.

Preparations at the port in Aden to bring Yemenite immigrants to Israel, Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

There was lots of enthusiasm for this mass-departure. In fact, Yavnieli documents a story of a family who were so eager to move that they tried to sell their house to raise the funds to travel. When they couldn’t sell their home in time, they dismantled the house instead, and sold the individual planks of wood, in order to get the quick cash that they needed to board the next Aliyah ship.

Yavnieli with his wife Chaniah and children Ariella and Menachem, 1936, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

But wealth remained a dividing factor in this process, despite the fact that the excluded poorer Yemenite families were keen to join in the exodus, too. Yavnieli did not want to leave even a single willing Jew behind. Instead, he sent long letters of appeal to Dr. Ruppin, and Rabbi Binyamin Feldman, the Secretary of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization. He encouraged them to find funding to bring over the disadvantaged families, stating that they could do farm work and manual labor upon their arrival, which was sorely needed during those years. With funding secured, extra boats were chartered from the Ostrich Shipping Company in order to bring even more Yemenite Jews to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Ishack helped verify which families would need reduced ticket fares and sent lists to Dr. Ruppin of families who would be taking the subsidized chartered shipping boats to Israel.

Yavnieli stayed in Yemen, helping hundreds of Jewish families make the move, until the outbreak of World War II. When he finally left to return home, he departed as a true hero.

Yavnieli posing with some of the Yemenite Jews he helped bring to Israel, 1917 (left) 1932 (right), Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

Just a few years later, the tide turned in Yemen, and the remaining Jews found themselves fighting against a discriminatory and corrupt government armed with antisemitic rhetoric and bigoted rulings. As the country began to rally in earnest against the Jews, and almost all of the Arab world followed suit, most of the remaining Yemenite Jews were forced to await rescue in the form of Operation Magic Carpet, 35 years after the end of Yavnieli’s efforts.

Yavnieli with David Ben-Gurion, 1956, Shmuel Yavne’ely, The Foreseer, Shimon Kushnir, 1972

But as Yavnieli watched the tragedy of the expulsion of Jews from Yemen and the surrounding Arab lands, which we commemorate annually on November 30, he could at least clear his conscience, knowing that he single-handedly brought about an entire wave of Yemenite Aliyah.

The Be’eri Printing Press: Israel’s Print Shop

For over seventy years, Be'eri Printers – Kibbutz Be'eri's famous printing press - has touched the lives of all of us in Israel. On October 7, many dozens of Be'eri's sons and daughters were murdered. Despite this disaster, the printing press was back in operation less than ten days later. This is the story of a pioneering project that has risen from the ashes, like a phoenix.

Lazar Zorea taking a moment to rest while working at his lead printing machine at Be'eri Printers in the 1960s. Source: 'Lines and Dots' (Kavim VeNekudot) Blog (Hebrew), Yigal Zorea (Lazar’s son)

When Levi Zrodinski (Zorea) made Aliyah to the Land of Israel from Ukraine in 1925, he could not have imagined that his vision and initiative would be realized in a kibbutz in the Negev. He couldn’t have foreseen how this small kibbutz would become a printing giant in Israel over time, turning into one of the most advanced print shops in the world.

Levi, an enthusiastic Zionist, entrepreneur and industrialist, settled in the city of Haifa and established a successful print shop there. His idealistic and daring 18-year-old son, Lazar Zorea, was one of the group of pioneers who founded Kibbutz Be’eri.

Lazar Zorea at the Be’eri print shop in the 1950s. Photo: Hanan Bahir, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 

Babel Lev, co-founder of Kibbutz Be’eri and Be’eri Printers. Photo courtesy of the Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

In a clandestine operation immediately following Yom Kippur, October 6, 1946, Lazar Zorea and his pioneering friends settled 11 new locations overnight. These settlements, which included Kibbutz Be’eri, have since been called the “11 points”, and were highly significant in strengthening the Jewish population of the Negev.

Be’eri Printers in the 1950s was located in the Kibbutz’s first stone structure (center). On the right – the granary. On the left, the water tower with the menorah designed by Lazar Zorea in the kibbutz’s early days. From Yigal Zorea’s blog ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) (Hebrew)

 

Children at Kibbutz Be’eri. Photo: Boris Carmi. From the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The members of the young kibbutz sought after a stable source of revenue which would provide economic security for a small community located right on Israel’s border with Gaza. Zorea, who had witnessed the success of his father’s print shop, worked with three other members to found the first print shop in the Negev desert. The idea of a print shop was very unconventional in the kibbutz movement, but Lazar and his friends insisted and the project finally came into being after many talks between the kibbutz members. Zorea’s experienced father aided and encouraged them and the same was true of the Jewish Agency. Both worked to ensure the enterprise flourished.

The original note by Buda, a Kibbutz Be’eri member, to the Jewish Agency offices in 1949, asking for aid in acquiring the initial equipment for establishing the print shop. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

Print shop workers at Kibbutz Be’eri. Photo: Hanan Bahir, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 

Moshka, Kibbutz Be’eri member, next to the printing press, 1950s. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

Yigal Zorea, Lazar’s son, tells of how it all started, from almost nothing: “The press was in the beginning no more than an abandoned stone house with one letterpress machine, a compositor whose lead letters were bought at a discount, and a modest binding machine. They printed a few simple forms and some documents of the new state institutions in the beginning.”

One of the first documents printed at Be’eri Printers in the early 1950s – listing parts of the Kibbutz Be’eri workshop. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

A Magen David Adom document, also among Be’eri Printers’ first documents printed in the 1950s. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

A German newspaper reports on a visit to Kibbutz Be’eri in the 1950s: “Most of the villages also have a small industry which in case of drought or locusts can cover the deficit. There is here – in the desert! – a modern print shop, which carries out orders from around the country.” From Yigal Zorea’s blog ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) (Hebrew).

Yigal tells of how, as a youth in Kibbutz Be’eri, he had a job arranging the lead letters at the print shop, before moving to work in the orchard which was considered more “prestigious.” After his military service, he continued the family tradition, and after learning graphic design at Betzalel Academy he became a part of Be’eri Press, where he worked for 50 years, leading the transition from manual to computer design as a senior designer.

A child arranges printing letters at Kibbutz Be’eri, 1975. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Over the years, members of Be’eri never stopped inventing and developing new innovations, new ideas and ways to improve and increase the range of services which the print shop provided any business, company, or organization in need of its services. Thus, the print shop grew and grew, until it moved to a permanent structure which also changed and increased in size when needed. Over time, Be’eri Printers provided a livelihood for more and more residents throughout the Gaza border region.

Be’eri Printers in the 1970s. Yigal Zorea, who designed the company’s logo, describes how it was created: “With the aid of compasses and curve rulers, I drew a geometric logo representing a combination of a print roll and a paper roll, which combine to create the unique letter bet. I also drew the logotype (letter type for company logo) using a compass.” From the Be’eri Printers Blog (Hebrew).

But the importance of Be’eri Printers stretched far beyond this southern region of Israel. Over time, the company became Israel’s printing press. Its knowledge and technology enabled processes of economic modernization necessary for the growing country – the move from the Lira to the Shekel, the introduction of magnetic checks used by all banks, and more.

You may not be aware of it, but Be’eri Printers is an integral, daily part of the lives of all Israeli citizens and everyone living in the country: all credit cards and driver’s licenses are printed there. The same is true of all the envelopes sent to you by the banks and official state institutions. In fact, it is at Be’eri Printers that the ma’atafit – the letter printed on the envelope itself – was invented. This innovation has saved enormous amounts of paper over time.

Report on the new invention of the ma’atafit – a letter printed on an envelope – at Be’eri Printers. The company was awarded the Kaplan Prize as a result. Reported in Maariv, March 27, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

On the Black Sabbath of October 7, 2023, Kibbutz Be’eri suffered unspeakable losses. At least 91 of its members were slaughtered. That number is not final. Heroic battles took place among the pathways, and many areas in the beautiful kibbutz were entirely destroyed. Miraculously or thanks to good luck, the print shop structure was unharmed.

Despite the heavy mourning over the murdered kibbutz members, which has not ended, and despite the fact that there are still members missing and held in Gaza, the surviving kibbutz members decided to renew operations at the printing press as fast as possible, rather than give up on the illustrious project they created and cultivated for decades. Ben Suchman, CEO of Be’eri Printers in recent years, along with other kibbutz members, did not let the shocking news and difficult situation drag them into despair. Ten days after the massacre at their kibbutz, they declared – “Be’eri Printers is open,” and they intend to bring the print shop to full capacity.

Ben Suchman (left), present CEO of Be’eri Printers, and Naor Paktzierez, member of the board. In the background is a sign saying “We are here.” It is a sign which Yigal Zorea designed in previous wars and which was unfortunately updated for a 2023 version and hung at the entrance to Be’eri Printers. Photo from the Tmunot Be’eri (“Be’eri Pictures”, Hebrew) Facebook page

 

The current Be’eri Printers building, which has resumed operations in the last few days

Yigal and his family were among those extracted from Kibbutz Be’eri and they are currently residing at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which is hosting many of those remaining from the Be’eri community. In a conversation with him, he shifts constantly between past and present. Every name and every event from the past of Be’eri Printers is tied to the disaster which befell the impressive, creative, and cohesive kibbutz community.

“For us, this is home, no more, no less. And that, on its own, says it all.” – The song Bishvileinu Ze Bayit (For Us, This Is Home) was written by Yigal Zorea, a graphic artist at Be’eri Printers, in honor of the 30th anniversary of Kibbutz Be’eri’s founding in 1946. The words were put to music and the song was performed during the Kibbutz Be’eri farm festivals for many years thereafter. From the ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) Blog (Hebrew)

We all hope that Be’eri Printers, which is already up and running, can once again embody the pioneering spirit at the heart of the dear community of Be’eri. This enterprise can be the vanguard of efforts to rebuild all of the kibbutzim, towns and cities of the Gaza border region. They will rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

You can support Be’eri Printers by ordering stickers, or by ordering pictures and picture albums from the “albume” website, a Be’eri Printers project. You can also visit the PIX website, another product of Be’eri Printers, where you can find different kinds of stamps, envelopes, stickers, signs, and more.

 

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories