November 20, 2014 was the seventieth anniversary of the murder of Holocaust heroine Haviva Reick. The single word that best describes her is idealistic. In the thirty short years of her life, she was a leader and role model, helping others and acting according to her firm beliefs. As a young woman in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, and its surroundings, she was a respected leader of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement. With the rise of Nazism in Europe and following her ideals and her heart, she left her beloved family and homeland in late 1939 to immigrate to pre-Israel Palestine and become one of the founders of Kibbutz Maanit. There, she did hard physical work in the fields and vineyards, while also participating as an intellectual and workforce leader.
Haviva became a member of the Palmach – the elite fighting force of the Hagana, but then was chosen to join a special mission of the British military. She was among about forty young people, including two other women, that the British military trained to parachute into their European countries of origin to rescue stranded members of the Allied forces. However, the parachutists were also committed to assisting the remnants of their local Jewish communities. After training in Cairo in 1944, they were flown to Bari in Southern Italy, where they waited to be dropped by parachute into Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Austria, and Italy. Because circumstances of the war kept changing in late summer and early fall of 1944, these drops did not always go as planned. Furthermore, the plan of the British military did not end well for some of the courageous and perhaps naive young volunteers. Twelve of them were captured, and seven out the twelve, including Haviva, were murdered by the Nazis.
As a result of the uprising at the end of August 1944, Banská Bystrica, Haviva’s designated parachute drop, was the center of free Slovakia. Four parachutists were assigned to land there. Haviva was to partner with Rafi Reisz and operate in Slovakia, while Haim Hermesh and Zvi Ben-Yaakov were to land in Slovakia but then cross into Hungary. When the team was to leave for Slovakia, there was turmoil in the area and Haviva, as a woman, was at first prohibited from joining the men. Her handlers soon changed their minds and sent her on an OSS United States Flying Fortress cargo plane that arrived on September 17, 1944.
Haviva accomplished a great deal in the two months and three days that she operated in Banská Bystrica, the center of liberated Slovakia. Some surviving Jews arrived there from other locations, and those who had been in hiding locally made themselves known. While she was waiting for the other three parachutists, who had erroneously been dropped in nearby Nazi-occupied territory, Haviva immediately began to organize food and shelter for the Jewish refugees. She and her three companions then also carried out their mission to rescue Allied servicemen. Because she was acquainted with the area and some of the Jewish leaders, her participation was crucial.
The Nazis recaptured the territory of free Slovakia, entering Banská Bystrica on the evening of October 28. Haviva had a chance to leave on an Allied transport but declined. Instead, along with Rafi Reisz and Zvi Ben-Yaakov, she led a group of about forty members of Jewish youth movements and other community leaders to supposed safety in the nearby mountains on October 26. On October 30, the Nazis surprised the group by attacking from higher in the mountains, and some of the group, including the three parachutists, were captured and imprisoned. The three were wearing British uniforms and dog tags that identified them as Jewish.
They were imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis in Banská Bystrica. Then, wearing their RAF uniforms, Rafi and Haviva were shot in the back of their necks by Germans and Hlinka guards in nearby Kremniča on November 20, 1944. They fell into a mass grave, a 300 meter long ditch meant to stop German tanks. Rather than being treated as prisoners of war, Haviva and Rafi met their fate among 747 victims, about half of them Jewish. Unlike Haviva and Rafi, Zvi Ben-Yaakov was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and murdered there. Of the four parachutists in Slovakia, only Haim Hermesh, who had left the area earlier, survived.
Despite her selfless heroism, Haviva Reick has been little known and insufficiently recognized. She is not only a Slovakian and Israeli heroine, but indeed should also be known as a heroine in Great Britain. She was one of only sixteen members of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who also served with their SOE, Special Operations Executive, and the only one from Mandate Palestine. On June 8, 1946, the Haviva Reick, the illegal immigration ship named for Haviva, was intercepted and prevented by the British from bringing Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe to British Mandate Palestine. While King George VI did issue an official thank you in Haviva’s memory in October 1945, it might have been more humane and appropriate to allow a boat named in her honor to land in pre-Israel Palestine.
In Israel today, there are fifteen streets named after her. Givat Haviva, an educational institute devoted to dialogue and peace, bears her name, as does a kibbutz founded in 1949 in northern Israel, Lehavot Haviva (Haviva’s flames). Beit Haviva is a memorial center in her kibbutz, Maanit. Postage stamps were issued in memory of the seven murdered parachutists, including Haviva, in 1946, and an orange Gerbera flower was named for her. In 2004, Haviva, a biography by former Palmach members Tehila and Zeev Ofer, was published in Hebrew, and the book is now also available in English.
Haviva did find her final resting place in Israel, as she would have wished. When the bodies were exhumed from the mass grave in Kremniča shortly after World War II ended in Europe, Haviva was identified by her British dog tag and then buried in the British military section of Olšany Cemetery in Prague. In December 1951, the cross that had been placed on her grave was replaced with a Star of David, and then, in September 1952, her remains were brought to Israel and buried among the nation’s heroes on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
In Slovakia in 2014, 100 years after Haviva’s birth there, she is honored as a heroine in Banská Bystrica. Return to a Burning House, a documentary about Haviva Reick created by The Slovak National Uprising Museum (Museum SNU) in Banská Bystrica and Anzio s.r.o. production company, has its world premiere on November 20, 2014, in the cinema of the Museum SNU. The filmmaker is Anna Grusková and the producer is Mirka Molnar Lachka. The film, which is supported by the Europe for Citizens program, sponsored by the European Commission, is intended to be shown internationally, with a 2015 premiere planned for New York City.
This documentary is part of an international educational and awareness-raising project called “Haviva — Return to European Remembrance,” with the film’s premiere accompanied by an international conference. In addition, the Museum SNU created a garden in her memory and a ceremony entitled “100 Candles for Haviva” took place there in July. The museum also unveiled a statue in her honor.
Women have been left out of history in general, and Haviva Reick has been no exception. Of the three female parachutists, only one, Hannah Szenes, is well known, both in Israel and in the Jewish community in the United States. She left behind poems, one of which became a famous Israeli song, A Walk to Caesarea, commonly known as Eli, Eli (although many people who know the song do not know who wrote it). Born in Budapest on July 17, 1921, she was sent to Hungary as a parachutist, caught, and murdered by the Nazis in a Budapest prison on November 7, 1944. The third woman parachutist, Surika Braverman, came to pre-Israel Palestine from Romania and was supposed to return there. However, conditions on the ground prevented her from doing so. She was evacuated to Italy and then brought back to Mandate Palestine via Cairo. Although she lived until 2013 and was instrumental in creating the Israeli Army’s women’s corps, her name, too, is generally unknown in Israel. Of course, it is only fair to say that the names of most of the men who participated in the mission are also largely unknown today. However, because Great Britain did not usually send women into combat zones during World War II, the three brave women who voluntarily served from British Mandate Palestine should be entitled to special recognition as heroines.
Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz. Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory (2010, University of Wisconsin Press)
Tehila and Zeev Ofer. Haviva Reick: A Kibbutz Pioneer’s Mission and Fall behind Nazi Lines (2014, Fawns Publishing)]