My Father, the Nazi-fighting Hero That No One's Heard Of

Rafael Reiss, one of seven parachutists sent into Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, was executed and then largely forgotten. Seventy years after his death, his only daughter does not regret his anonymity

Ofer Aderet
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Edna Reiss Leshem with a page of her father’s memorabilia. Fragments of a life. Photo and reconstructions from family album.Credit: Rami Chelouche
Ofer Aderet

Edna Reiss Leshem keeps the mementos from her father, Rafael Reiss, in a large wooden box in her bedroom. He was born 100 years ago last summer, around the outbreak of World War I, and next week will see the 70th anniversary of his death, during the final year of World War II.

Reiss was one of seven young men and women who were sent from Palestine in 1944 to parachute behind enemy lines in Europe, and who died in the course of the mission. A total of 37 volunteers were sent by the British Army and the Jewish community in Palestine to rescue Jews and help the British war effort. These seven lost their lives. Another member of the group, Haviva Reik, is memorialized in the name of a kibbutz (Lehavot Haviva) and the educational center of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement (Givat Haviva). An illegal immigrant ship was also named after her. A third parachutist, Hannah Szenes, who was also murdered 70 years ago this month, became a symbol and a national heroine in the wake of the poems she left. The leader of the group, Enzo Sereni, murdered in November 1944, was commemorated by having a kibbutz named after him (Netzer Sereni).

But Reiss and three other parachutists remained unknown to the general public. Reiss’s daughter, Edna, who was a year old when her father was murdered, does not regret the anonymity. She knows that this was her father’s explicit wish. One of the items in the box of mementos is the last letter her father sent to her and her mother, Naomi. He wrote it on November 19, 1944, in a Slovakian jail, on the last night of his life. The letter was smuggled out of the prison by a partisan fighter and eventually reached Israel. On November 20, Reiss and Reik were put on a truck and driven to a mass grave, where they were shot.

“Dear Naomi, Edna, I have no idea whether this letter will reach you,” Reiss wrote. “Oh, how much I wish it will arrive. I want to part with both of you for all time. All the signs are that I have arrived, if not at the end of my goal, then at all events at the end of my life. It sounds so banal that I can’t help laughing. I have known clearly for quite some time that I will be shot, but still, it’s odd to be sitting here in prison knowing that this is the last evening of my life.”

In the letter, which became his testament, Reiss requested that he not be made a hero after his death. “I am not in the least tired of life, but I have lived long enough for me to be able to part from you before my eternal rest. Please do not take this very tragically. Even though it is about me, you must understand it as though you are hearing about one of millions. It is pleasant for me to know that I will not disappear from the world without leaving traces behind. By that I mean Edna and your love for me.”

He added, “I do not ask for any monument other than that feeling, and I object to the idea of being made a national hero. If anyone knows about the events, it is I who know that no heroism was involved. It always pained me when people thought too much of me, and I have the right to ask that my daughter should know me as I was – for her to know the human person in me, with all his mistakes and faults.”

The conclusion of the letter strikes a dramatic note. “There is a vast stream of people going to their death. Tomorrow I will join them, or more accurately, we will join them, because going with me is Haviva, from Ma’anit in Karkour,” he wrote, referring to Haviva Reik from Kibbutz Ma’anit. “Your photographs accompanied me on my path, and when the going became difficult I took out the pictures and was a bit ‘at home.’ Do not lament me, for I embarked on my path with eyes open. I am sure of myself and do not regret a single step I took.”

‘Where is daddy?’

Seventy years have gone by since then. Naomi, Reiss’s wife, who was left to raise their baby daughter on Kibbutz Sde Nehemia, remarried and became the mother of another son and daughter. She suffered another tragedy when her daughter from her second marriage was killed in a tractor accident. Edna grew up with her half-brother. “I don’t remember my father at all, my memories are from stories I was told,” she said this week while looking at two small photographs placed together in a red frame. One of them shows her father, in uniform, holding her, an infant girl. The other shows her with her father and mother. “At some stage you feel that memory is escaping from you,” she observed, explaining her decision to frame the photos and paste a red heart next to them.

She started to understand that she didn’t have a father when she was three or four. “My mother went away one evening,” Reiss recalls. “The kibbutz children asked me, ‘Why doesn’t your father put you to sleep instead of her?’ I said nothing, but when my mother came back I started to ask her questions: ‘Where is daddy?’ ‘What does it mean to die?’ ‘What is war?’ I gradually created a framework that I could deal with as a girl of that age.”

A more stark encounter occurred in 1952, when her father’s remains were brought to Israel along with those of Haviva Reik. A few years earlier, the two had been buried in the military section of a cemetery in Prague, at first beneath a cross, later replaced by a Star of David. After the necessary authorizations were obtained, a delegation from Israel flew to Prague to bring the remains of the two parachutists home. An El Al plane carried them on the return journey, for burial on Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem.

“I was nine,” Edna Reiss Leshem says. “I remember the coffin, which was first taken to Kibbutz Sde Nehemia. We prepared a large wreath of carnations, because mom said that was the flower dad loved best. An uncle lifted me up so I could place the wreath on the coffin, which was in the kibbutz dining room with an honor guard of kibbutz members.”

The choir at the ceremony was conducted by Yehuda Sharett, brother of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister. The next day, on the way to Jerusalem, the coffin passed by the village of Rosh Pina. “I saw women weeping along the roadside. I asked my mother why they were crying if they didn’t know him,” she related.

Edna, who lost her father when she was still an infant, would later be in charge of the delivery room at Poriya Hospital, in Tiberias. “It’s an amazing profession, one that helps women at the most meaningful moments of their life,” she noted. She herself is the mother of four sons, and has eight grandchildren. They are “scattered around the world,” she said. The eldest son, who inherited his grandfather’s good hands, is a carpenter in Berlin. The others live in Florida, Holland and Canada.

The box with her father’s mementos is like a time capsule for her. There are dozens of photographs of Rafi Reiss. They track the course of his life from Budapest, where he was born, via Nove Zamky, in Slovakia, where the family moved when he was a boy; then to Bratislava, where he began medical studies in 1932 and where he joined a Zionist student organization; the illegal immigrants ship on which he reached Palestine in 1939; Atlit detention camp, where he was incarcerated by the British for a year; agricultural training before settling on Kvutzat Huliyot, which later became Kibbutz Sde Nehemia; courses in the pre-state Haganah and Palmah militias, where he became a parachutist; and training in Egypt before leaving for Europe.

In addition to the photographs, the wooden box also contains Reiss’s letters and personal belongings. All of them are testimony to his dramatic life after he left Palestine, as documented in a book by the writer and Palmah member Tehila Ofer and Zeev Ofer (“Haviva Reick: a Kibbutz Pioneer’s Mission and Fall Behind Nazi Lines,” 2014.

Reiss parachuted into Yugoslavia in the summer of 1944, in territory held by Josip Tito’s partisans. Subsequently, after the capture of Hannah Szenes, Reiss, Reik and others were sent to the mountains of Slovakia, from where they planned to enter Hungary. On the way, they helped Jews who had remained in Nazi-occupied Europe.

From his mission he wrote to his family: “If I ever doubted the value of this mission compared to the danger it entails, today all those thoughts have disappeared without a trace. Can you understand what it means for these unfortunates to see someone who is coming to them from security, from freedom, from the Land of Israel, and only for them, only to offer them help, to be with them! The faith and the hope that our sheer presence stirred amid this downtrodden Jewry make up for the dangers this mission involves.” He was too late to save his mother, who was sent to the camps; and finally he, too, fell into the hands of the Germans.

Fragments of his life are preserved in that box in the home of his only child. There is a calendar carved from wood on which he drew Snow White’s seven dwarfs and sent to his daughter as a present. Buttons from his coat. Pins, medals and certificates he received. A compass. His Histadrut labor federation membership, and souvenirs he sent from Egypt.

“For quite a long time, we visited his grave once a year, but over time the custom faded away. These days I prefer to sit at home with pictures and not with stones,” Rafi Reiss’s daughter said this week, as the 70th anniversary of his death approached.