In honor of reigniting the issue of uprooting almost one million Jews from their ancient homes because of threats levied by Arab leaders as a result of the 1948 war, I offer this tale as one of thousands of stories, daring in nature, and courageous in scope, that helped shape the State of Israel that we know today. Promoted by young men and women driven by their desire for Jewish liberty, in the shadow of recent Nazi horrors, they met with vigor an obligation to history, ushering in the ingathering of the exiles.

The hero of our story is Shlomo Hillel, who dedicated his life to his people and their freedom. He was one of Israel’s founders. He lived on Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael for most of his adult life. He served in the Knesset,  from 1953 until accepting ministerial posts in the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1970s. Adon Hillel returned to the Knesset and served as speaker in 1984.

I had the distinct honor of interviewing him over the phone several times in 1999 and we corresponded through some very enlightened faxes. At that time he was the international president of Keren Heyesod. He is one of the unsung and mostly unknown heroes of Israel’s beginnings and beyond.

In his 90s today he lives in Jerusalem with his wife.  Operation Michaelberg and other missions Hillel was involved in are contained in his memoir “Operation Babylon,” Fontana/Collins, 1988.

 

 

As the political traffic began to clear and the speed toward Jewish Independence increased in 1947, Jewish communities in Arab countries became targets for retribution for Zionist activity in Palestine. They felt a pressure like never before in fourteen centuries of living under Islamic rule. Many began to think in terms of leaving for Eretz Yisrael.

The largest of these communities was in Iraq. It was an ancient community, begun when the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and most of the population was carted off to Babylon, or modern day Iraq.

For 2500 years Jews were an intricate part of that society, generation after generation and century after century.

Like today in 1947, Zionism was an illegal practice. More than that, a residue of Hitler’s National Socialism continued to reverberate through Iraqi society. Many top Iraqi government officials were quite enamored with Nazi policies. Nuri al-Said, the president during that time, was a great admirer of Hitler, as were many influential people throughout the Arab world.

Consequently, from both in Palestine and the Iraqi Jewish community,  a desire to move Jews out of Iraq grew as the possibility of a Jewish state moved closer to reality.

The Mossad for Illegal Immigration (not to be confused with the Mossad, the later incarnation of the department of Israeli foreign espionage. The two are only distantly related) was designed specifically for the purpose of clandestinely bringing Jews to Palestine from the surrounding Arab countries and it was particularly active among Iraq’s large Jewish community.

During July and August of 1947 the Mossad recruited twenty four year old Shlomo Hillel to go to Iraq and find a way to make this happen successfully.

He was Iraqi by birth. His parents brought him to Palestine at age eleven. He spoke Arabic with a perfect Iraqi accent, and new the country better than most. He was the perfect spy. He had an established working relationship with the Shurah, the Zionist underground defense organization in Iraq.

For Iraqi Zionists success in bringing Jews to Palestine was a slow, arduous process.

The hope was to establish an underground railroad, which a steady flow of Jews could be smuggled into the Jewish homeland.

Many methods were tried but they all involved risky desert travel, Bedouin thieves and scorching hot sun. Only the most hardy were considered, and only one or two at a time could go. Not all of them made it. Some died in the desert at the hands of their own guides, from abandonment or violence. Other cases involved marauders descending on Zionist teens and overwhelming them.

Hillel’s first trip was not successful, another, better way had to be found. After he returned he was visited by Moshe Carmil his contact with the Mossad,  who asked him to go again.

He was told the Haganna had made contact with two expatriate American flyers who stayed in the Middle East after the war to fly gold, Hashish and other contraband in the region to those who could pay for it.

They had agreed to take as many Jews as they could from Baghdad to Palestine for one hundred pounds sterling each person.  A steep price for 1947 but Haganna officials decided that if it worked, it would be worth it.

They were soldier of fortune types who Hillel’s handlers described in the 1947 vernacular as having “guts.”  The two certainly were colorful, fearless, and had a sense for adventure. The way Shlomo Hillel described them to me they could have been straight out of a Bogart or early Burt Reynold’s  movie, tough guy, never shaken, bad ass types who would do just about anything for a buck. Israel, especially in its early days, had a knack for attracting characters like these two guys.

Hillel describes his introduction to the Americans this way:

“The pilots were waiting for us in the hotel room which looked as if a pogrom had passed through it, scattering clothes and shoes in all directions. In the midst of the mess the two gum chewing Americans were down on all fours, looming over a huge map of the Middle East spread out on the floor. My companions introduced me and while we were still shaking hands, the pilot, Captain Leo Wessenberg, (despite his name, was not Jewish) drew me down on my knees beside him, picked up a compass and inscribed a circle on the map with Bagdad at its center. ‘That’s it,’ he announced. ‘Any suitable landing place within this 15 mile radius will be fine.’”

But, the best part of these two, according to Hillel, was that they had in their possession a C-46 transport plane. It could take off and land on relatively short runways and could hold fifty or sixty people. It was the answer to Hillel’s complaining that “more had to be done”.

If this could be pulled off, there is no telling how many Jews they could ultimately bring to Palestine under both the Iraqi and British noses. But this was no small task. Everything had to be just right.

The idea according to Hillel was to land the plane in the desert, pick up passengers, and head for Palestine all with perfect coordination, planning and secrecy. Several considerations were discussed and decided upon.

Where to take-off and land in the desert was the first problem they had to solve. Hillel envisioned a nice flat spot within simple driving range of Baghdad, one that could be easily converted into a makeshift runway.

As it turned out they didn’t have to do that.

Sometimes things are best hidden when out in plain sight. The Baghdad Airport actually worked best for their plan.

When Hillel first arrived at the Airport with Wessenberg and Mike, he had observed that when planes take off they first taxi to the end of the runway, turnabout, face the tower and wait a few minutes to warm up their engines and then take off.

While facing the take-off position at night enabled the plane to shine its headlights at those in the tower making it impossible to see what might be happening behind the lights, especially from several hundred yards away.

This would be perfect to load passengers providing he could get them to the end of the runway without being seen and hide them there until the plane was ready.

Airports in the 40s were not secure like they are today. Hillel found a road that ran along the outside of the airstrip. Separated from the runway by an Arabic version of a chain link fence, it wound around the perimeter of the airfield and at the end ran into the runway right where the plane would turn around and wait for takeoff.

He theorized that he could have his people waiting in the brush behind the fence and when the plane arrived. A simple hole cut into the fence would allow boarding.

The boarding had to be done silently and quickly. There was an army base next to the airstrip and unnecessary noises before the plane began to rev its engines could draw suspicion. Hillel directed his Shurah drivers to remind the passengers not to slam the car door as the last one exits.

There was double jeopardy to be considered in successfully completing this mission. They had to sneak out of Iraq and then sneak into Palestine.

They had to find a suitable place in Palestine to land the plane so the British wouldn’t know. They found their landing strip at Yavniel. A quaint, rural village west of the sea of Galilee, Yavniel had a surrounding valley which was fairly well hidden and could be made into a temporary landing strip.

The Palmach cleared the obstructions, rocks and debris and laid down torches to guide the pilots in the dark and indicate wind direction. Then they were to create several diversions at strategic points in the area to keep the British troops occupied.

Speed was of the essence. If the plane sat around the airport too long it could arouse some suspicion.

The timeline for the entire operation went like this:

Hillel was visited by the Mossad at his Kibbutz on Tuesday. He arrived in Baghdad on Thursday. And the operation was planned and executed at 3:30 the following Sunday morning. Wessenberg had told the airport authorities that they would leave by Saturday night. They would be in the air on time and in Palestine before sunrise.

Hillel and the Shurah decided that the best way to decide who goes was to take a sample of Jews from all over the country. The main reason for this as it was explained to me was for morale. Also, they had to be young, teenagers, no one over twenty. Zionist philosophy was that the best way to build a new country was with young people. Parents and older ones would come later but first get the young ones there.

That created a logistical problem of getting everyone to the airport on time. Ten cars were used for the purpose of picking the people up from whatever point of origin around the country and driving them into Baghdad and leaving them at the rendezvous point at the appropriate time.

Wessenberg and Mike were always packed with their WWII surplus 45s and Wessenberg even brandished it once when he thought they might be found out after they arrived. For the Shurah the emigration policy forbade the use of weapons because smuggling themselves out of Iraq and into Palestine was offense enough. Weapons would only make the punishment worse.

But, on this trip, because of the enormity of the operation, and the possible humiliation to the Arab leaders because of its success, Hillel surmised that getting caught would mean execution, hung in the streets of Baghdad to be exact.

He figured that if they were discovered guns would be the only answer to continue the operation. Also, a hapless witness taken at gunpoint could be forced to make the trip with them and then Jewish authorities in Palestine would decide how to handle it from there.

So, because the Americans also were carrying guns, the few trained Shurah members that went also carried some kind of firearm.

Hillel scheduled the plane to take off at 3:30 Sunday morning.  On Saturday after practicing all day, and running through the steps on the exact and precise procedure they started to gather passengers six or seven to a car around 10:00pm Baghdad time. They drove to the airfield, went to the area at the top of the embankment where they could sneak down to the fence.  The people exited, as quietly as they could, gently closing the door behind them and then snuck half bent over so the field’s weeds would cover their silouettes and made their way to the rendezvous point, at the far corner of the runway, where Hillel and the shurah would cut a whole in the fence to go through when ready.

Ever thing went as planned but the last group had not shown up yet. Hillel thought something might have happened. Even though he was close friends with several of them he thought if something went wrong  that was all the more reason to get the plane in the air as fast as possible.

The forty some odd young Jews laid on their stomachs in the weeds on the other side of the fence waiting for the proper time. The silence, the half-moon lit night, just enough so the immigrants could see in the dark. At about 3:00am the C-46 with the two American Pilots began to taxi down the runway with the lights on.

Hillel kept looking for that last group.

When the plane came to the turnabout Wessenberg turned the transport toward the tower and lights blared in that direction virtually hiding anything going on behind them. By this time everyone was nervous. But, it was past the point of no return, it was going to happen.  Hillel described “feeling my whole body vibrate with the thumping of my heart.”

At that point Hillel began to motion to the “youngsters’ as he called them, with a wave of his hand telling each to board. In the dark, and through the fence the young Jews made their way to a rope ladder at the back of the plane.

So far, so good except for that final group of seven Jews still not there.

When the last of the immigrants was on board, knowing that he had to board and leave, Hillel looked up at the sillouette of the embankment passed the road at the top of the slope one more time hoping to see that final group. And, he saw them.

“ I could see Sammi’s group approaching us, bent over in a ragged line. From inside the plane, one of the group leaders was signaling me frantically to climb aboard, and I understood that the pilots were probably pressing him to close the door. Perhaps they, in turn, were being questioned by the control tower about why they were dawdling on the runway.”

Hillel knowing time was probably running out decided to take the chance and wait for them. He frantically waved to Sammi to come fast. Now the young Jews were running and the plane was revving its engines. Hillel says it was only seconds but felt like hours.

Finally, “the lead member of the group reached the ladder and began to climb. I practically pushed the remaining kids on the plane and started up the ladder myself.” The plane was beginning to move as Hillel reached the door and climbed in, and the others grabbed him by the back of his pants on his belt and lifted him into the plane, simultaneously pulling in the ladder and closing the door at the same time.

Now they are in the air and out of Baghdad airspace, but it was close—very close.

The flight itself was uneventful but they were all looking toward landing at Yavniel, the second leg of the trip that might turn out like Baghdad—a  race against time. Hillel was told everything was good from a radio message he received before they took off. But nobody was sure. Of course, our American pilots probably would shoot it out with the British if it came to that. For Hillel that was just one more headache he had to deal with.

Were the British there? Would they see them landing? Would they chase them into Palestine they way they had with immigrant ships that landed under their noses several times in the last six or seven years? They just weren’t sure what to expect.

The Palmach’s preparation  turned out perfect.

The flight took four hours.  From Baghdad to Palestine.  Palmach had  marked a runway, and they had created the proper diversions so the plane landed with the passengers disembarking without incident.  I guess there was enough high drama in the takeoff for one day. Well, for most of us, it would be enough for a lifetime.  It was a real relief to everyone involved that landing was so easy, including our adventurous American soldiers of fortune.

All in all it was a perfectly executed operation, one of the thousands that enabled the Jewish people to win back their homeland after 1800 years. Fifty people were brought to Palestine and the authorities never knew it. This set the pace for several more flights that brought in hundreds of people before the state was declared.

Subsequent flights from Baghdad went better, the Mossad and Hillel learned with each new operation how to make it smoother, and safer.  But, it went on without our daring American flyers. It seems that after the success of that first flight they had demanded more money for the continuing flights. The Haganna said thanks but no thanks and took their business elsewhere.

Hillel continued the process of planning secret flights from Iraq until the Haganna stopped it in favor of smuggling weapons. War was around the corner and if they didn’t arm themselves properly all the Jews on Earth would not have made a difference.

I asked Hillel about the Americans and he told me that he never saw or heard from or about them again. Who knows what happened to them? The way the lived, chances are they spent time in some foreign prison or worse.  Of course, it was that kind of bravery and cunning that won the war for us, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that some like them stayed out there after the war to do what they learned so well fighting the Germans and the Japanese.

 

 

 

 

 

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