One Experience of Independence
Written by Marjorie Luno on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Israel. Originally published in Beit Shalom Magazine, the publication of the Adelaide Progressive Jewish Congregation, in May 1987.
A long time ago a little girl of three came all the way from Russia with her family to settle in Broken Hill, where they, as did many migrants, hoped to do well enough out of the booming mining town to start a better life. About the same time, and eleven year-old boy came with his family from Palestine for much the same reason.
Later both families moved to Melbourne, the girl and boy grew up and married each other, and thus started a relationship between Palestine/Israel and Australia that continued in an unexpected way into the next generation. The two young people had three children, the oldest being a daughter, Naomi. Bright and outgoing, in her teens she joined The Young Judeans, a Jewish young people?s social club, and became secretary. In 1934 on one of the many Sunday outings, she met a lad called Clav Power. The picnic was at Hanging Rock!
Clav, who lived in North Fitzroy, had an older brother and sister. He enjoyed a sporting and social life, and as well as being active in the Young Judeans, he played soccer with Hakoah and belonged to the 3rd St. Kilda Scout Troup. After meeting Naomi, who lived in Elwood, he spent many long hours on the old Melbourne all-night trams, a good training for endurance.
In 1936 Naomi’s father returned to Palestine for family reasons. Things were booming there at that time, so he decided to stay and arranged for his wife and children to follow. Tearful was the parting; and that should have been that. But it wasn’t. Came 1939 and the outbreak of war saw Clav joining the Air Force. He and Naomi had continued corresponding, and maybe it was the changing circumstances that decided her that she’d better return to Australia, which she did as soon as she could get herself on a troop ship. Back in Australia she joined the Army and reached the rank of sergeant.
Clav, an Engine Fitter, managed to see her from time to time – in fact they were both in Darwin when it was bombed – and finally in 1944 they were married in Melbourne. Naomi’s mother was able to come out for the occasion, and to coincide with her visit and Clav’s leave, Rabbi Dr Sanger of Temple Beth Israel was the only Rabbi able to fit the wedding in on the desired date.
Naomi’s parents had settled in Ramatgan, and after their discharge from the army, she and Clav decided to join them in Palestine. So in 1946 they made the journey in an old ship on her last voyage before being broken up for scrap. At that time one disembarked at Port Tewfik, the port for Suez, took a taxi the odd forty miles, and then caught the train to Jaffa. In those days of fairly crowded and not-too-comfortable transport, and with Naomi pregnant, it could have been a nightmare, but they were young, excited with the adventure, and enjoyed every minute of it.
They settled down in Ramatgan with the family to await the birth of their first child. Clav was finding social contact outside the family fairly difficult, as his blue eyes and fair complexion belied his Jewishness, and he was more often than not mistaken for an Englishman. The English were not popular at that time. But it was just these characteristics that led Clav down a totally unexpected avenue, into what one could call his second war.
His father-in-law, a cinema owner, employed a certain Schlomo Zeidman, who also happened to be an area commander in the Hagganah. Schlomo immediately perceived the value of Clav’s appearance, and before you could say ‘Chaime Yankel’ there he was, issued with forged papers, and posing as a British policeman, his job being to travel all over Palestine picking up military information.
Clav had many sticky moments on his journeying. He remembers once in Jerusalem, the office of the newspaper ‘The Palestine Post’, was blown up early morning. He went to have a ‘sticky beak’ and found himself on the wrong end of a handgun. It happened to be two members of the Irgun Zwei Leumi, and he had a great deal of explaining to do, and some uneasy moments until he was cleared by another member of the Hagganah.
In 1947 he was made responsible for the guards traveling with the convoys between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, carrying civilians to and from the beleaguered city. The vehicles were ordinary buses, lined around the outside with sheet steel. In the heat, with little ventilation, they were insufferably hot inside. In those days the road through the Judean Hills was a track following the path of a Wadi, and at the foot of the hills was a Shell roadhouse in a place called Bab El Wad. As the track wound up through the Wadi, the Arabs hiding in the hills above would snipe down on top of the unprotected roofs of the buses. The progress was slow, and Clav remembers one time when a young soldier, frustrated by the Arab attacks and the slow pace, jumped out of his bus with two grenades, pulled the pin on one and lobbed it at the snipers, did the same with the other, then ran and jumped back on to the moving bus, oblivious to the fact that he should have been a sitting duck.
When, 21 years later, Noami and Clav were traveling to Jerusalem on a conducted tour, the guide heard Clav say, “I think we’re near Bab El Wad”. The guide asked him what he knew of Bab El Wad, and on hearing Clav’s story, stopped the bus, and they all walked about a quarter mile off the main road to where that same roadhouse still remains, now with a memorial plaque dedicated to the siege of Jerusalem.
On one of those convoy trips Ben Gurion was a passenger. There was always a rest stop at Rehovot, and Clav, standing near the great man, could see he was asking, “What’s that Sheigitz doing here?” So Clav walked up and introduced himself and they had quite a chat.
This had a sequel when, after Independence, Clav had to meet the Town Mayor at Ramleh to discuss certain controversial military matters. On the stairway to the office they met Ben Gurion coming down. He immediately recognized Clav and stopped to greet him. The Town Mayor was most impressed and Clav achieved his mission very amicably.
All this time the Hagganah were gathering together the nucleus of an air force, manned by people who had been in every air force in the world, and a good few mercenaries as well. It was a partisan Air Force. Clav, on the strength of his war experience, was then put in charge of mechanical overhauls. His identification number started with 67, which denoted “Volunteer from overseas”.
The aircraft consisted only of Piper Cubs and Austers, known irreverently as primus stoves. The method of bombing used, was to put the aerial bombs on the floor of the plane and kick them overboard with the foot. They did manage to ‘appropriate’ one de Havilland Dragon Rapide, the biggest aircraft then in Palestine that belonged to the Greek Airline Olympic. The tank force was another marvel of ingenuity. There were actually only two tanks ‘borrowed’ by two British Army officers, both married to Jewish girls although they themselves were not Jewish. These two deserted, taking their tanks with them. The rest of the force consisted of 500 war surplus jeeps, camouflaged with cardboard, tin and so on, built up on frames to look like tanks, and it was with these they went into action against the Egyptians. And won.
Clav was in a small airfield at Herzelia, the great day of the Declaration of Independence in 1948. Alcohol flowed freely and all inhibitions went with the wind. Great stuff, except that at 5am next morning, with everyone hung over they had to deal with an air raid.
After Independence, an American ex-Air Force Colonel came in to organize military supplies and Clav was asked to undertake another assignment. The embargo on sales of any war materials to Israel by the United Nations remained in force until 1954, although no such embargo applied to the Arab countries. Therefore it was essential for Israel to get supplies as best she could.
Clav, with two assistants, one English and the other South African, were to go to Cyprus separately and appear to meet casually in the same hotel. This was real John Le Carr stuff! Clav posed as a scrap metal merchant – but the scrap concealed two dismantled spitfires, obtained with much palm greasing, and all the tricks out of the underhandbag.
Officially the cargo, sailing on a ship registered under the Panamanian flag, was destined for Italy. Instead it found it’s way to Israel, and within two weeks after purchase those spitfires were in service, the first to fly for Israel.
This operation was tried again a second time. However this time the British twigged. The three men were taken into custody, their passports confiscated, and they were to be driven under police escort to Nicosia to be interrogated by the British Colonial Secretary. There were various roadblocks on the way where they had to stop for identification. Stopping at one, there was a sudden scuffle, the police escorts were knocked out and they were confronted by a Hagganah rescue contingent who took them to the H.Q.
They were smuggled into a small cargo boat and put into the hold under a load of carob. There they stayed for the duration of the trip back to Israel, absorbing the sweet, heavy odour of the carob pods, a scent that stayed with them for a few weeks. Great was Naomi’s relief to see Clav arrive on the doorstep, safe and unharmed albeit somewhat odorous. She had been warned he’d been taken into custody and was not expecting to see him for a long time.
After this episode there were more journeys to many countries: Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, France, and in early 1949, to Australia. Here again war surplus was being bought under the guise of scrap metal. Payment was difficult and had to be laundered through one of the Jewish fund-raising agencies.
One Sunday morning at Port Melbourne supervising the loading of cargo, Clav was horrified to see a crate drop and burst open, revealing its illegal contents. He took off and went straight up to Sydney and flew out immediately, two steps ahead of the authorities.
All this time, Naomi stayed with her parents, lucky if she saw Clav once every three months or so. Food was scarce and rationed. Black market was the order of the day, and without it things were impossible; with it, bearable. Eventually though, in 1950 back in Israel, there was a quiet period for Clav in Jaffa, where he was put in charge of technical inspection of all aircraft equipment. Another daughter was born.
Then came an offer of a job as an Air Force Attache but this again meant separations and impositions. Clav had had enough. He was 34; he and Naomi had two daughters, and he had a longing to get back to Australia and settle down to quiet anonymity.
This was not so easy to achieve and it was only by using Australian diplomatic influence that the final break was made possible. So eventually in 1951 the family decided to sail back to Australia. The wrench of leaving Naomi’s family was difficult for all of them. There was a bond of strong affection. Naomi and her younger sister were very close, and her mother’s life had been devastated by the death of her only son in the R.A.F. at the age of 20.
With a great deal of sadness and a great deal of relief, leave they did. To another continent, another life, another child (this time a son), and another story.