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Sad Missions

The spy novelist rediscovers Menahem Bader’s Aliyah B book, about the brave men and women who smuggled Jews from prewar Europe to Mandate Palestine

Alan Furst
October 14, 2010
Aliyah B's Operation Michaelburg delivering Iraqi Jews to Palestine in August 1947.(Israeli Air Force Archives)
Aliyah B's Operation Michaelburg delivering Iraqi Jews to Palestine in August 1947.(Israeli Air Force Archives)

Not the usual book review, maybe, a book you can’t buy. At all, I thought initially, but it can apparently be downloaded from Google Books, so at least it can be read. The book is Sad Missions, by Menahem Bader—he is “Menachem” in his Wikipedia article—translated from Hebrew, copyright by Sifriat Poalim and printed in Israel by Hidakel Press in 1979. I found it cited in a footnote in something else I was reading, and the title intrigued me. Now, I’m a veteran of the hard-to-find book war, but at this I had to work hard, because the book had practically disappeared. Eventually, I managed.

Sad Missions begins:

Early in 1943, at the height of World War II, I left for Istanbul. My task was to try from there to establish contact with remnants of Hashomer Hatzair [a socialist Zionist youth movement] in the countries over-run by Hitler and his satellites and to make every effort to bring them the maximum of assistance.

Sad Missions belongs to a niche category—a genre?—of books about the Aliyah B. “Aliyah” refers to immigration to Palestine, return to the homeland, while the “B” signifies illegal immigration to British Mandate Palestine, before 1948. Aliyah B operations were run by men and women, impossibly brave men and women, who can be said to be the earliest operatives of what would become the Israeli intelligence and security services. Of this literature, one of the best examples is The Last Escape, which is about Ruth Kluger, who attempted to save Jews from the Holocaust, particularly in the cities of Romania. (Talk about impossibly brave!) Somehow, Sad Missions virtually slipped away from the used-book market and can be found on Google Books, under the name of its editor, Richard Flantz, or by its title.

Sad Missions—and the title is brutally descriptive, this book is not easy to read—has kinship to the literature of espionage and special operations, and it is exceptionally descriptive and detailed. Bader, age 43 when he began his clandestine work, operated as an intelligence officer, though he never uses that term, moving money and instructions, particularly for attempts at escape, by the use of secret agents—another term not used; Bader calls them “emissaries”—who were able to travel in and out of what had become a Nazi empire ruled by the Gestapo.

Besides money and letters, we also sent newsletters, newspapers, bulletins and sometimes even books to the Chalutz movements beyond the wall. Sometimes the emissaries who did this for us were chance couriers of neutral countries, but in most cases the work was done by four people who were in the enemy’s service. … [They] came to Istanbul regularly on business for their superiors, who apparently headed important economic departments and espionage and counterespionage departments as well. … I recoiled from these men in disgust. … [But] I was compelled to receive them, to sit with them, to offer them refreshments, to listen to their cheap and arrogant talk and coarse jokes, to make arrangements with them, to check that these were carried out, and finally, to shake their hands and wish them a good journey. And I had to wish them this with a full heart. With every fibre of my being I longed for the success of their trip.

Bader himself entered Europe—Czechoslovakia, Austria, Berlin—in 1938, as European war and the destruction of European Jewry became every day a greater and greater certainty. Using whatever money was raised for him—and the struggle for funds, from Jewish Palestine and, eventually, the United States, is a major element in Sad Missions—he bribed officials and helped Jews to escape and also provided money for those who were close to starvation. Bader used both legitimate and doctored identification papers and several times came close to being arrested. He was lucky, he makes a point of saying that, but he survived—others doing the same work did not—and eventually left in April of 1940 as the German Embassy “cleared out of Yugoslavia.” The German invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece came days later, and Bader had to run for Istanbul. The last usable exits in Europe were locked down, and, Bader writes, “Poor in deeds, I returned to those who had sent me.”

He was not poor in deeds.

He, and other Jewish operatives in Europe, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, and Bader survived to write his book. Especially sad then, to see it almost lost. Because I write about and do research in this period, I will occasionally come across a book of sufficient strength that I feel it should be re-published, be brought back to life. Menahem Bader, perhaps with the aid of an editor and translators, was a good, instinctive, and powerful writer and an unsparing historian. He is open about the degree of political conflict among various factions who tried to save European Jewry and acknowledges the many failures—lost lives, that means—that he was forced to witness. And, as he saved lives, I believe his book ought to be saved. While it can be downloaded, it deserves more than that: It deserves the attention—publicity, review—that only new publication can provide.

Alan Furst’s most recent novel is Spies of the Balkans.

Alan Furst’s most recent novel is Spies of the Balkans.