Haviva Reik looked out over the fields of Slovakia. For the first time in years she was home—or, rather, above home, flying in an English warplane. It was summer 1944. For years, Slovakia had been a Nazi puppet. And now it was time for Reik, a Jew, to jump into enemy territory at the height of the Holocaust.
Just days before, Reik had been told that she couldn’t participate in one of World War II’s most daring missions, a plot in which Jewish parachutists from Palestine would jump into Nazi-occupied countries, infiltrate them, and organize Jewish resistance against the Nazis. But now, after refusing to step down from her task, she had been grudgingly accepted into the mostly-male mission. She was finally ready. She stood at the door of the aircraft and jumped.
Reik was one of over 240 men and women who volunteered for what seemed to be a suicidal mission. Since 1942, when the Nazisexchanged 282 Jewish prisoners for Germans, Jews in Palestine had known what was at stake for their fellow Jews in Europe. As word of the Nazis’ treatment of European Jews spread throughout Palestine, a group of paramilitary fighters from the Haganah, the secret Jewish army in British-occupied Palestine, hatched an ambitious plan to help Jews not through prisoner exchanges or outside pressure, but from the inside.
It wouldn’t be easy. First, they pressured Great Britain to help them get into Europe. Britain refused the plan—it was too ambitious, and they were focused on tactical objectives that didn’t include saving Jews. Finally, the Haganah managed to convince the British to help them in exchange for assistance locating and helping downed Allies in enemy territory. Great Britainpromised Jewish fighters space on British warplanes in exchange for a pledge that military missions would take precedence over saving Jews.
The Haganah now had the ability to get Jews into Europe. Next it needed fighters who were tough enough to head into hostile territory. At the time, the Nazis were deep into the Final Solution, their plan to annihilate all Jews. Much of Europe was in ruins and it would take daring and smarts to infiltrate occupied countries, then help Jews.
Of the 240 people who volunteered for the mission, only 110 were trained. Finally the group was narrowed down to 32. These men and women were mostly from Europe and spoke languages like Romanian and Hungarian fluently. Some were part of the Haganah’s elite fighting force, the Palmach, others were associated with the British army, and others were active in the Zionist youth movement fighting to make Palestine a Jewish state. They gathered in Cairo to train as paratroopers. When they weren’t shooting or practicing jumping from planes, the fighters were given code names, missions and cover stories.
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Training wasn’t easy. Some fighters, like Surika Braverman, lost their nerve when they got in the air and couldn’t jump. Others, like Yoel Palvi, were shaken by the news from Europe. When he found out that his native Hungary had just been occupied by the Nazis, he despaired. “Our fears have come true,” hewrote. “We’re too late! Now there will be no one to rouse the Jews to resistance. There will be no one to instill in every Jew the knowledge [that they must] drop everything and flee for their lives at all cost.”
Between 1943 and 1945, 32 men and women parachuted into Europe, and five others, including Braverman, snuck into Europe via other countries. They headed to Yugoslavia, Romania, Austria, France, Bulgaria and Hungary with missions to join and create resistance groups, link Allied sympathizers with resources in England, establish partisan camps, and help Jews resist the Nazis.
One group of parachutists helped organize the Slovak Uprising; others served alongside British agents in Yugoslavia, made contact with resistance groups throughout Europe, and helped Allied prisoners of war in Romania.
For seven of the parachutists, the missions were fatal. Hannah Szenes, a Hungarian woman who was approached to serve in the mission, was captured and tortured. Her Hungarian mother was dragged to jail by the Hungarian authorities, too. After a show trial, Szenes refused to beg for her life. She was executed by a firing squad. Her mother survived and then championed her daughter’s legacy, including her poems and plays.
As for Reik, who fought for inclusion in the mission to Slovakia, she was captured in the Slovakia mountains after helping found a Jewish soup kitchen and assisting Allied soldiers stranded in Slovakia. She had refused to leave behind the very old and very young members of the group when they fled a group of Ukrainian collaborators. Reik and the Jews she had helped were murdered in a forest and dumped into a mass grave.
Those who survived became legends in occupied Europe, where their presence gave hope to displaced and hunted Jews. “Every Jewish community heard of the parachutists,”writes Marie Syrkin for Commentary. “Of course all kinds of fairy-tales sprang up around these men and women. Their numbers grew in the popular mind; the nature of their deeds assumed a more spectacular character. This idealization was inevitable. The combination of desperate need and poetic answer was bound to create the myth.”
The surviving parachutists worked their missions until the end of the war; in fact, the last group of parachutists was sent down the day before the war ended in Europe. “These missions were meant to be just the beginning for Jewish groups infiltrating Nazi-occupied Europe,” notes Yad Vashem. Even though their work had been cut short, some parachutists stayed behind in Europe to help POWs and displaced people find housing. Most returned to Palestine and lived out the remainder of their lives in modern-day Israel, where they are revered as heroes today.
“Hero” is a label that many of the parachutists who saw their brave work as part of their duty to other European Jews, struggled with. Their mission may have been treacherous, but the hope they brought to the Holocaust-era Jews made the danger worth it. “We didn’t think they would make us heroes,” Braverman latertold the Jerusalem Post’s Seth J. Frantzman. “We wanted to go to the Jews of Europe and say that we had come to help.”