KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight 777 was on its way from Lisbon to Bristol on the morning of June 1, 1943 when it was attacked by a German fighter plane. The civilian aircraft went down in flames and crashed into the sea, along with its 13 passengers and four crew members. All of them perished.
Various rumors claimed four different passengers could have been the Nazis' target: British actor Leslie Howard; his accountant, who resembled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; a British intelligence officer; and one Wilfrid Israel, a Jewish businessmen who was working clandestinely to rescue thousands of Jews during the Holocaust era.
Nearly 70 years after the crash, members of Kibbutz Hazorea have been trying to solve the riddle of Israel's mysterious life and death, and are making a film about him. One of the people involved in the production is Ophir Baer, 54, who works in high tech and whose father was a friend of Israel's.
"I never understood how we know so much about other people who saved Jews, like [Raoul ] Wallenberg and [Oskar ] Schindler, but no one has heard of Wilfrid Israel," says Baer.
The producers intend to base their story on the comprehensive biography of Israel, "A Refuge from Darkness" (Pantheon, 1984 ) by Naomi Shepherd. The London-based Israeli author spent three years rummaging through archives, searching for his old friends, reading, researching and gathering materials for her book.
Israel was a taciturn, discreet, secretive man who jealously guarded his privacy. He was a capitalist who believed in communism; a lover of mankind who spent much time alone; a man with a penchant for young men who was surrounded by beautiful women; a pacifist and a weakling who became a selfless hero while incurring great risk that ultimately cost him his life.
Albert Einstein, whom he knew in Berlin, said of him: "Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was - in very truth a living work of art." Moshe Sharett, who would become the State of Israel's second prime minister, wrote: "Wilfrid was distressed and entirely given to profound concern for the fate of the Jews who remained in Germany." Writer Christopher Isherwood even used Wilfrid as inspiration for one of the characters in his book "Goodbye to Berlin."
"He wanted to remain anonymous, wanted no credit for what he did, no title, no fame," says Shepherd. "Not one of the people I interviewed could tell me much about him personally - apart from saying what he had done. They all described him as mysterious, impossible to know, even when they spoke of him warmly and admiringly ... Everything he did during the Nazi period had to be secret, as he was in constant danger ... He was followed everywhere ... He remains an elusive, if fascinating, figure."
Wilfrid Israel was born in 1899 to a wealthy Berlin family, owners of the Kaufhaus N. Israel, a large department store next to City Hall on the Alexanderplatz. When he was 22 he was appointed manager of the business, which had 2,000 employees and was one of Europe's most important stores. Because of the family's status and the place's importance, the inscription "Israel" remained on the building's facade even after the Nazis took over Berlin, and no swastika was hung there, as the authorities required.
Israel nurtured his workers and saw to all their needs. He fought tooth and nail to keep them employed even when the Nazis were harassing Jewish businesses and workers, and managed to survive when other Jewish businesses crashed. Later, until the business closed, he helped some two-thirds of his Jewish workers escape Germany, saving their lives, and paid them salaries even after they left.
On March 30, 1933, a few days after the Reichstag was burnt down, a Nazi unit raided the department store and demanded Israel fire all his Jewish workers. When he refused, he was arrested and was released at the intervention of one of his employees, who was a Nazi.
On April 1, 1933, the country boycotted Jewish businesses, and the Nazis stationed storm troops at their entrances. One of the units went to Israel's department store. "My grandparents used to buy everything they needed at the store and I intend to do the same," they were apparently told by a German woman who insisted on entering despite the boycott.
On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, armed SS men entered the store, arrested the Jewish employees and destroyed everything they found. As soon as he arrived, Israel checked the list of the Jewish employees who had been arrested and began negotiations to have them released from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The camp commander agreed to free them after Israel promised him he could shop at the department store for free that Christmas.
At the start of 1939 Jewish businesses could no longer operate in Berlin, and Israel had to sell the department store. "At this moment of farewell, after joint work over generations, I want to express once again my profoundest gratitude and personal thanks to all my colleagues ... who have served the company so faithfully for so long," he wrote to his employees.
A few days later a poster went up on the streets of the city: "Change in the ownership of N. Israel. Everyone is invited to the dedication of a company called Das Haus im Zentrum. Heil Hitler."
Israel took advantage of his vast network of connections, his money and his family's status to save tens of thousands of other Jews throughout Europe. Beginning in the 1920s he initiated, supported and funded various projects to send European Jewish children to the land of Israel and other countries.
Israel was a pioneer of the Youth Aliyah (immigration ) movement that Recha Freier established in Germany, which brought young Jews to the land of Israel to work in agriculture. The first participants in the project were 12 youths, who had been fired from their jobs in Germany because they were Jewish. Wilfrid Israel came to their aid, funding and organizing their move to Palestine. The participants were not yet familiar with the climatic conditions there and at their request Israel provided them with 12 woolen coats with velvet collars, taken straight from the hangers at the department store.
Israel himself refused to leave Berlin and close the business even when many of his acquaintances and friends did. Eventually he became an address for thousands of Jews, giving help, advice and financial aid. Thus was born the myth that he was invulnerable to the Nazis, even though he was Jewish. By means of a secret mechanism he set up with two partners, Israel helped release many more from concentration camps using money, permits and connections with the Nazi regime.
One of the Jews Israel helped was a boy of 18. The two kept in touch, which has enabled a rare glimpse into Israel's inner world. "The struggle to reach out and touch the world is my particular burden in life," Israel wrote to him.
The largest rescue project in which Israel was involved was the Kindertransport, which took about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe to Britain on the eve of World War II. He had no hesitation about applying to his top connections in an attempt to get them to help rescue Jews. In so doing, he often exposed the West's unwillingness to help even in light of the Nazi atrocities.
In a letter to British statesman Herbert Samuel in June 1938, Israel wrote: "You have no doubt heard of the plight of many of our co-religionists since their arrest in the past weeks (they may number 2,000-3,000 ). They are now suffering the tortures of hell in one of the new concentration camps, in the so-called quarries of death ... For many, the only way of escaping this torture is to run into wire entanglement loaded with high-tension electricity." Israel's request to use a British ship to rescue Jews from Germany was not answered.
After he sold the business he moved to Britain. In one of his many positions he wrote assessments that served the British decision-makers. Among other things, he was one of the first to report on the deportation of Jews to Eastern Europe.
"Nazi rule is aiming at the extermination of the Jews," he wrote. "These plans, should the Nazis be given opportunity of enforcing them systematically, will eventually result in the evacuation of all urban ghettoes (where the Jews are now concentrated ) and in the concentration of the entire European Jewish population in 'annihilation areas' of Eastern Europe."
Deportation, extermination and annihilation were words he often used in reports - well before everyone was using them.
Several times over the years, Wilfrid Israel visited Palestine and was particularly impressed by the pioneers and the kibbutzim. He linked his fate to that of Kibbutz Hazorea's members, who also came from Germany. On his last visit there, he expressed his desire to become a member of the kibbutz and to be buried there after his death. On his way back to Europe he wrote to his friends at the kibbutz: "I know that necessity is dictating my path to me, but I also know the sense of security enveloping me at Hazorea gives me a feeling of home. I am setting out with renewed strength and everything the future holds for me, however painful it might be - will be ameliorated by my stay in the land."
Israel embarked on his last mission, from which he did not return, in 1943 at the behest of the Jewish Agency. "I cannot, dare not, say no. I must just make myself physically strong enough to tackle it," he wrote on the eve of his departure to Lisbon, to coordinate the efforts to rescue Jewish refugees. At that time he also wrote his will and bequeathed his art collection to Kibbutz Hazorea. To this day the collection is on display at the museum that bears his name.
On the 25th anniversary of his death his friend Emma Wohlwill wrote about Israel's final mission. "He came from London to help the refugees who were stuck in Spain and Portugal and get them out of there ... He was full of enthusiasm and said it was possible ... Ninety-seven certificates he had managed to prepare went down with him to the bottom of the sea."