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Sad Missions

The spy novelist rediscovers Menahem Bader’s Aliyah B book, about the brave men and women who smuggled Jews from prewar Europe to Mandate Palestine

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Aliyah B’s Operation Michaelburg delivering Iraqi Jews to Palestine in August 1947. (Israeli Air Force Archives)
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Not the usual book review, maybe, a book you can’t buy. At all, I thought initially, but it can apparently be downloaded from Google Books, so at least it can be read. The book is Sad Missions, by Menahem Bader—he is “Menachem” in his Wikipedia article—translated from Hebrew, copyright by Sifriat Poalim and printed in Israel by Hidakel Press in 1979. I found it cited in a footnote in something else I was reading, and the title intrigued me. Now, I’m a veteran of the hard-to-find book war, but at this I had to work hard, because the book had practically disappeared. Eventually, I managed.

Sad Missions begins:

Early in 1943, at the height of World War II, I left for Istanbul. My task was to try from there to establish contact with remnants of Hashomer Hatzair [a socialist Zionist youth movement] in the countries over-run by Hitler and his satellites and to make every effort to bring them the maximum of assistance.

Sad Missions belongs to a niche category—a genre?—of books about the Aliyah B. “Aliyah” refers to immigration to Palestine, return to the homeland, while the “B” signifies illegal immigration to British Mandate Palestine, before 1948. Aliyah B operations were run by men and women, impossibly brave men and women, who can be said to be the earliest operatives of what would become the Israeli intelligence and security services. Of this literature, one of the best examples is The Last Escape, which is about Ruth Kluger, who attempted to save Jews from the Holocaust, particularly in the cities of Romania. (Talk about impossibly brave!) Somehow, Sad Missions virtually slipped away from the used-book market and can be found on Google Books, under the name of its editor, Richard Flantz, or by its title.

Sad Missions—and the title is brutally descriptive, this book is not easy to read—has kinship to the literature of espionage and special operations, and it is exceptionally descriptive and detailed. Bader, age 43 when he began his clandestine work, operated as an intelligence officer, though he never uses that term, moving money and instructions, particularly for attempts at escape, by the use of secret agents—another term not used; Bader calls them “emissaries”—who were able to travel in and out of what had become a Nazi empire ruled by the Gestapo.

Besides money and letters, we also sent newsletters, newspapers, bulletins and sometimes even books to the Chalutz movements beyond the wall. Sometimes the emissaries who did this for us were chance couriers of neutral countries, but in most cases the work was done by four people who were in the enemy’s service. …  [They] came to Istanbul regularly on business for their superiors, who apparently headed important economic departments and espionage and counterespionage departments as well. … I recoiled from these men in disgust. … [But] I was compelled to receive them, to sit with them, to offer them refreshments, to listen to their cheap and arrogant talk and coarse jokes, to make arrangements with them, to check that these were carried out, and finally, to shake their hands and wish them a good journey. And I had to wish them this with a full heart. With every fibre of my being I longed for the success of their trip.

Bader himself entered Europe—Czechoslovakia, Austria, Berlin—in 1938, as European war and the destruction of European Jewry became every day a greater and greater certainty. Using whatever money was raised for him—and the struggle for funds, from Jewish Palestine and, eventually, the United States, is a major element in Sad Missions—he bribed officials and helped Jews to escape and also provided money for those who were close to starvation. Bader used both legitimate and doctored identification papers and several times came close to being arrested. He was lucky, he makes a point of saying that, but he survived—others doing the same work did not—and eventually left in April of 1940 as the German Embassy “cleared out of Yugoslavia.” The German invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece came days later, and Bader had to run for Istanbul. The last usable exits in Europe were locked down, and, Bader writes, “Poor in deeds, I returned to those who had sent me.”

He was not poor in deeds.

He, and other Jewish operatives in Europe, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, and Bader survived to write his book. Especially sad then, to see it almost lost. Because I write about and do research in this period, I will occasionally come across a book of sufficient strength that I feel it should be re-published, be brought back to life. Menahem Bader, perhaps with the aid of an editor and translators, was a good, instinctive, and powerful writer and an unsparing historian. He is open about the degree of political conflict among various factions who tried to save European Jewry and acknowledges the many failures—lost lives, that means—that he was forced to witness. And, as he saved lives, I believe his book ought to be saved. While it can be downloaded, it deserves more than that: It deserves the attention—publicity, review—that only new publication can provide.

Alan Furst’s most recent novel is Spies of the Balkans.

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Ruth Gutmann says:

If you read this Alan Furst piece carefully and look at the date of the photograph,(1947)you will notice that the dates mentioned in the piece result in a muddled history. Believe me, going to Iraq to pick up Jews in 1947 was most likely very dangerous, but not comparable to those traveling in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1940 and 1945. The different groups arriving in Palestine beginning at the turn of the 20th C were usually numbered, rather than lettered (1st Alyah, 2nd Alyah etc. And the lower your number, the greater your “Jiches…” I am not sure about this Alyah B. Which was A?

Alexander Diamond says:

Thank you for this valuable contribution.

From Wikipedia:
Aliyah Bet (Hebrew: ‘עלייה ב), meaning “Aliyah ‘B'” (bet being the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet) was the code name given to illegal immigration by Jews to the British Mandate for Palestine in violation of British White Paper of 1939 restrictions, in the years 1934-1948. In modern day Israel it has also been called by the Hebrew term Ha’apala (“ascending”; Hebrew: ההעפלה‎).
It was distinguished from Aliyah Aleph (“Aliyah ‘A'”) (Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet): the limited Jewish immigration permitted by British authorities in the same period.

Thank you, Mr. Furst. But you have waded into a minefield here. Bader was part of a wider circle of Zionist agents in Istanbul during the war and was an integral player in the infamous mission of Joel Brand, who was sent by Eichmann from Hungary to negotiate the lives of 1 million European Jews in exchange for trucks and goods from the Allies to be used only on the Eastern front, according to Eichmann (the quality of whose promises are well known). That deal never came off because it was vetoed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill but more than 1300 Jews were released as a result of the efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Brand’s colleague in Hungary, Rezso Kasztner. This is the so-called Kasztner Train. Google it and you will discover that Kasztner was either a hero, who saved more lives than Schindler, or a Nazi collaborator. Bader and his colleagues in Istanbul have either been hailed as heroes or castigated for their indifference to the plight of Europe’s Jews. Does Bader touch on any of this in his memoir?

michael says:

The book does not seem to be available any more in google books. Even preview is not available. A pity.

Shriber says:

There is still trouble in Europe. People should be aware of this:

http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=191385

‘European Jewish communities are in serious danger’

“European Jewish Congress calls on governments to launch campaign against intolerance, anti-Semitism to remember “Never Again” concept. “

“The statement gave a recent example of a respected and government-funded Catholic school in Antwerp that hosted a ‘Palestine Day’, which was replete with anti-Semitic references and activities for youngsters.
One stall at the event was titled “Throw the soldiers into the sea” where children were invited to throw replicas of Jewish and Israeli soldiers into two large tanks, the organization highlighted.
The EJC, which is the democratically elected representative umbrella organization of European Jewry, is calling on European governments and the European Union to launch a campaign against intolerance and anti-Semitism, so to remind European citizens that the new Europe was established after the Second World War on the concept of “Never Again.””

Regarding the discussion of Aliya Bet, next time you’re in Tel Aviv, make a tiny detour from the tayelet (sea promenade) and see this wonderful memorial: http://www.programa1.com/project.asp?id=10

Gerald says:

For those of you who read Hebrew, the original book is available for purchase from Sifriat Hapoalim (see their Hebrew website)at the equivalent of about $6/copy. I just placed a call to them – they have about 50 copies in stock.

Old Rockin' Dave says:

There is a slight error in dates in the review. Germany did not invade Yugoslavia until the spring of 1941, not 1940. It is a notable date, because this may just have led to the final Nazi defeat. The invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece, decided at the last minute to bail out the Italians, set back the invasion of the USSR by six weeks. When winter set in and shut down the 1941 offensive in Russia, the Germans had not been able to capture Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, ultimately allowing enough recovery by the Soviets to lead to Germany’s defeat.

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gw jamie says:

Unfortunately I cannot read Hebrew but would love to read Bader’s memoir. Any suggestions (note: too old to start in on Hebrew :)

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Sara Springer says:

It does not appear that it can be downloaded from Google Books. Anyone have success finding it?

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Sad Missions

The spy novelist rediscovers Menahem Bader’s Aliyah B book, about the brave men and women who smuggled Jews from prewar Europe to Mandate Palestine

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