Journey’s End

Dubbed the  ‘White Zulu’, Johnny Clegg, one of South African most celebrated musicians, anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist dies at 66.

By David E. Kaplan

His fans knew it was coming.

The news broke in 2015 that the British-born South African musician, who blended western and Zulu music had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to perform while receiving treatment. Then in September 2017, came the announcement that he was embarking on a final international tour that he called “The Final Journey”.

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Man Of Africa. Johnny Clegg remembered for his music with songs like “Great Heart,” “Impi,” “Asimbonanga” and the heartrending “Scatterlings of Africa” as well as his contribution to social cohesion in a once divided South Africa.

That journey came to an end this July when the icon who had defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and taken his Zulu-infused rock music around the world, finally succumbed to his terminal illness.

Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the singer describes his upbringing as “secular Jewish.” As a child he spent several months living in Israel, which he again visited in 2003 when his sister living in Ra’anana passed away.

He had planned  a much-awaited revisit to Israel – this time to tour with his band in 2010 – hence the reason this writer called him on phone to interview him for Telfed, a South African community magazine in Israel that I had been editor of at the time.  I tracked the musician down while on tour of New Zealand to a hotel room in Auckland. Within hours of a press release that Clegg would be performing in Israel, the Telfed office, which had undertaken to promote the concert in Israel, was inundated with inquiries.

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Swimming Against The Currents. Johnny Clegg defied Apartheid through his music and his lifestyle.

A world away in Auckland, Clegg was happy to hear this upbeat update. “Israel is probably the country closest to my heart in terms of-ex-pats,” with close members of his family living in the Jewish homeland. “I have visited on two occasions, but this will be the first time that I will be performing there,” he enthused.

One of the many hits he would be singing would be “Scatterlings of Africa” which rocked the charts in the UK “enabling me to give up lecturing in Anthropology at Wits University and focus on music.”  In 1988 the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Clegg had once explained the inspiration for the song in a live concert, saying “When we wrote this song, the oldest human bones in the world had just been discovered at Olduvai Gorge, in Africa. So this is a song about how everyone can claim to be African … if they want to, that is.”

Harassment To Harmony

Prior to his overseas success, “making a living exclusively  from music in apartheid South Africa was difficult. Our racially integrated band was refused airtime on the radio and our concerts  were routinely broken-up by the police, who would barge onto the stage with dogs and shotguns.”

His band Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.

Clegg made it ‘possible’!

The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music.

The year that Clegg planned to tour Israel, was proving “very busy.”

Earlier in 2010, he told the writer, “We performed at a 9-day concert in Rabat, Morocco,” where his group joined some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue. Clegg had also recently finished recording his own compositions for a Nelson Mandela audiobook with narration by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had enjoyed a strong association with the iconic former state president and performed frequently to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat AIDS.

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Forbidden Fruit. Under the shadow of Apartheid, Juluka reached a young white public that was drawn to its ‘exotic and forbidden music‘.

Johnny’s Journey

As an adolescent in Johannesburg‘s northern suburbs, he related befriending Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, “drawing me into the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance scene. Through Charlie, I mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar as well as the isishameni dance styles of the migrants.”

Johnny was on the way to becoming a “White Zulu”.

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“The White Zulu”. Johnny Clegg knew all the moves.

Clegg’s close association with black musicians frequently led to his arrest.  His first arrest was at the age of fifteen and – in  SA legal parlance – it was for violating the Group Areas Act that prohibited people of different races from congregating together outside select areas and at select times.

However, it was his meeting with Sipho Mchunu that had the next major impact on his life and music. “I was seventeen and Sipho was a Zulu migrant worker; we just clicked and that led to Juluka.”

He explained that “Juluka means “sweat” and also had been the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.

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The Young Ones. Johnny Clegg & Sipho Mchunu

Having myself been a student of Anthropology at the University of Natal, Durban, this writer was familiar with Clegg’s earlier academic career lecturing at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Natal, and writing several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance.

Clegg had a talent for integrating his knowledge of Anthropology with his music, which led him in the early stages of his musical career, to include in his songs snippets of Zulu culture.

Later, his lyrics would contain coded political messages and references to the battle against Apartheid, although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. “Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist”. For him, “a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”

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Johnny Clegg performs with Savuka, his next band following Jaluka, in San Francisco in 1990. (Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty Images)

 Revolutionary Road

Nevertheless, Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; it proved a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation – Apartheid. As a result of the political messages imbedded in their music, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. While  harassed at home, Juluka managed to tour abroad playing in Europe, Canada and the USA , and had  two platinum and five gold albums, emerging as a major international success.

In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon, France that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, allegedly complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen my fans”.

During a concert in 1999, Clegg was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the anti-Apartheid protest song dedicated to the President, Asimbonanga. Meaning – “We have not seen him” – Asimbonanga was one of the first songs to call for Nelson Mandela’s release while still imprisoned on Robben Island.

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Living Legends. President Nelson Mandela joins Johnny Clegg on stage in 1997 during the singing of Asimbonanga, the song calling for Mandela’s release from Robben Island

Unfortunately, Israelis would not get to hear Clegg live in 2010 with those great hits ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ andAsimbonanga’ because the tour to Israel was cancelled, much to his regret.

Paying tribute to his father, his son Jesse Clegg, expressed: “Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music, he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us, he awakened awareness.”

“They are the scatterlings of Africa
Each uprooted one
On the road to Phelamanga
Where the world began
I love the scatterlings of Africa”

 

Asimbonanga was an anti-apartheid song by Savuka, from their 1987 album Third World ChildIt was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island the time of song’s release, and other anti-apartheid activists.

 

 

*Title picture: WHITE ZULU: Johnny Clegg (Picture: Tsheko Kabasi)

“Welcome To The Club”

It depends….!

By David E. Kaplan

If you want to become a life member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world – the All England Club, which organises the Wimbledon Championships – then either marry a  prince, like Kate Middleton did, or try the easier way and – WIN IT!

When Simona Halep won last Saturday the Wimbledon women’s final, what seemed to please her the most was that as a champion, she, too, now had life membership of the venerable old club started in 1868 “by six gentlemen” at the offices of The Field, the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine.

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Member Of The Club. Simona Halep holds the Venus Rosewater Dish while proudly wearing her new Wimbledon membership badge. (GETTY IMAGES)

Halep had spoken in the locker room earlier in the fortnight about what membership would mean and said:

It was one of my motivations before this tournament, so now I’m happy.”

And Halep wasted little time in taking advantage of her elevated status, being pictured the day after her win against Serena Williams smiling broadly with a purple membership badge pinned to her red dress after being awarded it by club chairman Philip Brook.

However, for some, even by winning the world’s most famous and prestigious tennis event might not get you to the coveted membership; that is if you’re  either Jewish or Black.

Ask  84-year-old Jewish Angela Buxton, who is accusing the All England Club of Antisemitism because she has yet to receive membership 63 years after her victory in 1956.

It’s too late to ask her Black American doubles partner, and twice Wimbledon singles champion Althea Gibson who passed away in 2003.

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Black And White. Angela Buxton (right), won the Wimbeldon ladies doubles in 1956 with Althea Gibson (left), who went on to become the first black player to win the ladies singles title.

In 1956, the English former tennis player Angela Buxton, together with her playing partner, Althea Gibson won the women’s doubles title at both the French Championships and Wimbledon.

Angela Buxton was the first British Jewish player to win a title at Wimbledon. Following the win with Althea Gibson – the first black American woman to compete and to win at the tournament – a British newspaper at the time ran the headline:

Minorities Win

Gibson was the only black woman to win the Wimbledon singles (1957 and 1958) until Venus Williams took the title in 2000.  When she died in 2003, she was still awaiting her membership after applying – like her Jewish partner, Angela –  in 1956.

Born in Liverpool, Angela Buxton was the daughter of second-generation immigrants from Russia. Angela and her family spent the war years in South Africa where she took up tennis at the age of eight and quickly excelled. Returning  to England following WWII, Angela pursued her tennis in London  and then in California where she was coached by Ben Tilden, an ex-Wimbledon winner with whom she began playing mixed doubles.

Angela returned to England in 1953, ready to compete in Wimbledon, but at the Bournemouth Hardcourt Championship she was soundly beaten by the reigning Wimbledon champion Doris Hart. Ready to quit, Buxton decided to play in her last tournament at the 1953  Maccabi Games in Israel. There she won two gold medals which renewed her confidence, and back in London, Angela had her most successful tennis year in 1956. It was “my Wimbledon year,” winning the women’s doubles title and reaching the singles final.

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“Minorities Win”. Angela Buxton (left) and Althea Gibson (right) accept their Wimbledon trophy from the Duchess of Kent after their 1956 doubles victory. (PA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)

Rarely Remembered

So, while the players battle on the manicured grass courts of Wimbledon each year in July surrounded by the history of the world’s oldest tennis tournament, rarely remembered is the prejudice-defying moment in 1956 when Althea and Angela – the  African-American and the  British Jew – teamed up to win the women’s doubles championship.

Both had to overcome prejudice which stands in sharp contrast to today’s diversity in the top ranks of tennis.

When residing in South Africa during the WWII, Angela’s neighbors complained about her playing “with nonwhite girls” with one exploding at her mother, telling her, “You Jews think you own the world.”

Back in England after the war, Angela began winning regularly on the junior tennis circuit and took lessons at London’s renowned Cumberland Lawn Tennis Club in West Hampstead. Dating back over 120 years, the CLTC is steeped in history since the first balls were hit on its courts back in the 1800s.

However, much harder than the hard surfaces of the courts, was the below the surface antisemitism in post-Second World War England. Regardless of her talent, her coach at the Cumberland assured her:

You’re perfectly good, but you’re Jewish. We don’t take Jews here.”

The American Civil War might have ended slavery; WWII did not end antisemitism.

“Waiting For Godot”

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Angela and Althea. Angela Buxton (right) will be speaking about her late victorious Wimbledon doubles partner, Althea Gibson (left) at the upcoming 2019 US Open at Flushing Meadows, New York.

Like the two central characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot who never arrives, so the two players (one posthumously) of the 1956 final are waiting for Wimbledon that too ‘never arrives’.

While Angela was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame during its opening ceremony in Netanya, Israel in 1981 and next month will be recognised at a special ceremony at the 2019 US Open, where she will deliver a speech about her doubles partner Althea Gibson, Wimbledon still ignores her.

When Angela last inquired about the status of her membership, she was told that “They said I had refused it and my membership had gone to the back of the queue. This is simply not true; I never refused it and there are so many players who didn’t do anything like me and got membership.”

Noting the increase in antisemitism in the UK and its prevalence in the Labour Party – the traditional party of much of Britain’s Jewish community – Angela expressed to The Times, “It’s an unfortunate example of how the British really treat Jews in this country. This sort of thing exacerbates the feeling towards Jews. It’s perfectly ridiculous, it’s laughable. It speaks volumes.”

A Wimbledon spokeswoman responded: “While the decision-making process for membership of the All England Club is a private

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Playing Out The Clock. At 84, Wimbledon women’s single finalist and women’s doubles winner, Angela Buxton remains at the “back of the queue”

matter, we strongly refute any suggestion that race, or religion plays a factor.”

Meanwhile, Wimbledon’s Jewish champion Angela Buxton is still waiting for recognition.

Well now that the matter is out in the open and hardly a “private matter”, the question remains:

At 84, how much longer is Angela Buxton expected to still stand “in the queue”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let Us Never Forget

Former South African couple in Israel honoured by Lithuanian government in Tel Aviv

By David E. Kaplan

What we are all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind, or who left us behind. They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness,” Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor.

For over 20 years, these words inspired Abel and Glenda Levitt to embark on a mission to ensure that the names of murdered Lithuanian Jews do not remain buried with their remains and to educate young Lithuanians to understand why a once vibrant Jewish community that lived amongst their grandparents is today “No More”!

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Towards A Tomorrow Of Tolerance. Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas (left) awards Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the 4th June 2019. (Photo D.E. Kaplan.)

In the same week this June that D-Day 70th commemorative ceremonies were held on both sides of the English Channel,  honouring the bravery of the soldiers that participated in the 1944 Normandy landings “that their sacrifice should never be forgotten,” a less conspicuous ceremony was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv honouring two different kind of ‘soldiers’ to ensure that the victims of Nazi tyranny  and their collaborators, would also “…never be forgotten”.

Close friends and family, the media, members of the Lithuanian embassy and honoured guests including Bennie Rabinowitz from Cape Town, South Africa, heard addresses before Lithuanian Ambassador,  Edminas Bagdonas, awarded Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Lithuanian Diplomacy Star”. The award was presented “for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and commemoration of historical memory.”

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Remembering Birzh. Bennie Rabinowitz the main benefactor of the Memorial Bridge in Birzh (centre) with Abel Levitt (left) and Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas. (photo D.E. Kaplan)

From Rugby To Roots

Who would have thought that the Levitt’s journey began over a rugby match that was not even played? “It was pure chance that took us on our first trip to Lithuania in 1998,” reveals Abel. “Our son Adam played for Israel’s national rugby team and when we saw they would be playing in Vilnius (Vilna), Glenda and I decided to join the tour as “camp followers” determined to wave the biggest Israeli flag from the stands.”

It was not to be!

The match was cancelled but  not the Levitts’ trip. They had  made arrangements to meet with Jacovas Bunka known as “The Last Jew Of Plungyán”, the town  Abel’s father left in 1913 aboard the Durham Castle for Cape Town.

So, while no flag was unveiled in 1998 at a rugby match, a journey of discovery began for Abel and Glenda that traversed many miles and many years and, on the 17th July 2011, through perseverance and persuasiveness, a Memorial Wall was unveiled at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941.

At that ceremony in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and diplomatic representatives of ten countries, including Israel, Poland, Japan the USA and Germany, Abel expressed that  the memorial, “allows us to come and stand here in the killing field of Kaušenai and mourn. We do not ask how it happened. WE KNOW.

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No More Nameless. The Memorial Wall at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941 was unveiled in 2011.

We do however ask: WHY?”

“No longer,” continued Abel, “do we speak about 1800 anonymous souls. This Memorial Wall is the tombstone to our martyrs.”

One of the names appearing on the memorial was Abel’s uncle, his father’s brother – Yisrael Levitt.

The Hero of Plungyán

It was from 75-year-old Miriam Lisauskiene, a lawyer in Klaipeda in Western Lithuania –  and whose name Glenda had earlier come across researching at Yad Vashem – that Abel learned of the final few minutes of his uncle’s life that earned him the honorific:

 “The Hero of Plungyán”.

Miriam was revealing her own story of survival; that she was fourteen years old when she stood at the edge of a pit in Ponar outside Vilna waiting for the bullets to pierce her back and thrust her down into oblivion. As the shooting began, she saw her friends fall beside her and one pulled her down as “We were holding hands when the shots were fired.” Scratched by a bullet, Miriam followed her friends into the grave. Later that night, she clawed and crawled her way out over dead bodies and mounds of earth.

It was while Miriam was showing the Levitts a video of her testimony to the Spielberg Foundation that she excitedly jumped up from her chair and pressed pause.

“There’s your uncle, Abel” she animatedly bellowed. “He was so athletic and tall; you look just like him with the same skin colour. I remember him like it was yesterday.”

She related how the Jews were lined up at the edge of the pit, waiting their fate. Yisrael Levitt, who had been one of the stronger men, had been digging his own grave. Suddenly, he turned around, and with his spade, he knocked the gun from the hands of one of the killers and ran. He knew he had little chance, but what little time he had, he would be free. “Miriam did a zigzag movement with her hand, indicating the way my uncle ran towards the forest,” described Abel. “He never made it. As he reached the edge of the field, his eyes fixed upon the trees ahead, a solitary bullet from a hunting rifle with a telescopic lens ended his valiant run for freedom.”

Miriam described how “he was dragged back like a fleeing deer and tossed into the grave”. Shaking with emotion, Miriam said to Abel, “Your uncle was the last Plungyáner to be thrown into the pits; and he was known thereafter as the ‘Hero of Plungyán’.”

From Roundup to Redemption

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Paintings by young school children in Plungyán on their understanding of what happened to the Jews of their town in 1941.

Abel reveals what happened in July 1941 to the Jews of Plungyán. “They were rounded up by the German soldiers and their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators in the village square about 100 metres from where our family lived in Telz Street. They were then led into the Groyse Synagogue where they were held in indescribable conditions for two weeks. Thereafter they were marched – the elderly taken by cart or lorry; the children carried – to the Kaušenai forest. For two days the sounds of the shooting could be heard in Plungyán, only four kilomtres away.”

There had also been a witness. image008 (4).png

“A Jew by the name of Garb – who incidentally had family in Cape Town – had married a Lithuanian Catholic woman and converted to Catholicism. The local priest pleaded for his life with the German officer who only moments before his execution ordered his release on hearing that Garb had been “baptized”. Garb survived the War and provided detailed testimony of what transpired.”

It was tough hearing Abel speak of the seventy-five schoolgirls who had been raped and murdered. “The priest had begged for their lives and offered to baptize them – but to no avail. They lie buried in a mass grave – covered symbolically with seventy-five slabs – as one climbs the hill.” It was here that Abel discovered that his first cousin, Rosa Levitt, aged twelve, lay buried.

image009 (2).pngIn recent years, when it became impossible to save the synagogue from development – there had been the hope of converting it into a museum to preserve what Jewish life had been like before the Shoah – Abel and Glenda asked the question that paved the path ahead. “If the synagogue is to be demolished, what’s to become of the bricks?”

 

And so it came to be, that 1800 bricks – one for each of the Jews murdered – were salvaged, stored and then used to build a Memorial Wall so that the names of Plungyán’s martyrs will be preserved for all time.

It was the first such undertaking in Lithuania, “possibly the first in Eastern Europe,” says Abel. With more money raised by the Levitts than was needed for the Memorial, “we supported a Tolerance Centre in Plungyán, the eighth in Lithuania and considered one of its finest.”

This was only the beginning.

The Levitts engaged with teachers in Plungyán – today a city of 25,000 –  to educate its youth of the town’s Jewish legacy and why and how there are no Jews left. Art competitions today are held annually for school children on the theme of: “What happened to our Jewish community?”

Some of these art works have been exhibited abroad.

“It is only by educating the young people about what happened,” says Abel, “that we can hope for a better understanding between our peoples, as we follow the words of Almighty God to the prophet Joel:

“Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children
and their children tell their children, from generation to generation.”

While Glenda Levitt noted in her  ceremony address that “there are many worthy causes in this world of ours deserving attention,  Abel and I stumbled unto two subjects which we felt were interwoven like a tapestry – honouring the victims of inexplicable murder and  to ignite in young Lithuanian students an awareness of the vibrant life of a community of Jews who were Lithuanian, how they lived and how they died and are no more.”

The magnitude of the loss was brought home by the Levitt’s son Ari revealing that had certain Jews in Lithuania not read the writing on the wall, the world would not have ever know of:

Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel; Abba Eban, Former Israeli Ambassador  to the US and UN; Amos Oz, Israeli writer and intellectual; Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laurette for economics; Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laurette chemistry; Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laurette for Literature; Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter and Nobel prize for Literature, Marc Chagall, artist; Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter; J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in the Rye; Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy award winner; Michael Levitt, Nobel Laurette for Chemistry and Brian Levitt, Officer of the Order of Canada.

Ari concluded that with his parents, “Being recognised by the Government of Lithuania for their tireless work in preserving the memory and promoting tolerance, they earn their place on the list of achievements of Jews of Lithuanian descent.

A Town Called Birzh

And then we learnt of Birzh!

There was a large poster facing the seated guests at the Lithuanian Embassy with two photos of Jewish life before WWII and the disturbing words:

Commemorating Birzh-Birzai 8.8.1941”.

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Disappearance Of A Community In One Day. The poster of the extermination of the Birzh Jewish community at the award ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv.

It was said that Birzh was a town few people had heard of. To Lithuanians it is known for its beer and breweries, but for Jews whose families lived there since the 16th century, it is remembered “where their Lithuanian neighbours helped massacre its entire Jewish population of 2,400 in 1941,” wrote Bennie Rabinowitz, Gweynne Schire and Dr. Veronica Belling in their article, ‘Remembering Birzh”. Until very recent years, the present-day residents  were unlikely to have ever met a Jew, even though before the war, half its population was Jewish.

 

All this changed when Abel and Glenda visited Rhodes scholar and philanthropist Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town in 2014 and asked if he would help sponsor a young Lithuanian, Gabriella, through law school in Israel. With Bennie’s support, Gabriella the granddaughter of the lawyer from Klaipeda, Miriam Lisauskiene would graduate at the IDC Herzliya and is today working at a top law firm in Tel Aviv and was one of the guests at the ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. However, back at that 2014 meeting in Cape Town, Bennie revealed that his family roots were from Birzh and that besides a photograph of its main Street in the early 1930s, all he had was “just a name.”

What a surprise to Bennie when the Levitts revealed, “we were there two weeks ago.” What alarmed Bennie was the Levitt’s relating that after seeing the mass Jewish graves, they visited the Birzh Museum where it had NO recorded history of Jews.

It was as if Jews never existed in Birzh and yet a 1931 government survey showed that Jews owned 77 of the town’s 99 businesses; owned 12 out of 14 groceries; 9 out of 12 butcheries; 11 out of 12 textile and fur manufacturers; 7 out of 8 leather and shoe business, 3 out of 4 haberdasheries and 28 of 45 factories.

So why no record of Jews in the Birzh Museum?

The date glaring at us on the poster revealed the explanation.

On August 8, 1941, 2400 Jews of Birzh, including 900 children – were stripped naked and shot into pits in the Astravas forest, 3.5 kilometres north of the town. It was carried out by Gestapo officers supported by 70 Lithuanians from Linkuva and Birzh.

Testimony has revealed that when the killers returned to town at 7.00pm – having begun their grisly work at 11.00am – they “walked in singing.”

This June 2019, the townsfolk of Birzh will became more aware of this dark past as a monument to the victims was officially opened.

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Bridging Past, Present And Future. At the official opening of the Memorial Bridge in Birzh, Mayor Vytas Jareckas, Merūnas Jukonis, school’s history teacher Vidmantas Jukonis, and head of Garden department Gailutė Tamulėnienė.

Made of sheets of metal, winding their way on a bridge over water and through the Lithuanian forest, the names of the victims appear on the memorial cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. There are three large tablets of stone. One contains the Birzai story in Lithuanian, another in English and the third stone records the major contributors to the project led by Ben Rabinowitz of Cape Town.

The architect of the Memorial is Dr Joseph Rabie, a graduate of the Haifa Technion and a former Capetonian, today living in Paris. His grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Birzh, the Yiddish name for Birzai.

With successive Lithuanian governments accused of minimizing the role of Lithuanians in collaborating in the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry – 96.4%, more than any other country – the award by the Lithuanian government to Abel and Glenda Levitt for their monumental projects to educate is a hopeful sign of new understanding.

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Man On A Mission. Abel Levitt of Kfar Sava (originally of Cape Town, South Africa), a descendant of a Plungyáner, delivering the keynote address at the commemoration ceremony held on 17 July 2011 to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Plungyán. Abel and his wife Glenda were among the primary enablers of the new monument that lists all known names of the town’s Jewish residents killed at this site. Photo: Sonya Meyer (Levitt).

In this new spirit of confronting the past, students at the Birzh Austra High School collected the names of former Jewish citizens of their town and painted them on stones which they then took in a procession – accompanied by the Deputy Mayor –  from the once Birzh ghetto to the mass grave, where they were solemnly placed.

When these local schoolchildren returned home covering the same journey as their town’s earlier mass murderers, they were not “singing”.

Today, Birzh is Judenrein!

That is a fact not to sing about but to remember and mourn.

In the words of Elie Wiesel:

 They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness.”

 

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Bridge Over Troubled Water. A memorial bridge over water through the Lithuanian forest, reveals the names of the Jews murdered in Birzh cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. The memorial was officially opened in June 2019

 

Entebbe Revisited

The passing of a French pilot in Nice this week, brought back memories of the heroism of two South Africans in Israel’s ‘The Great Escape’.

By David E. Kaplan

When the news broke in Israel on the 28 March 2019 that the Michel Bacos – the pilot the pilot of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv that was hijacked in 1976 and landed in Entebbe – had died at age 95, it brought back memories and a huge amount of pride.

He refused to abandon his passengers, who were taken hostage because they were Israeli or of Jewish origin, risking his own life,” Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, where Bacos lived, announced Tuesday on social media. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France.”

When the hijackers were planning to let Bacos, the rest of his crew and the remaining non-Jewish hostages go, he refused.

“I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality…. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”

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Captain Courageous. The captain of the hijacked Air France flight, Michel Bacos (right), who refused to abandon his passengers, addresses the media in 1976. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

While President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that Bacos was “a quiet hero and a true friend of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing,”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the pilot “stayed with the hostages through all their hardships, until IDF soldiers – led by my brother Yoni – freed him in a daring operation. I bow my head in his memory and salute Michel’s bravery.”

One of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in human history, many who were around at the time will recall where they were when the story broke. I was a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in Grahamstown when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would be interviewing two South African heroes who participated in the rescue Dr. Jossy Faktor and Ricky Davis. Both had been members of South African Jewish youth movements before immigrating to Israel.

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Honouring Heroism. Formally of Pretoria, South Africa, Dr. Jossy Faktor (right) of ‘The Entebbe Raid’ medical team, receives further rank from Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak (left).

The crisis that led to the Entebbe Raid began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – diverted the aircraft, ‘flight 139’ to Entebbe. There, the hijackers were joined by three more colleagues who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking. If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.

Shades of the Shoah

The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for eating his enemies.

It was said that his palace fridge had been a real ‘who’s who’ in Ugandan politics – leftovers to go with the salad. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move. No options were risk free.

The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision.

They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter. Shades of the Shoah colored the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.

It also knew what it had to do.

It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Jossy at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.

When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their old Habonim friends, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of Terry and Carol’s front door, that he was about to enter the history books.

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Ready To Rescue. Originally from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Ricky Davis at the time of ‘The Entebbe Raid’, whose unit was tasked with neutralising the Ugandan Russian Migs on the airport tarmac.

At roughly the same time, 21-year-old Ricky Davis was with his paratrooper unit at Wingate when the call came through. Only two years earlier, Ricky, a member of Betar in Port Elizabeth, made Aliyah and within three months joined the IDF. “We immediately packed up and assembled at a base near Petach Tikva. Although we were aware of the hijack drama playing out at Entebbe, we had no idea that we would be connected. We went on so many hair-raising missions into Lebanon and Jordan in those days that we assumed it was another of the ‘usual ops.”

 

Once assembled at the base, “Everything became top secret. We began training, still not knowing our destination. Only at the last stage, were we brought into the picture. My unit was to secure the escape by destroying, in advance, anything that could jeopardize our escape.”

 

“No Going Back”

The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”

The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”

Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.

“We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons.  Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.” The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing. “When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”

The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” says Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”

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Hostage Crisis. Rather than report that Israel recues its hostages, a Ugandan newspaper reports that “Israelis invade Entebbe”.

Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty ready to accommodate the hostages and expected wounded.”

The other three planes carried ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.

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Planed To Perfection. The Black Mercedes used to fool Uganda soldiers in the Israeli raid on Entebbe parked aboard an Israeli transport plane upon return from the July 4 operation. (AP-Photo)

In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.

Into Battle

Jossy’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”

Ricky’s unit, tasked with getting away safely, took care of the Russian Migs on the airport tarmac. “The real danger was that they could give chase, easily catch us, and shoot us down. We were not taking any chances and blew them up with anti-tank missiles.” Adds this warrior, “Yes, we stopped for coffee in Nairobi on the return flight home.”

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Heroes Return. A crowd lifts the squadron leader of the rescue planes on their return to Israel. (Photograph: David Rubinger/Corbis via Getty Images)

The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” says Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”

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July 6, 1976 – The World Learns A Word: Entebbe

In the immediate aftermath of the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today: “We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”

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Enter Hollywood. Following the successful rescue, several movies were made including this one – Raid on Entebbe – staring Charles Bronson, Peter Finch, Martin Balsam, Horst Bucholz, John Saxon, Jack Warden and Yaphet Kotto as Idi Amin.

Remembering Moses Moyo

Personal tribute to a friend and ally – the renowned journalist, publisher and lover of Israel who passed away in Johannesburg South Africa in November 2018.

By Kathy Kaler, CEO and host of Afternoon  Drive Show, Chai FM

Being a radio presenter, I consider myself privileged. I get to engage with thousands of people daily via ChaiFM. People share their opinions, fears and hopes with me – daily. And all are important and yet most of our listeners I will never meet.

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Except for Moses Moyo!

His text messages came in to the Morning Mayhem almost every morning since 2013 until his sudden passing.

Moses’ messages were frequently in defence of Israel while at other times comments about service delivery in Johannesburg, but most often they were song requests – Yaakov Shwekey, Moshe Peretz or Benny Friedman.

He signed them all ‘Moshe’.

It was only when I received a video of Moses singing along (to Benny Friedman’s “Mazal and Brochanogal!!) that I realised I was engaging with someone from “outside” our often-insular community.

But I was wrong.

Moses Moyo was someone very much engaged in the Jewish community.

On every level.

He loved our culture, our music, our religious rites, our traditions and even our quirks.

And he loved Israel. Passionately.

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Moses Moyo

Moses understood profoundly, the importance of the Jewish state, not only to Jews but what Israel means to the world and her place in the greater scheme of things.

Always interested in hearing the human stories, I took the initiative to call Moses up one day and invite him for a cup of coffee. And that was where our friendship began.

In a little coffee shop in Glenhazel. It was 2014.

I came to know Moses as a great defender of the underdog – whether he was standing up for Israeli actions to defend her borders or the plight of African asylum seekers in Hillbrow. Moses stood for truth and all that was right in the world. It is no secret. Anyone who knew him will tell you that.

Road Ahead

A year ago, Moses planned to run the Jerusalem Marathon as part of the DL Link #RunForRecovery team. Due to issues with his passport, he had to forego the 2018 Marathon but had it on his radar to run this year. Moses was incredibly positive and for him it was just a postponement.

Little did anyone know…

In October last year, while listening to the Morning Mayhem on ChaiFM I heard about Moses’ untimely death. Like so many others who knew him, I was filled with disbelief. And sadness. And loss. Not only had I personally lost a friend, but as a Jewish and Zionist community, we had all lost an ally.

After his passing, the Jewish Community started fundraising for Moses’ children’s education.

Education… A tree of knowledge, right? The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) will also be planting a tree in Israel in Moses Moyos’ name. I will be at that ceremony. Two trees. A tree of knowledge for his children in the form of the trust fund and a physical tree in the Holy Land.

Moses would have loved that.

What a testament it is to our community organisations to honour a wonderful man who was so loyal to our community and did so much to bring Christian and Jewish Zionists together.

This year I am part of the Jerusalem Marathon 2019 DL Link #RunForRecovery team. I will be running the 10km Marathon.

This morning I went for my early morning run on the streets of Jerusalem, and as I ran down Ben Yehuda into Jaffa road – my tears flowed.

And I let them.

They were tears for Moses Moyo.

They were tears of Gratitude.

Of Appreciation.

Of humility.

Of Loss.

Of celebration.

Of Joy.

Of Simply Being Alive. (Eventually I had to decide whether to run or cry – doing both is near impossible).

So, I ran.

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Moses Moyo: “I refuse to be bullied – My scarf keeping me warm today”

This Friday I will be running for Moses Moyo to complete what he wasn’t able to.

My official DL Link racing shirt (yes, apparently a Marathon is a race!) has his name on the back along with the names of the two other warriors for whom I am running. The red DL Link Jerusalem Marathon 2019 Tour T-shirts have his name on the shirt of all 85 runners on the team.

Because we are all Moses Moyo

Champions of the Underdog. Pursuers of Truth. And Proud Zionists.

Onward and Upward. Always.

More on Moyo (By the Editor)

Moyo was the founder and chairperson of ‘Friends of the Inner-city Forum’, a community-based organisation in the inner city of Johannesburg. He was also a founding director of Ekuphumuleni hospice. He played an important role in the creation of Tirisano Inner-city Housing Co-operative – an initiative to help people buy flats in the inner-city of Johannesburg on a rent-to-buy basis.

He was a reporter with Eyewitness News.

Moyo was a pro-Israel activist and raised money by offering to run in the Jerusalem Marathon for the DL link, a cancer survivor organisation.

Moyo was the Deputy President of the Association of Independent Publishers.

 

 

 

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Kathy Kaler is the CEO 0f Chai FM, a Johannesburg based radio station and is host of the Afternoon Drive Show.

 

“Fly Me To The Moon…Let me play among the stars”

The lyrics of the Frank Sinatra classic resonated throughout the Jewish world this February 2019 as Israel soared to the heavens –to the moon and amongst the stars at the Oscars

 

By David E. Kaplan

 

It was that kind of week in Israel.

It began with the news headline:

ISRAELI SPACECRAFT LAUNCHES, BERESHEET HEADS INTO ORBIT TOWARDS THE MOON

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Countdown. The Falcon 9 before the launch. (Photo courtesy)

“All I can say is farewell Beresheet,” said an emotional South African-born Morris Kahn, chairman of SpaceIL, who donated more than $40 million to the project. “Our hopes are with you, make us proud.”

Kahn, who hails from Benoni in South Africa where he had been a member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim, made Aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1956 to kibbutz Tzora.

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‘Hand’ It To The Israelis. Israeli philanthropist, visionary and major sponsor Morris Kahn (centre) with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Space Division general manager Opher Doron (first right) during a news conference to announce the launch of a spacecraft to the moon. Kahn is a former South African who immigrated to Israel in 1956 and began manufacturing bicycles with kibbutz Tzora.

From starting out manufacturing bicycles at a factory in Beit Shemesh in partnership with kibbutz Tzora, Kahn’s trajectory soared establishing companies that grew into commercial behemoths such as Golden Pages IsraelAmdocs, the Aurec Group and Coral World  and  is now reaching out to the heavens.

A former underwater diver whose Coral World International, established aquariums around the world from his first in 1978 in Eilat, Israel to Maui, Hawaii; Perth, Australia; St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; Coral Island Nassau, The Bahamas; Oceanworld in Manly, Australia and elsewhere.

Transitioning his GPS, Kahn recalibrated his sights from below to above – from the deep depths of the earth’s sea to outer space.

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We have liftoff! Israel makes history with Moon launch

Over The Moon

Israelis of all ages were wound-up at the countdown as the country’s non-profit organisation SpaceIL launched its spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on board a Falcon 9 rocket, in a bid to become only the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon.

Weighing in at 1,300 pounds and standing approximately five feet tall, the unmanned craft, began an approximate seven-week journey to the moon, from where it will send back images of the rocky surface and conduct experiments on the lunar magnetic field.

All of Israel stands animatedly behind this project and was involved even in choosing the name of the spacecraft.

A public vote was conducted on the SpaceIL’s facebook page, and ‘Beresheet’ – a reference to the first words of the Bible in Hebrew: “In the beginning” – won the most votes.

Apart from the technical support from Israel Space Agency, Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael Systems and Elbit Systems, SpaceIL was also supported by some of Israel’s top universities, including the Technion, Tel Aviv University (TAU), Weizmann Institute of Science and Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Most of the multitude of people associated with SpaceIL are volunteers  – including 250,000 students at schools across the country.

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Flaging The Future. PM Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara and philanthropist Morris Kahn (2nd left) watch the launch of the Beresheet spacecraft from the Yehud command center, Feb. 22, 2019. (SpaceIL) An upbeat Prime Minster exclaimed: “There is great inspiration and daring here, and as of now great success as well. We look at the clock, another 60 days or so. We will meet on April 11.”

Moonstruck

For decades, the moon was the exclusive domain of the superpowers. The Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the Earth’s nearest neighbour in 1959. Three years later, the United States landed Ranger 4 on the moon and it would take nearly another 50 years for a third country to execute a soft moon landing, when China’s Chang’e 3 did so in 2013.

Joining the elite and exclusive club of Russia, USA and China, Israel is by far the smallest country. It would also become the first private enterprise to make a controlled landing on the moon, with the smallest spacecraft to do it, and by far the least expensive. The total cost of the programme, raised from private donations amounted to $100 million, a small fraction of the billions of dollars invested in the US space program.

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From Holon To The Moon. SpaceIL founders (left-right) Yonatan Winetraub, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash recreating the experience from a decade earlier in a Holon pub when they conceived the idea of creating an Israeli spacecraft to land on the moon. (Photo: courtesy)

SpaceIL signed with another former South African, Pretoria-born Elon Musk, whose SpaceX launched the Israeli craft on board a Falcon 9 rocket. Beresheet will travel approximately four million miles on its journey, circling the earth multiple times to gain speed before it slingshots toward the moon. It is scheduled to land on April 11.

One “bicycle man” can feel truly proud!

This mission that we were talking about was really a ‘mission impossible’,” Kahn told local media.

“The only thing is, I didn’t think it was impossible, and the three engineers that started this project didn’t think it was impossible, and the way Israel thinks, nothing is impossible.”

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Monumental Moment. SpaceIL holds a press conference in Florida, immediately before the launch. (left-right) Philanthropist Sylvan Adams, a Canadian immigrant who brought the Grand Start of the 2018 Giro d’Italia to Israel and is contributing to Israel’s’ mission to the moon; SpaceIL cofounder Yonatan Winetraub; Spacecraft Project Head, Yigal Harel; GM and Executive VP of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Systems, Missiles & Space Group, Boaz Levy, and SpaceIL cofounder, Kfir Damari. (Photo courtesy)

L’Chaim (“cheers”)

The three engineers Kahn refers to are Yariv Bash, a former electronics and computer engineer in the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) and currently Co-founder and CEO of Flytrex, Kfir Darmari, a computer Networking lecturer and entrepreneur, and Jonathan Winetraub, formally a satellite system engineer at Israel Aerospace Industries and currently a biophysics PhD candidate at Stanford.

It may come as a surprise but Israel’s journey to the moon was hatched in a pub. Some ten years ago, a younger Bash, Damari and Winetraub were at the only bar in Holon, a small town just south of Tel Aviv.

As the night wore on, the future space engineer, cyber security expert and drone maker, came up with a daring plan to build a spacecraft that could land on the moon. “As the alcohol level in our blood rose, we got more and more determined to do this,” Winetraub recalled during an interview with local media. “And it never faded away.”

Nearly a decade later, their alcohol-infused idea is making history.

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Far Out. Opher Doron, general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, addresses the press beside the SpaceIL lunar module at the facility near Tel Aviv in July 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ilan Ben Zion)

From Holy Land to Hollywood

While it is the ‘dream’ of every film producer, director, actor, screenplay and musical score writer, costume and set designer to win an Oscar, this year the sense was that Israel was literally ‘out of the picture’. That was until the following morning after the 91st Academy Award ceremony, I saw on my Facebook:

And the Oscar goes to … WIZO!”

What on “earth” – getting now away from the “moon” – did this mean?

First of all, WIZO – for those who do not know – stands for Women’s International Zionist Organization, which was founded in 1920 in direct response to the needs of women and children in what was still then Palestine. With branches all over the world, including South Africa where my mother was an active volunteer, begged the question:

What did WIZO have to do with the Oscars?

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Night At The Oscars. Israel filmmaker Guy Nattiv and his wife , actress and producer Jaime Ray Newman, celebrate their win at the 91st Academy Awards in Hollywood.

Reading further, it turned out that  Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the Academy Award in Los Angeles for his short film “Skin” – a bio-drama set in the United States about a neo-Nazi skinhead and his son – is a proud graduate of the WIZO Tzarfat (France) Arts School in Tel Aviv, an iconic high school sponsored by WIZO France . Graduates of the school include world famous artist Nir Hod, Israeli actress Dafna Rechter, South African fashion designer, Chantal Abro  and  Chairperson of WIZO in the United Kingdom, Ronit Ribak Madari.

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Wonderful WIZO. Spanning five continents and four generations as one of the largest women’s networks in the world, WIZO, established in 1920, is supported by over 250,000 volunteers in 50 federations worldwide with tens of thousands of volunteers in Israel.

Nattiv, who grew up in Israel and now lives in Los Angeles, co-wrote “Skin” with fellow Israeli Sharon Maymon and produced it with his wife Jaime Ray Newman. The film deals with a hate crime and its ramifications from the point of view of two children, one white and the other black.

“I moved here five years ago from Israel,” Nattiv began his acceptance speech before adding in Hebrew, “Good Night, Israel.”

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Joy & Jubilation. From left to right: Sharon Maymon, Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv and Andrew Carlberg accept the Best Live Action Short Film award for ‘Skin’ onstage during the 91st Annual Academy Awards. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Excited and emotional he stood with his wife and continued:

My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. The bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust, we see that everywhere today—in America and in Europe. This film is about education; it’s about teaching your kids a better way.”

Adding, Newman said that she and her husband “dedicate this to our five-month-old baby who’s sitting at home with my parents watching this. We hope that you grow up in a world where these things don’t happen, because people learn to love and accept each other.”

Congratulations came in from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin who told Nattiv, “…the film is a gift for our children and grandchildren, and for the future that we want for them so they can fulfill their dreams. Proud to be lsraeli. Mazel Tov!”

And how fitting being a graduate of a WIZO school in Tel Aviv, for World WIZO Chairperson Prof. Rivka Lazovsky adding to the long list of congratulations from Israel with:

Mazal Tov, Guy! This is yet another shining example of WIZO pride. You, and thousands of WIZO graduates over the years taken what you have learned at WIZO and used it to create a better world.”

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Emphasis On Education. Presiding over World WIZO – a network of 800 projects serving hundreds of thousands of children, youth and women across Israel – chairperson Rivka Lazovsky visits a WIZO day-care centre on the first day of school. (photo credit: KFIR SIVAN)

February 2019, recognises not only Israel’s ‘dreams’ for a “better world” but its pursuit thereof, whether to land a spacecraft on the moon or an Oscar for a movie that fights racism and proclaims love and acceptance.

For those who watched the launch of Beresheet and heard the words, “We have a lift off…” it was a portent of Israel’s destiny.

Contemplating a future Jewish state over 120 years ago Theodore Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream…”.

From his iconic concerned look on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, 1897, Herzl can look down today from his ‘celestial’ perch at his ‘state’ about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon, and smile.

 

 

“An Endangered Species”

With the passage of time, Southern African volunteers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of independence are passing away, and with them, a living link to the genesis of modern Israel

By David E. Kaplan

Israel’s  1948 War of Independence , despite all the odds was won decisively.

So how come we are still fighting it?

Mainly because of the nature of what is “decisive”. The current theatre of battle is not “On the Ground”, “in the Air” and “at Sea” but “in the court’ of world opinion”. Today’s “Battleplan” involves documenting and securing the truth, so that the history of the War of Independence is not subverted by revisionists and purveyors of falsehood as is wont by BDS in South Africa that ‘attacks’ Israel not over its dispute over territory but its very existence. It opens the file not of 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank in a defensive war, but the “1948 file” that transforms the Israel-Palestine debate from a negotiation over territory, into an argument about the conflict’s older and deeper roots – the establishment of a Jewish state.

Who has been spearheading the campaign of recording the role of volunteers who came to fight in Israel’s war of birth in 1948  is former South African, Smoky Simon, Chairman of World Machal, today 98 years old. (The word MACHAL is an acronym for the Hebrew, Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz, meaning “Volunteers from Overseas.”)

Once a fighter plane navigator, Smoky is still ‘navigating’; this time securing a flight path towards educating the young and the old, Israelis and foreigners on the existential contributions to the 1948 war by the 4500 volunteers from abroad  – over 800 of them Southern Africans – who put their futures on hold, and risked their lives to fight for a nation in the making.

Sir Winston Churchill’s apt depiction after the Battle or Britain that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” could equally apply to the debt the State of Israel owes to these volunteers.

 They left jobs, interrupted their studies, and some even postponed weddings, while others brought  their weddings forward to come on ‘honeymoon’ to fight in Israel’s War of Independence as did Smoky and his wife, Myra, who was the first meteorological instructor in the Israeli Air Force. “Many of her graduates became squadron and base commanders,” reveals Smoky proudly.

Literally rescheduling their lives, they dropped everything to come and fight for the fledgling Jewish state. In cockpits and on board ships, in tanks and armored vehicles, treating the wounded in hospitals and on the front lines, these young idealistic men and woman – Jews and non-Jews – helped change the tide in Israel’s War of Independence and forged the birth of a nation.

One in this illustrious “band of brothers” who participated in the most exciting adventure for a Jew in 2000 years was  another former South African from Johannesburg, Joe Leibowitz, who passed away in January 2019 in Hod Hasharon in central Israel. It is important with the passing of these Machalniks to record and relate the service they performed.

Joe was born in Lithuania “where a Jew knew what anti-Semitism was” and came to South Africa at the age on nine.  Then, three years after WWII  and the prospect of a Jewish state, “I was torn to pieces inside. I had a strong feeling that we had a moral pact with the slaughtered Six Million of Nazi Europe. This was the first chance to fight back against a world that hadn’t cared.”

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War of Independence. ‘Mahalniks’ of the 72nd Battalion including many Southern Africans opposite the Syrian lines at Mishmar Hayarden in 1948.

He reveals in writings recorded in Henry Katzew’s  “South Africa’s 800 – The Story of SA Volunteers In Israel’s War of Birth” that his thoughts at the time were “mixed up with other things.”  He felt he was “in rebellion against the old supine ways. Our rabbis used to snatch us indoors when we threw stones at Gentiles throwing stones at us. The rabbis broke our spirit before we could develop it. Turning the other cheek was no answer.”

Then when Philip Zuckerman of the South African Zionist Federation approached him  to serve, 21 year-old Joe volunteered without hesitation. “The battle inside me was resolved. I could be helpful to my people.”

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Band Of Brothers. Joe Leibowitz is seen here (left) in 2012 for a photoshoot of Southern African Mahaliniks at Kfar Saba police station having borrowed the rifles. The entire police force came out to observe and enjoy a history lesson. Back row: Joe Leibowitz (SA), Maurice Ostroff (SA), David “Migdal” Teperson (SA), Moshe Amiram (Argentina) Middle row: Monty Bixer (UK), Stanley Sober (USA), Avi Grant (UK), Hymie Josman (SA) Front row: Smoky Simon (SA), Stanley Medicks (UK), Hymie Goldblatt (SA)

The ‘Plane’ Truth

Arriving in pre-state Israel on the 10th May 1948, this ex-SAAF air gunner WWII veteran with 102 sorties under his belt in North Africa and Italy, noted at Sde Dov airfield in Tel Aviv,  that the strength of the nascent State’s “Air Force” comprised “two Rapides, a Fairchild and a Bonanza (ZS BWR).”

Hardly a force to hold back invading armies coming in from all directions!

With no option of being an air-gunner, Joe teamed up with South African pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, becoming a “bomb -chucker” of one of the Rapides, a fabric covered bi-plane. “Bomb-chuckers” as they were called, carried 25 and 50 pound bombs on their laps, and on reaching the enemy target, the safety pins were released and the bombs were manually dropped onto the target.

It was a nerve-wracking business – so much could go wrong!

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Flying Scrap. South African Borris Senior braving himself for the first test flight of a Spitfire put together with scrapped aircraft bits and pieces found on former RAF scrap heaps.

With the door of the plane removed, “there was always the possibility,” said Joe that “in leaning over while chucking out the bomb to slip, and follow the bomb.” The plane carried no parachutes and communication between the pilot and “chucker” was by torch with “a flash from the pilot, indicating “Over target” , and a flash from the “chucker” “All bombs unloaded.”

Despite the lack of sophistication of the nature of this war over the skies of Israel, there was some compensation for the airman recalled Joe: “We were so admired by the local Israelis that we were always treated to free meals in restaurants and free haircuts at the barber shop.”

Joe recalled the strains of those early days of the war. One morning the legendary Moshe Dayan came striding into Airforce O.C. Aharon Remez’s office demanding to know why the Air Force was “sitting on its arse.”  He had reason to be angered; Israeli units were being hard pressed at several points by the invading Arab armies. However, the men on the ground had little understanding of the war in the air and  “how the bombs thrown out could as easily fall among the Israeli men on the ground as among the enemy.”

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Enemy At The Gates. A very worried Aharon Remez, Chief of the IAF, Smoky Simon, Chief of Air Operations, Shlomo Lahat in charge of bomber operations (later mayor of Tel Aviv) and Chris in charge of maps.

Joe recorded an experience when the Israeli forces were pinned down along the “Burma Road” to Jerusalem and a Palmach unit was surrounded and radioed in for support. “We had to drop by parachute, two Piat guns and two bags of ammunition.” Complicating the mission, “we had no wind intelligence and no calculation of drift allowance and a real danger of the Piat and the ammo falling into enemy hands.”

With the door of the Rapide removed, there was only the metal handle on the side with the ammo bags tied to the handle until ready for the push. Joe used his feet against the banking of the plane. Then, “a mysterious thing” happened over at the 4th attempt of the drop. The metal handle broke and Joe would have gone hurling into space with the bag had not the pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, at that precise moment tilted to port. “The mystery is that from the cockpit, Elliot could not see me and had no logical reason to tilt. Some mysterious instinct came into play that ensured that Joe’s passing was delayed by over seven decades – “How did Eliot know something was wrong, we spoke about it for years afterwards.”

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Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits 101 ‘First Fighter’ Squadron. With sunglasses Modi Alon. Behind Alon’s left shoulder stands South African ace fighter pilot, Syd Cohen, who Israel’s future State President, Ezer Weizman said “taught me most of what I needed to know in a cockpit,” to the left, Gideon Lichtman and Maurice Mann, a Battle of Briton RAF pilot.. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Common)

Close shaves were Joe’s calling card, even when not in the air. On one occasion during a UN brokered truce, Joe had an unsettling encounter with Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Security Council mediator,  known to be most unsympathetic to the new State of Israel.

“We had just landed with supplies at Sdom in the Negev desert, and who surprisingly was there was Bernadette who came up to me and asked what supplies we had brought.” Only knowing a few Hebrew words, Joe said:

Ani medaber rak ivrit” (I only speak Hebrew)

Bernadette tried German.

Rak Ivrit,” Joe repeated.

 This went on until  Bernadotte was distracted, never discovering that among the crates of carrots were hand grenades, certainly a violation of the truce agreement, “but this was a fight for survival.”

In truth it was.

The Machalniks’ contribution represents one of the proudest chapters in modern Jewish history, when ordinary people – like Joe Leibowitz and the over 800 Southern African volunteers –  behaved quite extraordinarily. As Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion said:

 This was a war not won by heroes. It was won by ordinary men and women rising above themselves.”

 

Above and Beyond. Short clip of  volunteer fighter pilots in Israel’s War of Independence.

“The Flying Dentist”

SA Rugby Legend Wilf Rosenberg Passes Away In Israel

By David E. Kaplan

January 14th 2019 saw the passing of a legend Wilf Rosenberg at age 84 at Beth Protea, the retirement home for South Africans in Herzliya Israel.

It  was only six months ago that I enjoyed a good laugh with this illustrious Jewish Hall of Famer when  following a string of recent defeats by the South African ‘Springboks’, I suggested “they should recall you to the squad!”

The octogenarian, who immigrated to Israel in 2009, replied:

 “Yes they should; they have nothing to lose.”

Considered one of the greatest South African rugby players of all time, Wilf was dubbed “the flying dentist,” because of the way this periodontist would fearlessly hurl himself over the try line.  The son of a rabbi, he first made it big with the South African Springboks and later with the Leeds Rugby League Club where in 1960-61 he broke the single season scoring record with 48 tries – a record that still stands nearly five decades later!

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True Colours. Wilf Rosenberg in his Springbok colours.

The other record that still stands is that Wilf is the only Jew to have ever played Rugby League.

Jewish people came out in droves to see me, a Jewish boy, playing rugby league. It was wonderful,” recalled Wilf.

This Jewish rarity on the English playing fields was not the case in South Africa where there have been ten Jewish rugby Springboks, amusingly referred to as the “Minyan” (the male quorum required for Jewish communal worship):

Morris Zimmerman, Louis Bradlow, Fred Smollan, Dr. Cecil Moss, Prof. Alan Menter, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kaminer, Ockey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Dr. Wilf Rosenberg and Joel Stransky.

So how did it happen that Wilf emerged an all-time rugby great that earned him an induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994?

No Stopping Rosenberg

Born in Sea Point,  Cape Town in 1934, Wilf spent his childhood in Australia where his father Phillip was the Chief Rabbi. It was there where he began to play rugby at the age of six and was quickly singled out as “an exceptional talent”. In my interview in 2012 with Wilf at Beth Protea, he recalled every last detail, how his coach at the Sydney Grammar School asked Ron Rankin, a decorated WWII airman and a fullback for the Wallabies, to visit the school and assess the best players. “Pointing to me – and I was 13 at the time – Rankin said, “Look after the boy. He will play for Australia”.”

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Mighty Men. At a gathering at Beth Protea, Herzliya recording the contribution of South African Jews to sport were these three world famous Springboks (left-right), Aubrey Kaplan (water polo), Wilf Rosenberg (rugby) and Teddy Kaplan (weightlifting).

That prophesy would never “play” out as Rabbi Rosenberg moved his family back to South Africa despite  a “very upset” Sydney Grammar offering “to put me in a boarding school. My mother was adamant, ‘No way, my son comes with me‘.”

Returning to South Africa, the Rosenberg males were making a name for themselves in Jeppe, the father as the new rabbi and the son at Jeppe High School where he developed his “three-quarter play”. Soon Wilf played for his province, Transvaal, at under-19 and then senior level.

“We had a great schoolboy back line,” he recalled. “Playing centre, I’d swing away outside my opponent, then, when I got the ball I’d dummy the full back and be away. Opponents used to shout, ‘Stop Rosenberg‘.”

Literally, there was no stopping Rosenberg.

His big break came in 1955, when the legendary Danie Craven took a fateful decision and: Wilf was well on his way!

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Willful Wilf. Clutching the ball, there was no stopping this running Rosenberg.

Don’t Cross Craven

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Clash of Titans. Poster for the 3rd test at Loftus Versveld, Pretoria following Wilf Rosenberg’s début match at Newlands.

A stellar player, coach, administrator and one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, Dr. Danie Craven believed that South Africa would not win a test series without a Jew in the side. “He not only believed this passionately” said Wilf, but “put it to the test with me during the  British Lions tour of South Africa in 1955,” the first Lion’s after the Second World War.

Following defeat by one point in the first test at Johannesburg by what rugby history buffs consider to be the best ever Lions team to visit South Africa  with the likes of Cliff Morgan, Geoff Butterfield and Phil Davies – the ‘Boks’ needed to change things around. At the selectors meeting for the 2nd test, “Craven threatened to resign if they did not pick me.”

While Wilf at seventeen had been the youngest player in the Transvaal squad, “I was largely unknown, but they knew Craven and went with his instincts.”

It paid off.

“We beat them 25-8 at Newlands,” with Wilf scoring, as the newspapers at the time described – “a stunning 50 yard try.”

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New Horizons At Newlands. Wilf Rosenberg’s début performance as a Springbok at the 2nd test against the British Lions at Newlands in 1955.

Scoring on his Springbok début, it was also noted in talk and print at the time, that “Wilf won the hearts of the segregated black spectators” who cheered  him wildly when he ran out to play.  Was it because he was a Jew, whose people like them had endured insufferable prejudice? Who knows? Wilf responded  by directing his waving at the segregated section of the stadium making as well his début statement against Apartheid. He would later cherish his meeting with Nelson Mandela when ‘Madiba’ ascended from prison to president. “He invited me to his house for tea and we spoke about his days on Robben Island where he spent 27 years in exile.”

But here was the irony that did not escape Wilf who at the time was also promoting boxing in South Africa, a sport Mandela excelled in as a youth.

“Mandela was a mad keen boxing fan,” Wilf related and “we always had ringside seats for him and his staff.”

This was a far cry from when Wilf made his début for the Springboks in 1955 in Newlands and there were no preferential but segregated seats for South Africa’s Black majority. Acknowledging this inequality, Wilf waved to those who were honouring him.

“I think about my début often,” recalling how ecstatic fans jumped the fence when he scored before being restrained by police.

With the game only five minutes old:

  “I sensed their strategy – to target me, the smallest guy on the field.”

As if it was yesterday, Wilf recalled in minute detail how Davies, a giant of a man, “called for the ball and set off. I took off and hit him. Bang! The crowd erupted.” The plan was “to keep it from the backs and attack in the second half. I cut right through the Lions back line for my try. Fans still say it’s one of the best they’ve seen.”

The Springboks won 25-9 and at full time, the Lions lined up and started clapping. “I wondered why and then the Springboks stepped back and clapped. It was for me.”

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A Star Is Born. Magazine covering the 1955 majestic series which ended in a draw but propelled Wilf Rosenberg to rugby stardom.

By the Grace of god

And so began Rosenberg’s career as one of South Africa’s most beloved players, where he dazzled the crowds with his speed, fearlessness and signature stunts. With his head thrown back, he would outsmart his opponents with a “dummy” – a fake pass –  by cutting through the backline and then diving over the try line to score. “It looked as if I was diving into nothing,” said Rosenberg, who was now well on his speedy way to earning the sobriquet – “The flying dentist.”

So how did the son of a rabbi (Jeppe synagogue) end up being allowed to play on Shabbat (Sabbath)?

The rabbi had a smart answer:

My son is born with a G-d given talent. Who am I to argue with G-d.”

This rationale proved reminiscent of a test-winning decision by the great Louis Babrow during the victorious 1937 Springbok tour in New Zealand. The final test fell on Yom Kippur but Babrow decided to play, arguing that, with the time difference, he would have played the match before the Day of Atonement dawned in South Africa.

He displayed the same cerebral maneuverability as he did physically on the field!

Twice inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at Wingate, Wilf’s Springbok jersey, socks and boots are there on display. It was a proud moment when “I led the SA delegation, carrying the flag in the 1997 Maccabi Games.”

Wilf might have participated in the 1957 Maccabi Games had he been allowed to join Nachal (Fighting Pioneer Youth in Israel) in 1956. “Craven would not hear of it, insisting I could not let South Africa down with the upcoming 1956 tour to New Zealand.”

Taking on the All Blacks was “manageable” compared to “taking on Danie Craven; that was bordering on suicide – he nearly exploded when I suggested it.”

‘Tackling’ the Past

It was Wilf’s father, the rabbi, who clinched the deal for Wilf to go professional.

While on honeymoon in Durban with his first wife, Elinor,  he received a telegram from “my Dad that read ‘Pack your bags. I’ve signed you up for Leeds’.” It transpired that while on a visit to England, agents for Leeds surprised Rabbi Rosenberg at the airport and offered his son an astounding ₤6,000 to sign with them – an offer Rabbi Rosenberg could not refuse.

“I knew about rugby league growing up in Australia, but I never had any dreams of playing the game until my father made it a fait accompli,” revealed Wilf.

Adding to the allure was the fact that Rosenberg would be the only Jew to play rugby league – a distinction that holds to this day.

A Jew playing rugby league? Unheard of!” said Rosenberg.

While playing rugby league, Wilf was also in dental school, earning the highest marks and specializing in periodontics. As he remembered it, “I lived a very fast life, juggling my dental practice with rugby and a growing family.”

To the day of his passing, Wilf remains fondly remembered with fans recalling matches well over half a century ago as if they were yesterday.

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Ducking and Diving. Wilf Rosenberg’s trademark dive as he scores for Leeds in the early 1960s.

Writes Hull FC Pete Allen a club that Wilf had played for as well: “He was my first real hero. I was eleven when he signed for the club and it was at the time when the great team of the 1950s had all-but fizzled out. It was a tough time for the club. He made his debut against Bramley and scored twice, featuring the amazing dive he did in the corner. From that day onwards, he’s been a lifelong hero of mine. He’d take off two or three yards away from the line and dive horizontally over. There were always a bunch of photographers hoping to catch one of his famous dives. It was his trademark.”

Another describing Wilf’s inimitable talent is Len Lillford who recalls as a schoolboy watching Wilf in a game against Huddersfield. “He ran along the right wing and just had their fullback, Frank Dyson, to beat. Wilf lobbed the ball over the fullback’s head and ran round him and caught the ball to score under the posts. This was one of the best tries I had ever seen.”

Lawyer Charles Abelsohn of Kfar Saba, Israel, who played rugby at Stellenbosch University and later refereed rugby in Israel, describes his meeting with Wilf at Beth Protea in 2014, as “the second time in history.”  Their first “meeting” was “when I was 11 years old sitting in the stands at Newlands watching with my Dad that famous 1955 Springboks match against the British Lions.”

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Blast From The Past. News cuttings from the 1955 British vs Springbok series.

“Yes, that was when Craven took a chance with me,” said Wilf.

“No, it was not a chance; Craven recognised talent and you proved him 100% right,” said Charles.

Wilf’s glory days at Leeds was well recalled by Derek Hallas who said:

“Wilf was such a nice guy and the best winger I played with. For a man of his size, he was one of the bravest players I have played with and he was a terrific finisher.”

Small in stature, Wilf was a giant of a man on the field.  “One of the bravest players” and “a terrific finisher”, Wilf crossed the line of his life at 84 remembered fondly by fans all over the world.

Of Heaven And Earth

Israel Mourns Rona Ramon

The saying “It’s not the number of years in your life but the life in the number of your years,” resonates in describing the relatively short but extraordinary lives of three members of one heroic Israeli family – Ilan Ramon, son Asaf Ramon and today’s sad news, wife and mother – Rona Ramon.

By David E. Kaplan

Rona and Ilan Ramon3
Rona Ramon (1964 – 2018)

He has never left us – his spirit, his values and his message to future generations lives on for all time,” said Rona Ramon in an interview with this writer in 2014 about her late Israeli astronaut husband, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003. She could so easily as well be referring to her beloved son Asaf Ramon, who followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a pilot and was tragically killed in an Air Force training accident in 2009.

And sadly, as the news broke  that Rona too, was taken before her time – passing away at age 54 from cancer – the Jewish world can say about Rona, “her spirit, her values, and her message to future generations lives on for all time.”

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Match Made In Heaven. Rona and Ilan Ramon (Photo: Craig H. Hartley

In the years following the tragic passing of her husband and son, Rona showed the same bravery, determination and grit as she spearheaded the perpetuation of the family legacy through the Ramon Foundation.

A life characterized by triumph and tragedy, the writer sat down with Rona Ramon for an exclusive interview for a major magazine in Israel.

 Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Ilan Ramon perished at the age of 48 when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on its re-entry into earth, killing all  seven astronauts on board. An ace Israel fighter pilot, in 1981 Ramon was the youngest – participating in Operation Opera, Israel’s impressive strike against Iraq’s near-completed and threatening nuclear reactor in Osirak.

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Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope. Front (L-R): Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, Rear (L-R): David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon

A global icon, Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor which he was awarded posthumously in 2004.

With Israelis enjoying a love affair with the Ramon family – the surname embedded in the minds of most – my first question opened with their ‘love affair’.

How did you and Ilan meet?

“We met on my 22nd birthday party at a friend’s house in Kiryat Ono. My friend’s eldest sister invited her neighbor – this 32-year-old good looking guy with a million-dollar smile – and to this day I always say, “Ilan was my 22-birthday present.”

Six months later they were married.

“Why wait, we were in love,” the couple thought at the time, and nine years later with their four children, they were living in a suburb close to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. All this would come to a crashing, cataclysmic end as billions of people stared in disbelief at their television sets as the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in flame as it reentered the earths atmosphere.

This nation was unprepared.

It was just not possible!

After 16 days of almost constant news coverage about “our Ilan’s” exploits in space – from how he spent Shabbat (Sabbath), the various experiments he was conducting in space and what special mementos he took with him such as a prayer book to recite the Kiddush (blessing) as well as a Kiddush cup, a picture drawn by a 14 year-old boy who perished in Auschwitz and a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust – Israelis felt they knew him personally.

He was family!

As one newspaper at the time expressed it:

“He represented us all – our country, our people, our past and our future. He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.”

The son of Holocaust survivors, he represented a nation’s rebirth – the young, proud modern Israeli rising from the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust) to a child of a new nation, reborn in its ancestral homeland and who in one generation was seeking answers to earth’s problems in the heavens.

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Israel In Space. Israel’s first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon

How perceptive and prophetic were Ilan’s words from space:

“The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.”

From a prolonged high to a sudden low, how did Rona cope?

“Before finding answers, I had to understand the questions. I felt such conflicting emotions to a situation I was unprepared. I was not only dealing with a profound personal loss but a national loss, so while having to keep my young family together, I also could not forsake my national responsibilities and obligations all under the international spotlight.”

Hard for anyone to be prepared, how did you find the strength?

“My family – my wonderful kids who brought me to a place that I found I was not afraid and I found the strength to shift from thinker to doer.

Did it make it easier or more difficult that all Israel shared in your grief?

“It added to the huge weight on my shoulders as I was representing Israel not only symbolically but physically. I was compelled to channel my grief through action. I had to present myself before several investigation committees relating to the accident; addressed conferences and attended commemorative ceremonies, such as accepting from President Bush in 2004 the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Ilan is the only non-American to have ever received this prestigious award.”

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From Pilot To Astronaut. Ilan Ramon with his F-16

Was it stressful taking on all these responsibilities?

“Actually the exposure to so many people and situations gave me strength, and after returning to Israel from the USA, I found solace in returning to academia. I took my Masters in Holistic Studies through Lesley University, Boston. My thesis dealt with how personal loss impacts on our lives – physically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. Through my studies, I navigated my return journey home to normalcy.”

Trying Times To Ramon Foundation

If losing her celebrated husband was not enough, Rona would be tragically tested once more. In June 2009, President Shimon Peres had awarded Captain Asaf Ramon his air force wings at Hatzerim base in southern Israel. The President had been close to the Ramon family and it was Peres who has encouraged President Clinton to include an Israeli astronaut in a future NASA space mission. “Peres felt at the time,” said Rona, “that the country needed a boost; that there had been much division in the society following the Rabin assassination and that an Israeli traveling in space would unite the nation like no other event.” This proved correct. The nation did unite around this spectacular venture.

Inspired by his father, Asaf had excelled in his training and had expressed the hope that he, too, would one day become an astronaut.

It was not to be.

On the 13th September 2009 Captain Asaf Ramon, age 21, was tragically killed when his F16-A jet crashed during a routine training exercise.

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Asaf Ramon, left, with President Shimon Peres upon his graduation at Hatzerim air force base in June 2009, several months before he was killed.

The way Rona dealt with this further blow was to channel all her energies in founding the ‘Ramon Foundation’ which would honor both her husband and her son.

“The foundation,” said Rona, “promotes and initiates projects that can influence our society for the better. We focus on the field most associated with the Ramon name – space and science, as we view these fields best to inspire children and young people to dream, to pursue, and to make their dreams a reality. Just like his father, Asaf fulfilled his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, and just like his dad, he graduated from the flying academy with honors.”

Rona quotes from both Ilan and Asaf, whose writings from their diaries were the inspiration for her founding the Ramon Foundation. Ilan wrote: “The children and youth are the future of the development and advances in space research, especially since they are open to new creative ideas and not prisoners to old ways and therefore so important to our future in space.” And following his graduation, Asaf wrote: “My siblings and I were lucky to grow up with parents who helped us to fulfill our dreams and reach our unique potential.”

Rona says she was “humbled and moved reading this,” and took this short appreciative passage of Asafs’ as her Magna Carta in founding the Ramon Foundation.

So what are some of the programs?

“We have many and use the world of space and aviation, associated with Ilan and Asaf, to encourage personal excellence and community involvement. We support groundbreaking excellence in academic achievement among Israeli youth and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education involving scientists, pilots and young leaders, all determined to make these goals a reality.”

Do you work with schools?

“Yes, we are working with 20 schools all over the country and including all the communities – Jews, Arabs, Druze and Bedouin. We look beyond ethnicity to enthusiasm. All who want to excel are welcome. So for example in our elementary schools, we have set up Aviators Clubs where squadrons from the Israeli Air Force adopt a school and where the students are inspired by the pilots who serve as role models.

We have witnessed trouble-makers transform into outstanding students. All they wanted was to excel and we provide the tools and the inspiration to follow their dreams. The pilots inspire the children to strive for excellence and be better students, citizens and leaders of their society.”

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Ramon Legacy. Rona Ramon (left) visits a school in Modiin named after her husband, Ilan Ramon, along with two NASA astronauts in February 2008

Projects Out Of This World

For the older students, I understand you have a program called the Ramon Space Labs. Can you explain the program?

“Imagine the excitement of a school kid knowing that an experiment he is working on will be tested by a real astronaut onboard an International Space Station (ISS)! There are currently 100 students in four schools who are planning an experiment soon to be launched, while some have already watched their experiment launched into orbit. Basically, students design and build an experiment to be performed on the International Space Station. They watch it then being launched into space, performed by the astronauts on the ISS and then on the return to earth, the results are analyzed and published.”

 Rona was also working with the Conrad Foundation, named after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, Charles “Pete” Conrad, who had struggled academically due to dyslexia and only because of a perceptive headmaster, saw Pete’s spark of genius and gave him the confidence he needed.  He went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton University and in November 1969, Pete became the third man to walk on the Moon.

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Spearheading The Ramon Legacy. Rona Ramon, speaking at a Space Convention.

We too are looking for that ‘spark of genius’ in our Israeli students and this year, twelve of our schools are participating in the Conrad Foundation’s

‘Spirit of Innovation Challenge’ which invites high school students from all over the world to its annual competition.

Using science, technology, engineering and math skills, teams develop innovative products to help solve global and local problems while supporting global sustainability. We are sending our best students to represent our country and hope to reach the semi-finals. The finals, where the participants will present their products and vie for seed grants, patent support and commercial opportunities will be held as a space camp in Houston.”

Can you foresee future Israeli astronauts like Ilan?

“We need to equip the dreamers to emerge as doers. Everyone has their own calling. I have a son who is a talented musician composing his own material.  Our foundation helps young people identify their talents and explores ways for them to reach their full potential. We are offering opportunities to kids which would not otherwise have them. However, as our young participants grow older, we zone in on those who have the potential to make a global impact.

For such individuals we have a program called ‘Ramon Breakthrough’. This program is open to those who can through innovative technology, improve the lives of one million people in Israel. The prize is a scholarship to Singularity University in California where the student will together with other students from around the world will explore solutions aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”

 It would seem you are busy now than ever before?

“Well, from losing members of my family, I feel the Ramon family is expanding as we are touching the lives of so many kids. Today, I have a large family.”

There are parks, sixteen streets alone in Israel, museums, schools, playgrounds, departments at hospitals, soon the renaming of the airport in Eilat and even an asteroid named after Ilan Ramon. How special for you is the new Ramon Museum at Mitzpe Ramon?

“When the government decided to honor Ilan with a national memorial, I pressed for the focus to be less about a memorial and more about education. I also felt that Mitzpe Ramon would be the ideal location. The crater has a surreal space quality about it and on the personal level – Ilan was a child of the Negev having grown up in the desert’s capital, Beersheva. With the crater below and the space above, the museum’s exhibits project both the heaven and earth.”

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Reach For The Stars. Rona Ramon with Kiryat Yam Mayor Shmuel Sisso join children at the inaugural World ORT Space and Science Seminar last year.

Rona’s Proudest Moment

After the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Rona received the program of the first anniversary ceremony of the Columbia tragedy to be held at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. She saw that it did not include the Hatikvah – the national anthem of Israel – so she called her friend at NASA who explained to Rona that the protocol at such ceremonies allows only for the American national anthem.

In which case, I will not be attending,” Rona replied.

There was silence at the other end of the phone “and my friend replied he would call back. It apparently went all the way to President Bush who approved. It was the first time a foreign national anthem had ever been played on such an occasion. I felt truly proud when I stood at Arlington Cemetery listening to Hatikva.

The personal legacy of Ilan for me is his wonderful smile. I suspect wherever he was that day looking upon me having stood my ground defiantly, he was smiling.”

On behalf of a mourning nation, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin said today, “Rona Ramon left us as she lived among us noble, pure, full of faith.”

Rona joins her husband and son but leaves a legacy that will  forever enrich the lives Israelis today, tomorrow and into the far future.

 

Feature picture credit: AFP

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