Sitting in the lounge at the aerodrome, while waiting for the ‘plane to take off, I tried to look “touristy” and non-committal. It had been difficult to keep the secret and to explain all one’s preparatory actions. My excuse had been an intention to make a trip to South West Africa for the purpose of attempting some articles on “Trusteeship”.
Outside on the tarmac the ‘plane’s engines were warming up and inviting to flight but inside the lounge the atmosphere was somnolent and deceptive. Huddled in coats the passengers and a few visitors were drinking coffee and playing a game of make-believe.
Amongst them eight others were on a similar venture to mine and I was aware of and also knew who they were, but neither by look or by word did I convey my knowledge: with deliberate bad manners I cold-shouldered some of my good friends. Everything was working according to plan. The venture had just begun, however, and there was a long way to go and a wary game to play.
At the briefing the previous day we had discussed strategy and procedure and coached one another in acting, amateur psychology and the necessity not to get excited. It was decided to travel openly in groups of two or three and gradually work up an overt acquaintanceship with one another as passengers travelling in the same conveyance normally do in the course of conviviality.
Two of my friends and I were supposedly two farmers and a tourist, two were engineers, two were students and two were merchants. We had to converse mainly on our particular spheres of interest. Five were to land at Rome and four at Paris and to add romantic touch we expatiated on the supposed glories of sunny Italy and gay France.
We had decreed relatives taboo at our departure but allowed a concession to two parents who wished to bid their son farewell provided the mother guaranteed that she would not sob. Few mothers would sob if their son were going to Italy on vacation although they might justifiably do so if their son’s destination were Palestine were things were not too peaceful at the time and the most bloody holocaust was forecast for May 15th when the British were due to relinquish the mandate.
Civilian aeroplanes, bound for Europe, leave Palmietfontein, South Africa at the most unearthly times with special partiality for the small ours of the morning. We were due to leave at four. Nobly she withheld her tears and our departure, being eminently legal for our declared destinations, was uneventful.
So too was the first day’s flight to Nairobi where we made an overnight stop. The nine of us slowly and politely worked up an acquaintanceship with one another as we did too with the remaining passengers and some of the crew. No suspicions appear to have been aroused although the departure of several passengers at one stage of the trip, which reduced the complement to eleven of whom nine were our party, made things seem a bit queer. Especially so when the air-hostess read out the passenger-list at one of the refuelling stops and the abundance of Jewish-sounding names caused a very British businessman, bound for Cairo, to prick up his ears. Fortunately this gentleman was on very friendly terms with us and our artless conversation served to dispel any potential suspicions.
The following day a new batch of pukka, British colonial personnel, apparently ex-army, going “Home,” helped to augment the passenger-list and correct the disparity of groups. They too proved most friendly.
At Nairobi the rest-house was pleasant consisting of a collection of bungalows. As arranged previously, I met a contact from the other group of the Italian party, (for which I was responsible) to discuss the situation. We met in the darkness (in Africa verging on pitch black at this time of the year) between two bangalows. He was somewhat apprehensive. The fellows were talking too much on forbidden topics and might easily be overheard. They should be advised to talk more on business and farming and Italian blondes and so forth. Then we discussed the weighty topic of Lydda airport, Palestine, where we were due to refuel the following day. What was to be our reactions? In our Zionist fervour we might err by extravagant emotional behaviour. Completer indifference on the other hand would be equally inadvisable for we were Jews and could not be honestly indifferent to Israel. A happy mean was necessary.
In the midst of this discussion a noise caused us to turn around. A shape in the darkness, a few feet away, turned out to be a native servant who had apparently been listening to us for some time. Our questions evoked no reply. He knew no English or else was feigning ignorance. We immediately imagined the worst. Having woven such a web of romance around our venture we were susceptible to the most far-fetched interpretations. It was no secret that the British were doing their best to stop illegal immigration to Israel and had been keeping a watchful eye on all routes. Had we been thwarted at this early stage? Some reflection led me realise that we had been unduly alarmed. In parts of Africa there is such an abundance of cheap labour that hotels and rest houses employ many Africans to wait on guests and not only to perform numerous services for them but also to be constantly in the vicinity in case such services may be required. That was the task of our intruder. Nothing untoward happened in the future to dispute this interpretation.
The following day we continued our journey which proved to be more eventful and even mildly exiting. From Nairobi we flew over one of the expansive African lakes, Victoria, to the pretty little village of Entebe where we enjoyed a tea consisting of liquid refreshments and an abundance of tropical fruits. Normally ‘planes fly over the Sudan and refuel there but a strike on the Sudanese railways had led to a petrol shortage and out next scheduled stop was to be Asmara and then Lydda, followed by Cairo. Headwinds at Asmara forced a change in the itinerary and after a brief stop at Malakal on the banks of the Nile (best described as an inferno somewhat redeemed by the availability of iced drinks) we flew on to Khartoum.
Here discussions of several hours duration were necessary before petrol could be obtained. Consequently we were unable to reach Lydda that day and landed instead at Cairo towards midnight. We had no tourist visas for Egypt, but having been given repeated and authoritative assurances that these were not necessary for a transit stop, were not unduly concerned.
Carrying out night-baggage we queued up at the customs and immigration counter where two officials were present to attend to us. Advisedly the nine of us did not bunch together but mingled with the other passengers. The queue crawled forward as all queues generally do. Suddenly I noticed the officer direct one of our group to a nearby room at the door of which an armed policeman took up attendance. This member was followed by others of the group although two of the party were spared this procedure.
By the time my turn arrived to be interviewed I was considerably alarmed and perturbed. What would they ask me and what would I say?
The officer was bitingly polite in tone:
“What is your nationality? He asked.
“South African,” I replied.
“That is not what I want to know. What is your religion?”
“Is that important to you?”
“Yes. Are you a Hebrew?”
There was no way that he could prove my religion but I did not hesitate to enlighten him on the subject. My friends were already in the room and I wished to be together with them whatever happened.
“Yes, I am,” I replied, “but frankly I don’t see what concern that is of yours.”
“Will you please wait in the room?” he asked.
I went to the room. It was the office of an air-company containing some furniture in the form of tables and chairs. My friends were sitting or standing and waiting. If we had wished we could have spoken our South African language, Afrikaans, which the Egyptians would not have understood. It might have made them suspicious, however, and we were eager not to give them any inkling that anything was amiss. I personally had bigger and more urgent problems in the form of a most incriminating document which I was carrying in one of my pockets. It was a slip of paper containing a note in Hebrew giving our names, the purpose of our trip and our destination. This document was to serve as a contact and identification to the underground network of the Haganah in Europe which was to pass us on to Palestine. In South Africa I had pointed out the danger of such a paper to my comrades but since this had been agreed upon as the form of identification there was little I could do about the matter.
In that office in Cairo I made an immediate decision to destroy that note if possible. I had some experience of Egyptians while on active service abroad in the Second World war and I was not prepared to take any unnecessary risks. On the comparatively deserted aerodrome they could easily subject us to a search and might even be emboldened to try rougher tactics.
With my one hand in my pocket and so as not to be observed I tore the piece of paper into a myriad of minute fragments. After that I tore up some other unwanted papers which I also had in my pocket and jumbled all the pieces together.
In full view of the official, who had now joined us in the room, I blatantly tore odd bits of papers into strips and smaller pieces seemingly doing so absentmindedly and trying to feign nervous, fidgety movements. Soon my immediate surrounding was littered by paper so that the mere presence of torn paper, being so widespread, would pass suspicion.
On behalf of the group and brimming with righteous indignation, I began to harangue the official and lodge complaints. He and another officer expressed their deepest sympathy and conveyed their sincerest apologies but claimed that the matter lay outside their hands and that they were merely acting on instructions. Rarely had I seen such saccharine hypocrisy. They were deriving the utmost enjoyment from our situation. Knowing and triumphant glances flashed between then and sickly smirks wreathed their brown faces. With a grammatically correct, if badly accented English they oozed apologies. Their faces and demeanour invited a blow and I am sure that most of us were itching to deliver it but the armed guards, now augmented to three, were a sufficient deterrent and our detainers were well aware of this not unimportant fact.
Speaking as the spokesmen of the group and claiming to be a lawyer by profession, I lodged the most vehement protest at the illegality of the whole proceedings. The officers replied that we were being detained until the plane left by virtue of the fact that we had no transit visas for a stay in Egypt. I claimed that the other passengers had no transit visas either. I knew for a fact that the two of our group who had been allowed to go to the hotel, after professing another religion, had the identical papers that we had and that several of the other passengers had informed me that they had no transit visas.
The official denied my accusation and refused a request to allow me to see other passports. I dilated on an international travellers convention which I said had been agreed to at Geneva and which had been signed by both South Africa and Egypt and allowed for reciprocal concessions. (I had heard vaguely about such a convention but to this day am not sure if there is or was such a document or agreement.) I protested that they had no right to discriminate against us on the ground of religion and that it would be easy for South Africa to apply similar measures and arrest the numerous Egyptian sailors who touched at South African ports.
They were adamant but my arguments managed to wring the admission that we were held because we were Jewish and that the relevant order had been issued by the Minister of the Interior.
At this stage, feigning severe cramps in the region of my abdomen, I was allowed to go to the W.C. duly escorted by an armed guard. On arrival there, persuading the guard to remain outside. I thankfully deposited the torn scraps of my Hebrew document down the sewerage pipes.
Meanwhile the two officers had started a systematic and thorough barrage of questions at all and sundry.
Were we Zionists? What did we think of Palestine? Did we intend going there? Why were we going to Europe? To all of which we answered satisfactorily, protesting the innocence of our motives and the purely educational and vocational nature of our journey.
We were all in excellent spirits and even somewhat too enthusiastic as one often is in difficult situation. Our good mood appeared to rattle and upset our captors who soon desisted in their inquisition.
I half-heartedly broached the possibility of seeing the South African Consul in Cairo, but did not press the matter for we did not wish to involve the South African government in our schemes. In any event we were denied access to the South African Consul and since the plane was due to leave at ten the following morning we decided to reconcile ourselves to the hours until then and to make the most of them. A request for beds was refused, but we were allowed to obtain blankets from the ‘plane and the air-line allocated an Egyptian attendant to provide us with a meal at their expense and to enable us to obtain extras at ours. Being at this individual’s tender mercies we paid accordingly. Those who had been in the army in Egypt assured the others that this was nothing unusual.
The officials offered to take our baggage back to the ‘plane but we refused this offer, for fear of tampering, and also the offer of a warmer room. Ours was warm enough and we had visions of secret wires hidden everywhere in the other room.
That evening I learnt a new Egyptian word, “saba.” Ever so often the guards came and counted us and took the extra precaution of looking behind the door and under the table. They seemed to have little faith in their ability to count and their ejaculation of “saba!” or seven, was accompanied by a glow of triumph.
During the remaining hours of darkness we arranged our own guards so that we should not be caught unawares. The main task of our guards, as it turned out, was to wake the Egyptian guards who regularly fell asleep. We gently shook them awake to prevent them losing their jobs.
Morning took its time in coming. We had little sleep. Tables are not very suitable as beds nor is it easy to doze recumbent in a hard chair. Our friend, the attendant, was soon on hand to take us to breakfast, after we had been allowed to go to the bathroom one by one and escorted. We were not keen to leave our luggage unattended but the chief police officer, who inspired more confidence than the two who had received us on arrival, gave his word of honour, as an officer, that our goods would not be touched. Hoping for the best we removed to some miserable little café where we breakfasted on diminutive eggs and dry chips in surroundings strongly flavoured by that queer oriental smell reminiscent of fish-oil.
Back in the room we awaited the arrival of our fellow passengers. They did not appear. Members of the crew arrived, however, to inform that some fault in the ‘plane’s radio apparatus would force a sojourn at Cairo until the tomorrow or even for another two or three days. The news came as a blow. Action was necessary. The thought of spending many more days in that room was unthinkable. We had discussions with the air-hostess and the local representative of the airline. New officials were due to relieve our “hosts” and it was believed that they would be more sympathetic. They were. While waiting for them to arrive we wandered around certain parts of the aerodrome ushered like sheep by guards who, unlike their superiors, were friendly in a simple fashion. I have clear recollections of fat Egyptian senior officials complete with fez carrying and reading copies of the latest Arabic illustrated weeklies, sporting fair and luscious Hollywood cover-girls. It was somewhat bizarre.
The new officials granted a concession by allowing us to go to the main restaurant which was clean, comfortable and almost luxurious and where good food was obtainable. Our attendant was out of a job for there was no opportunity for him to operate.
While we were sipping drinks at one of the wicker tables in walked a bevy of Arab dignitaries, dressed to kill. The majority were in Arab costume and one of our officials of the previous evening was in fawning attendance. According to the local press some Arab dignitaries were on a visit to Cairo from neighbouring states of the Arab League for the purpose of discussing the “successful prosecution of the Holy War in Palestine”. Here was irony indeed. Our good humour was not infectious and they glared at us until their ‘plane was ready to convey them to desert lands to inspire the crusade.
The representative of the air-line brought more news. The Minister of the Interior, having graciously granted us a temporary visa for twenty-four hours, ordered us to leave Egypt before its expiry that night. The only obstacle was that no ‘planes were due to leave Egypt that day or night. So further discussions were held with high government officials. Meanwhile then the day passed pleasantly enough. Later that afternoon something eventuated. A compromise was reached. On payment of a deposit (by the company), we would be allowed to go to a hotel provided we gave our parole not to leave its grounds and were prepared to accept an armed guard. Thankfully we agreed and went to the hotel in taxis. It was one of Cairo’s largest and most luxurious. The other passengers were sympathetic. They seemed to think that we had been detained because we had no transit visas. On our arrival they were about to set out for a trip on the Nile. We wanted a bath and amid the inquisitive gaze of everyone who could not appreciate why the noble guardian of the law trailed us, we went to our rooms.
The policeman sat himself on a chair in the passage and waited. A friend and I shared a room and having bathed and dressed we decided to go to the lounge for a drink or two. We had not reckoned with the policeman, however. He halted us and told us to wait till all the others were ready when he would accompany us downstairs. Our protests that this would take some time and that we were thirsty proved to be of no avail. He was, he said, only one man and consequently could not be in seven places at the same time.
When we were not in our rooms, the entrances of which he could watch from the passage, we would have to move together and arrange our plans accordingly. We acquiesced. The policeman was extremely courteous and friendly and, although conscientious to a marked degree, was possessed with a sense of humour. A short time previously there had been a strike of sections of the Cairo police force and he, having remained loyal to authority and the strike having failed, was due for promotion to commissioned rank. Pleasantly we teased him on hie seriousness and devotion to his duties. He too apologised for the inconvenience to which we had been put but, unlike his superiors, I believe that he was sincere in his protestations. Soon all seven of us were ready and we adjourned to the terrace for drinks accompanied by our guardian who accepted an invitation to be our guest. Duty forbade him to imbibe anything stronger than lemonade, he said. An itinerant bootblack being the vicinity we commissioned him to polish the future officer’s boots.
Dinner was a sumptuous affair in the large dining-hall with our guardian watching from the door. Although he was willing to accompany us to a cabaret in the building, the hour for its commencement was rather late so we retired early as we were due to leave in the small hours of the morning.
Our happiness knew no bounds when we boarded the plane again. We had passed the customs with no difficulty despite vague fears that attempts might be made to incriminate us by planting articles in our baggage.
Soon we were leaving behind the sea of lights, which was Alexandria, and flying over the Mediterranean. It was raining at Athens when we landed. We made ourselves as inconspicuous as possible. There were so many English-speaking people around the airport that we feared detection. We believed that the Arab network in Greece and Italy had by now been informed to watch out for us and had been provided with our personal details, culled from our passports by the Egyptians, and perhaps even with our photographs. Later we realised that our imaginations were richer than the situation there and in other places warranted.
On the last lap to Rome over the Corinth canal (to avoid the guerrilla fighting) the Aegean sea and territorial Italy, I gave detailed instructions and advice to the other four who were travelling via Italy. On the pretext of explaining the geography of the land I sat next to each one of them in turn and a muffled voice assisted by the throb of aeroplane engines made it difficult for us to be overheard. Having spent many months in Italy before I knew the country and its customs well.
We had decided to take the most elaborate precautions in view of our detention in Egypt and particularly in view of the impending general elections in Italy. There was a considerable communist scare at the time and talk of agents from Russia and other Eastern European countries. It was most likely that all visitors would be given more than the usual scrutiny and attention. We had no fear of being considered communists for we had no special interests in the elections but feared lest our destination be revealed. On arrival at Italy we were to go to separate hotels.
We would operate in one group of two and one group of three. I, in the latter group, would meet a contact from the first group at specified times at a designated spot next to one of the pillars of the Colosseum. There arrangements would be made for travelling to Milan on the next stage of our trip.
Arriving at Rome in the sunniest of weather we completed the customs and other formalities without any trouble. Here our plans went somewhat awry. The air-company suggested talking us all to one hotel where their offices were and we acquiesced. Once arrived there we all decided to remain there since it was a large hotel, but in separate rooms. The necessity for Coliseum meetings was thus obviated.
That morning the other four of our main group had flown on to Paris and we had parted with the minimum of ceremony, as planned.
I had been in Rome before as a soldier during and after the Second World War. It was not the same Rome. During the war people had been down and out but had lived strongly in anticipation of better things and improved conditions when peace and prosperity came. Now the majority of them were still down and out, but they hoped for nothing and were disillusioned and cynical and materialistic and grasping because the bubble of post-war dreams had been burst. It was awkward being a tourist. Their “spivs “and “drones” could recognise one immediately and one was never left in peace. They were always following offering to buy currency of sell something or perform diverse services. One had to be wary. I tried to dress more like an Italian and less like a tourist and succeeded in obtaining some peace and even in being stopped by Italian policeman who asked me where such and such a street was.
At the hotel we treated one another as casual acquaintances but met surreptitiously in one another’s rooms to plan our trip to Milan. We were eager to hurry in order to get to Palestine as soon as possible but decided to spread out departure over a few days and to catch separate trains. It was even seriously considered that I go to Milan via Genoa so as to put our opponents, whoever they might be, of the chase.
Looking back now I realise that we considerably overestimated our importance in the eyes of Arab espionage.
I boarded a train to Milan the following day. It so happened that a very good friend of mine getting married in Milan and I wished to attend the wedding. Plans for rendezvous with the group had been made, the meeting place to be the famous gothic cathedral. Buildings like this and the Colosseum, being always populated in their precincts with sundry and numerous citizens made a meeting of two or three people a usual occurrence.
Arriving at the station I was surprised to see two of our group on the platform surrounded by all their baggage and looking at a loss. Apparently they intended to travel on the same train as I. I ignored them and engaged in a friendly conversation with an Italian porter.
Suddenly one of the South Africans interrupted me.
“Excuse me, “he asked “Do you speak English?”
“More or less,” I answered, having considerable difficulty in stifling on incipient laugh.
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to help my friend and I. We want to catch the train to Milan and do not know what to do with our luggage. We would ask a porter but they do not seem to know any English and we do not know any Italian.”
I arranged matters with the porter and continued a chatty conversation with my friends. I asked them wither they were going, whence they came, whether they liked Italy or not and random questions about my land of birth, South Africa. We parted on the arrival of the train.
The train journey was fast and comfortable and as we rushed through the Italian countryside I was amazed at the rapid reconstruction that had taken place since the war. Of some of the stations and towns and cities through which we passed I had vivid memories of three or four years back when ruins and gaping chasms of destruction met the eye.
I was happy to be in Milan. It is a city whose pulsing, throbbing vitality I love. I felt as if I had never left.
I attended the wedding and the reception for the bride and groom. There was little austerity in Italy now. In Rome I had already noticed the variety of luxury goods and foods available everywhere and at a price. The women were as pretty and as well dressed as ever, using the fashion of the “new look” to the fullest advantage with attractive wasp-waist dresses.
The general elections were in the air. Posters and banners slashed the hoardings and fluttered in the streets. Handbills littered the pavement and little groups in continual session on the “duomo” square hawked and discussed the merits of their particular parties. Milan on the day of wedding was alive with red banners and red-kerchiefed Milanese.
Togliatti, leader of the Italian communists, was to speak.
When he did an audience estimated at more than a quarter of a million stood in the square for more than two hours to listen. The police were everywhere and in the days that followed one grew accustomed to the sight of lorry-loads of police riding round the city and making raids on various buildings.
The following day all our group had arrived and had contacted me. One of them became acquainted with an Arab in Rome who had come to the station to see him off.
In Milan I was to deliver my “charges” and myself into the safe custody of the Jewish Defence Organisation, the Haganah, who would get us to Palestine. There was one problem. I had destroyed my identity document in Cairo. How could I prove our bona fides?
It was easier than I had expected. While on active service in Italy I had taken an interest in Zionist activities and had contacts who could now identify me. My story was believed. Stage one of our “odyssey” had been complicated.
We were to remain in Italy longer than we had anticipated.