Lili Eylon

The El Al plane crash you never heard of

70 years later the mystery lives on. Why has this traumatic national event been forgotten?
58 El Al passengers were buried in a common grave at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery, Tel Aviv, August 4, 1955. (courtesy, via Isaac Berez, photographer)
58 El Al passengers were buried in a common grave at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery, Tel Aviv, August 4, 1955. (courtesy, via Isaac Berez, photographer)

Silence falls over the land. In city and village, shops are being locked and traffic is stopping. People are standing 10 deep in streets where nothing stirs. It is August 4, 1955. A week earlier, on July 27, El Al passenger plane 402 was attacked and downed over Bulgaria. No one survived.

It was El Al’s regular semi-weekly flight from London via Paris and Vienna to Tel Aviv, carrying 51 passengers and seven crew members. Travelers included 12 Americans, 15 Israelis, four Britons, three with German passports, four Canadians, five Frenchmen, one Pole, one Swede, and seven hopeful immigrants from the Soviet Union.

Suddenly, over the Bulgarian town of Petritch, bordering Greece and former Yugoslavia, two Yak 23 fighter planes of the Bulgarian Air Force opened fire at the Israeli aircraft. Within minutes, according to eyewitness Nir Baruch, Israel’s representative in Sofia, the pastoral landscape was strewn with human remains and the wreckage of the American-made Lockheed Constellation.

August 4, 1955, was the day of the ceremonial funeral. David Ben Gurion, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, Army Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, ministers and foreign diplomats rode slowly in 14 army lorries each carrying four coffins to Tel Aviv’s Givat Shaul cemetery, the victims’ final resting place.

It so happened that August 4, 1955, was the day I first stepped onto Israeli soil. The entire nation was mourning. I thought I had mistakenly walked onto a Hollywood set shooting a silent film. A strange, unforgettable welcome.

One of the plane’s passengers, guitar-playing Jack Brass, was a friend from New York who knew of my plans to travel to Israel soon. His parting words, “See you in Israel” lie buried among the charred memories of Flight 402.

Only his battered body made it to Israel; he lies in a mass grave, his name etched on two memorial stones — one in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery, the other in Nir Hen, a moshav in the Lachish area named for the tragedy. (The letters chet and nun together carry the numerical value of 58.)

What actually happened above the Bulgarian town of Petritch 70 years ago? Was it an unfortunate accident or a planned attack? If so, who perpetrated the crime? Will we ever know? And why is this event, Israel’s worst-to-date civilian air tragedy, not commemorated today?

“The downing of the passenger plane will forever remain a mystery that has caused immense pain to so many people,’’ says Gilli Mendel, daughter of Haran Bar-Dor, who was on the plane, a Mossad man rumored to have been the reason the Communist state deliberately targeted the flight, an assertion that Israel calls “utter nonsense.”

But popular beliefs die hard, and both Gilli and her mother Rachel, scion of the venerated Parnass family that has been living in Jerusalem since 1492, continued for many years to live under their shadow.

As revealed in a Haaretz article by Dalia Karpel marking 50 years since the deadly incident, the Bar-Dor tragedy was compounded by the fact that Haran, then only 33, was due to start a new job as a member of the Israel Purchasing Mission (an official body that predated diplomatic ties with Germany). That would have ended Haran’s peripatetic life far from home, and the family would live together in a four-room apartment in Cologne, he had written to Rachel. But it was not to be.

Shortly after the catastrophe, Rachel packed up her two daughters and they all went to London. “She had lost the love of her life and could not bear to stay on in Israel,” says her daughter Gilli, who was 6 at the time of the crash. Rachel never talked about her husband, and no photographs of him hung on the walls. The family was split further when, after Rachel and Gilli returned to Israel, younger daughter Jasmin left home to settle in California, where she became a painter and eventually died.

As an adult, Gilli helmed the International Film Festival at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque for 35 years. Married today to educator Amos, she is mother to two daughters and a son named Haran. They make their home in a tiny village near Jerusalem.

* * *

A similar tragedy befell Bessie, whose husband, Mike Cohen, also perished on the flight. Mike and Bessie lived with their four children in Cape Town, South Africa, had he was travelling on Flight 402 to explore possibilities for his family’s aliyah to Israel.

Their daughter Shirley was only three when her daddy, an electrician by profession, left, never to return. She hardly remembers him. A translator, she immigrated to Israel in the ’60s and lives today in Modiin. She has lovingly gathered what is probably the largest collection of documents concerning the air tragedy in what psychologists might call her search for her father.

Shirley speaks warmly of the invitation she and a few of the other victims’ family members received in 2013 from Slavianka Nickolova, a teacher in Petritch, above which skies the plane had disintegrated. A local rabbi recited the Kaddish mourner’s prayer. The town’s dignitaries made solemn speeches, offering apologies for the deed, and 150 schoolchildren standing at attention in their holiday costumes sang a special song for the occasion to complete the ceremony. A moving, memorable day.

As for Bessie, although she later remarried, Shirley said, “My mother never fully recovered from her loss.”

* * *

Pinchas Ben Porat, born in Ukraine, and a longtime member of Kibbutz Naan in Israel’s south, was one of Israel’s very first pilots. He had already flown in pre-state days, having also trained with the Czechoslovak army during the Independence War, later flying fighter planes in the Israel Air Force. In fact, Pinchas was the co-pilot in the ill-fated Constellation, scheduled to replace British pilot Hinks on its next flight.

Assi was only a few months old at the time of the tragedy and thus remembers nothing of his father. Today Assi is a teacher of Tai-chi living in Tel Aviv with his wife, Yoga instructor Ruti and daughter Lian – dancer, actress and singer – who often appears on TV. Assi’s two older siblings did not escape the effects of post-event severe trauma and could not pursue normal lives.

* * *

So, was it just an unfortunate incident or a deliberate assault? Who were the perpetrators?

Three official investigative committees — British, Israeli, and Bulgarian — pondered the puzzle and came to conclusions. All agreed that the plane had flown for several minutes in Bulgarian airspace.

The incident took place in the middle of the Cold War, and wariness was sharpened both in East and West. Bulgaria had suspected the Constellation to be a spy plane specially equipped for that purpose. In fact, the aircraft had served the Israeli military, but in 1951 El Al bought it and remodeled it for passenger travel.

Israel, corroborated by Britain, said the Constellation was clearly marked, and therefore easily identifiable. The Britons added that even if the plane had entered Bulgarian air space deliberately, shooting at it was against international law. Both the British and the Israelis discounted the claim that the Bulgarian Yak pilots had sent three warnings. Israel’s claim of a sudden unexpected storm over Yugoslav Skopje found no other confirmation. The injured parties asked for monetary compensation to governments and remaining families.

The request was denied. Four long years later, the question was resolved by the International Court of Justice. Each family received $8,430.

In an article in Bulgarska Istoria, a publication established after Bulgaria shook off the Communist yoke, Philip Yotov writes about the results of the Bulgarian Committee as announced by Defense Minister General Petar Penchevsky. The general called the fatal flight 402 “a tragic series of errors, disturbances, tensions, and incompetence.” For that, General Penchevsky directly blames eight people, and, unusual for a general, includes himself. One factor, he points out, stands out from the rest: “the lack of communication between the fighters and the ground.”

* * *

Curious about the moshav in the Negev named for the 1955 event, I went to see what mementos were exhibited there. I was met by three energetic young women, eager to promote their 50-50 religious-secular community. There is a memorial room with photos and a short walk from there, a well-placed memorial stone with a brief history plus the names of each victim.

Shulamit Levy, who has been living on Nir Hen for the last 45 years, explained that the moshav, which consists of some members occupied as farmers, raising chickens, or growing roses, with most moshavniks working in nearby Kiryat Gat or Beersheva. Shulamit is ably assisted in her publicity efforts by more recent arrival Rotem Betzer, now acting secretary general, and volunteer Chana Moses. All are eager to attract tourists and explain the history of their settlement and the story of the tragedy which lies behind the moshav’s name.

Commemorations have been conducted annually by El Al. at the Givat Shaul cemetery. They are generally confined to family members and their friends. As far as this writer could ascertain, there have been no national tributes since the disaster.

The question is: Why?

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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