Death From the Sky

On July 29, 1954, a light plane crashed into a crowd of spectators during a ceremony at Kibbutz Ma'agan, killing 17 people and injuring 25. The disaster traumatized the young state and hurled those involved into a maelstrom of repression, denial and cover-ups that has lasted to this day. New testimony sheds fresh light on the story.

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman

In the late afternoon of a fine sunny day in July 1954, a ceremony was held at Kibbutz Ma'agan, on the shore of Lake Kinneret, to dedicate a monument in memory of Peretz Goldstein, one of the founders of the kibbutz. Goldstein, a 20-year-old fighter in the pre-state Palmach commandos, was parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia, gave himself up to the Nazis in Hungary and perished in a concentration camp a year later. About 2,700 people attended the kibbutz ceremony, according to police estimates. In the crowd were prime minister Moshe Sharett and other senior government officials, Palmach veterans, leaders of the kibbutz movement and, as the papers put it, "nearly the whole local aristocracy."

Minutes after the national anthem was sung and the Yizkor (Remembrance) prayer recited, a two-seater Piper plane crashed into the crowd. Seventeen people were killed, including four parachutists who had been sent into Europe and survived, the commander of the military honor guard and Daniel Sereni, the son and last scion of the family of the famed parachutist Enzo Sereni. Twenty-five people were injured, among them the pilot and a passenger in the plane.

The "Ma'agan disaster" rocked the young state. The scale and importance of the event, and its tragic consequences, left an ugly scar in the chronicles of the kibbutz and an unhealed wound in everyone involved in the episode. To this day, 55 years later, many of these people refuse to talk about the disaster and others deny their part in the sequence of events. Others are haunted by the feeling that, because of a barrage of threats and an establishment cover up, the proper conclusions were never drawn and the guilty were never brought to justice. Some are giving their full testimony for the first time in this article.

Peretz Goldstein was the youngest of the 32 fighters from the Yishuv - as the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine was known - whom British intelligence agreed to parachute into Europe during the war. In April 1944, he and his comrade-in-arms,Yoel Palgi, were parachuted into Yugoslavia and two months later crossed the border into Hungary, exactly 10 days after the arrest of another member of the mission, Hannah Szenes. It later turned out that from the moment the two crossed the border, they were under surveillance by Hungarian intelligence. As soon as they entered Budapest, they were declared wanted men. They contacted the head of the Jewish community's Aid and Rescue Committee, Dr. Rudolf Kasztner, who was stunned to see them in Hungary and even more taken aback when he heard about their plan to foment a Jewish revolt against the Nazis. The rescue train Kasztner had organized was almost ready, and the presence of the two parachutists was liable to undermine the deal he had struck with Adolf Eichmann.

Kasztner tried to present Palgi to the Germans as a representative of the Jewish community in Palestine who had come to negotiate with them. But this ruse failed, and Palgi was arrested. Goldstein managed to hide for a few more days in the ghetto. There he met his astonished parents and a few childhood friends and tried to see how he could help. However, he was unable to make contact with his handlers. In the meantime, Kasztner's train left for Switzerland with Goldstein's parents aboard. The Nazis then stopped the train and threatened to cancel the deal unless Goldstein was handed over.

With Kasztner's mediation, Goldstein decided to give himself up to the Germans. We will never know what took place in the conversation between the two before Goldstein turned himself in. Possibly Goldstein wanted to mitigate the torture that Szenes and Palgi were undergoing, or perhaps he was persuaded that by surrendering he would save the lives of his parents and the other 1,700 Jews on the train. That, in any event, was Kasztner's testimony in the so-called "Kasztner trial" held in Israel a decade later.

Palgi managed to escape, Szenes was executed, and according to a number of testimonies, Goldstein perished in Oranienburg concentration camp in Germany. Ten years later, his parents, Rachel and Yosef Goldstein, who had reached Switzerland along with the other refugees on the train after being held for a time in Bergen-Belsen, longed for the moment when they would be able to memorialize their son's valor, for through his death he had given them life.

The members of Kibbutz Ma'agan also awaited the moment. Then under way was the libel trial in which Kasztner was transformed, in the public's perception, from a civil servant who wanted to defend his reputation, into an accused man. Testimony in the trial seriously called into question, for the first time, the purpose of the Jewish parachutists' missions. The members of Ma'agan, the kibbutz from which the largest number of such volunteers had come, felt that now was the time for them to show support for the project of the parachutists.

The executive secretary of the kibbutz, the late Yitzhak Ayalon (father of former cabinet minister Ami Ayalon), organized the event. Yellowing documents strewn in disarray in the kibbutz archive demonstrate the seriousness with which he approached the task. He drew up a precise minute-by-minute schedule of the ceremony and the sequence of speakers. He listed the names of the ushers, the guards, the carriers of the floral wreaths, the press liaisons and even the names of the caregivers who would stay with the children. On the eve of the disaster, a rehearsal was held, following which Ayalon wrote in his final corrections and the names of four members who were to hand out the kibbutz journal to the guests.

Ayalon solicited the aid of state institutions. The director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Teddy Kollek, volunteered a few pennies. His predecessor in the post, Ehud Avriel, a behind-the-scenes power in Mapai (the ruling party and forerunner of Labor) and in the Sharett government, sent Moshe Shilo, a Defense Ministry official and director of the Israel Defense Forces Archives, to help.

Shilo spent two weeks on the project, commandeering benches and rope for a fence from the IDF Northern Command. From the newly created Paratroops unit, he obtained a squad to act as an honor guard, and from the General Staff base he recruited the IDF Orchestra and a young female soldier to recite the Yizkor prayer. However, the IDF rejected his request for an air force fly-past and a jump by parachutists during the ceremony. Kibbutz Ma'agan, the IDF said, was too close to the border, and it was possible that one or more of the parachutists might be swept into Syrian territory.

A few weeks before the ceremony, national and local papers carried ads inviting Palmach veterans from the area, comrades-in-arms and supporters to attend the event. With Shilo's help, 4,000 invitations were sent by mail to national leaders, mayors, families of the parachutists and hundreds of dignitaries. For two weeks, Voice of Israel broadcasts were stopped to announce the event. The muckraking weekly Haolam Hazeh wondered why this had not been done in other cases, such as the ceremony dedicating the memorial monument to the fighters of Kibbutz Negba, for which there were only two radio invitations, both of them during news broadcasts.

Prime minister Sharett was also looking forward to the ceremony in memory of Goldstein. The criticism of the Zionist institutions that had been unleashed by the "Kasztner trial," notably in regard to rescue efforts during the Holocaust and to the parachuting project, was aimed partly at him: Sharett had been head of the political department of the Jewish Agency during the period in question. He planned to use the platform of the ceremony to respond to his opponents. He wrote a pathos-laden speech that was a paean to the heroism of the parachutists and a defense of the Zionist institutions.

On the same day and at exactly the same time as the event in Ma'agan, the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Yad Vashem, the official state Holocaust memorial, took place in Jerusalem in with Israel's president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, in attendance. Also in attendance were cabinet ministers, leaders of Jewish communities from abroad, rabbis, representatives of new-immigrant associations and others related to the Diaspora. Sharett, however, chose to attend the Ma'agan event, along with Kasztner, Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek, Pinhas Sapir, Yigal Allon and many other leading forces of Mapai. For many, the choice of which ceremony to attend was far more than merely symbolic. It represented loyalty to the party and its ideology, and was a way of taking sides in the creation of a narrative by demonstrating who was for heroism and who for martyrdom.

Boosting morale

The Aero Club of Israel (ACI) had also heard about the planned ceremony at Kibbutz Ma'agan. In testimony to the inquiry commission that was established after the disaster, Avraham Kril, a member of the ACI directorate, recalled "reading about [the event], probably in one of the newspapers." ACI, founded in 1933 with the aid of the Jewish Agency and the encouragement of the Haganah (the official Yishuv defense force), contributed much to the Israel Air Force's development when the state was established. Its graduates became pilots and its facilities and aircraft were also sometimes mobilized. But as the air force grew and developed, the status of the club declined among the public and decision makers alike. National aerial missions, such as assisting isolated settlements and transporting VIPs by air, were assigned to the air force.

In the months leading up to July 1954, ACI's airborne activities took the form of dropping floral wreaths over a Gadna (youth battalions) gathering in Givat Olga and over the jubilee festivities of Zichron Yaakov, dropping candies for the children of Kibbutz Givat Brenner on Independence Day, and throwing a soccer ball from a plane onto the field during the Maccabiah Games. But it was not just the club's aerial activity that was meager - so were its coffers. The dusty files of ACI contain press clippings describing the club's constantly mounting deficit, a situation aggravated by constantly diminishing state assistance. The figures show that without an immediate change, the club would have been forced to halt its activity and sell its assets within two months.

The leaders of ACI scouted around for creative ideas. Kril came up with the idea of taking part in the Kibbutz Ma'agan event: two Piper Cubs would fly over the ceremony and drop a message of greeting. A central figure in Mapai, Kril knew which way the wind was blowing. A display of aerial support before the country's leaders could not hurt the floundering organization, least of all, because the cost of the fly-past was less than 70 Israel pounds, a pittance compared to the club's deficit of 30,000 pounds. The entire directorate backed Kril's suggestion enthusiastically. He admitted to the inquiry commission that the initiative was intended primarily "to create publicity and boost the morale of the club's members."

Through confidants, Kril reached Shilo at the Defense Ministry and proposed the fly-past idea. Shilo turned him down. In testimony after the disaster, he noted that he "saw no point to it," particularly after the IDF's refusal to execute a fly-past. Shilo added that he was inclined to refuse because the proposal was made just a few days before the event, after all the necessary authorizations had already been issued.

Sources involved in the police investigation told the press that senior members of the club had exerted heavy pressure on Shilo to make him change his mind. Finally, two days before the ceremony, he came around. He testified that he did so only after he was promised that the fly-past would parachute a message from the president of Israel, who was to be at the Yad Vashem ceremony in Jerusalem.

To this day, the origin of the misunderstanding about the message is not clear. After the disaster, members of Kibbutz Ma'agan claimed that they were certain the president's message would be brought by plane. In support of this claim, they brought the inquiry commission a recording of the ceremony, in which the emcee is clearly heard announcing the arrival of the president's message as the first plane approaches.

Additional documents that reinforce this claim, and which were never presented to the police or the inquiry commission, were found in a decayed state in the kibbutz archive. In a letter received by the kibbutz three days before the event, the director of the president's bureau, Ra'anan Silver, confirmed that he would attend the ceremony and bring a floral wreath. He noted that regrettably, he could not bring people to lay the wreath and asked the kibbutz to choose two representatives for this task. The next day, the kibbutz received a telegram stating that owing to "unforeseen circumstances," Silver was compelled to cancel his participation in the ceremony and that the president's message would be sent by express mail.

The telegram was brought quickly to Shilo. Ayalon related afterward that he was afraid the president's message would not arrive in time. Another meeting was held that day between Kril and Shilo, in which it was agreed that ACI would perform a fly-past and two people were appointed to work out the details. The two liaisons testified that they were certain the intention was to parachute the president's message. Kril and the heads of ACI stated afterward that it was clear to them throughout that only a message from the club would be dropped. The inquiry commission chose to play down the importance of the dispute; the police, as far as is known, did not even look into it.

First flight

"I still remember the morning of the day of the disaster as a very festive day," says Eli Kedem, 61, the sales manager of the Kibbutz Ma'agan Holiday Village. "I was a little boy, and the children my age were not taken to the ceremony, but I remember that we were dressed in white shirts and taken for a ride through the kibbutz on a wagon hitched to a tractor." Ayalon's meticulous plans state that Kedem and his peers were also to be given popsicles. Ami Ayalon, age nine at the time, also remembers the white shirts and the excitement that gripped his class that day.

But it wasn't only the kibbutz children who awoke to a festive atmosphere. The high emotion of the day was palpable throughout the kibbutz. From early morning, members worked to clean the paths and the parking lot. Those on duty in the kitchen baked cakes and made sandwiches for the hundreds of invited guests. Menahem Daniv, who was to deliver greetings on behalf of the kibbutz, added two final corrections to his typed text with a pen. They laud Goldstein's heroism "in organizing the defense and rescue" of the nation and underscore the connection between his deeds and "the nation and the land."

Next to the monument, Yosef Akun, a sound technician from Petah Tikva, installed the microphones. At 5 P.M. the members of the kibbutz ceased their labors and went to their rooms to don festive attire. The first of the guests started to pull into the parking lot, which had been marked specially in honor of the event. The dust raised by the cars swirled in the air alongside Israeli flags. Cards with the names of the VIPs were placed on seats in the front rows. The fifth row was reserved for the children of Ami Ayalon's class. The soldiers from the honor guard were busy shining their boots.

As scheduled, the young children climbed onto the wagon pulled by the tractor for their outing. At exactly that moment, two yellow Pipers were ready to take off from the runway of Sde Dov in north Tel Aviv. Piloting the first plane was Uri Galin and behind him, in the passenger seat, was Avshalom Strud, an ACI official. Kril had appointed him the previous day to be the club's representative in coordinating the fly-past with the organizers of the event. The details had not been completely worked out, and Strud, as the only ACI official who knew something about them, was instructed to board the plane at the last minute.

According to the original plan, the passenger was to have been Kril's 13-year-old son, Yoav. "I got very angry when Dad asked me not fly with Galin that day," he recalls. "As a boy, I admired Galin. He was a kind of superstar, and when Dad told me that Strud had to fly instead of me, I was very upset. But fate led my father to the synagogue to recite the prayer of thanksgiving."

In the second plane were G. and a female friend, S. (who after more than 50 years still decline to disclose their names). G. was a graduate of one of the first air force flying courses, and had just completed his military service. While waiting for to begin studies at the European university in which he had enrolled, he worked as an instructor in the Gadna aerial unit and did occasional stunt flying for a fee, on behalf of ACI.

"A few hours earlier I met S., who had just finished teaching in the Gadna aerial unit. She said she had no plans and was going home, so I suggested that she join me," says G. For her part, S. says it was her first-ever flight, and adds that G. "was just trying to make something of an impression" with the invitation.

Galin took off first and led the two-plane formation north along the coastline. Without the aid of a compass or a map, the two planes flew eastward over Hadera, toward Afula. Both pilots knew the route well. They maintained a varying distance of a few dozen meters between them and a steady altitude of about 3,000 feet. Every so often, one of the pilots executed a spectacular stunt. They had no radios: if one of the pilots wanted to say something to the other, he simply flew close to his plane and shouted through the window.

The weather was pleasant, visibility was excellent, and after more than half a century, S. still remembers the flying experience as "riveting and exciting." After flying for an hour and a half, as they approached Kibbutz Ma'agan, the pilots saw that they were too early. The ceremony site was still empty. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and buses from the Eshed company, which had been rented to transport hundreds of guests on a special line from Tiberias, were nowhere in sight.

Strud, Galin's passenger, was prepared for just such an eventuality. As the person in charge of coordinating the fly-past with the ground personnel, he had spoken by telephone the previous day with Captain Moshe Metz, from the General Staff's Regime and Procedure Unit, whom Shilo had appointed to make the final arrangements. The two had agreed that in the event of a delay, the planes would continue to circle overhead and wait for a sign in the form of the letter "T" in white, which the event's organizers would place on the ground a few minutes before the parachuting was to begin.

Holding their breath

While waiting for the signal, the two planes went on a short trip across the area. Galin tried to check occasionally how the ceremony was progressing, while G. showed S. Lake Kinneret from above Kibbutz Deganya. When Galin saw the white "T," he dipped his wings to signal G. to come closer. As G. flew toward the ceremony site at a high altitude, Galin prepared to hurl down the message, which had been placed inside a metal tube to which a small parachute was attached. Contrary to civil aviation regulations, he flew very low, a few dozen meters from the ground. Holding the metal tube, he tightened the folded parachute attached to it and threw it out of the left window of the plane above the ceremony site. It should have been a simple throw for him; a few hours earlier, he had practiced the same maneuver at Sde Dov. The papers later reported that in the morning, he had taken a Piper to execute a similar stunt, throwing stones at the Reading power station in Tel Aviv. In addition, Galin was the Israeli champion in discus-throwing. Two years earlier, he had represented Israel at the Helsinki Olympics, and he had held the Israeli record in the sport for almost a decade.

Yosef, Peretz Goldstein's father, had just unveiled the stone obelisk as Galin's plane approached from over Lake Kinneret, flying low. The emcee announced that he was carrying the president's message. The ceremony was stopped, and all eyes turned skyward. The plane drew closer. According to a number of witnesses, it descended to an altitude of 30 or 40 meters. "The crowd held its breath when the package was thrown from the window of the plane," the newspapers wrote the next day, and a groan of disappointment immediately went up from the audience.

Galin's throw was a failure. The parachute opened prematurely and its strings were caught in the plane's left wheel, while the metal tube containing the message was pulled through the air. Within a few seconds, the organizers realized the mishap and invited the president's adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel Yossi Carmel, to read the message, which he had in his pocket all along. Some in the audience continued to watch Galin's plane as it turned and flew over Lake Kinneret again. They later described to reporters how he stretched his arm out of the plane in an attempt to reach the metal tube and, unable to get to it, leaned his whole upper body out of the plane.

Strud testified to the inquiry commission that Galin performed this acrobatic stunt four times, each time more daringly. Asked what he was doing while Galin was leaning out of the plane, he said he was holding the aircraft's control stick. Galin, he said, shouted at him to hold the stick, and when he protested that he was not a pilot, Galin shouted back, "Just hold it straight."

G.'s plane continued to hover high above the ceremony. He remembers seeing Galin "fly a bit higher, straightening the wings and sticking his body out of the plane." At first G. did not understand what had happened. From his altitude he could not see the little parachute dangling from the wheel of the plane below. But after a few maneuvers he realized what Galin was doing.

Recalls G. today: "'What are you doing, you nut!?' I shouted to him. 'What are you doing? Get in and grab the stick,' I shouted with all my might into the air. I was at an altitude of two, maybe three thousand feet, and from that distance there was no chance he could hear me, but what else could I do?" he says, visibly rattled, as though he has been hurtled 55 years back in time.

S. has similar memories: "G. shouted like a madman. He just got hysterical when he saw Galin sticking half his body out of the plane. I saw it, too, but I didn't understand exactly what was going on. G. shouted to me that he was afraid Galin would be sucked out of the plane." Haim Solomon, a Bank of Israel employee at the time and a former police officer, was in the audience that day. He testified in Galin's trial a few months later.

"In the last attempt," he said, "Galin stretched most of his upper body and extended his hand as far as the wheel, so that his whole back was visible, including part of his trousers, out of the plane." Finally, Galin managed to free the parachute, and he decided to try to throw the tube again. Afterward, he related that at this stage, his plane was about 30 meters off the ground and a few dozen meters from the monument. He pulled his upper body out of the plane and got ready to make the throw. Strud held the controls.

Witnesses on the ground stated that at this stage, they were flying low, and slowly. Solomon estimated that the plane was no more than 15 meters from the ground. Galin bent out of the plane, which according to the witnesses began tilting to the left, and threw the tube. This time he succeeded. He continued to follow the descending parachute with his eyes, he said, but the moment he returned his gaze to look ahead of the plane, he discovered that he was flying at the level of the flagpoles and before he could do anything, the plane crashed.

First the wing hit Paratroops officer Simcha Levy, the commander of the honor guard. Then the plane continued toward the crowd, skipped over the first three rows and landed on the fifth row. "A deathly silence descended," eye-witnesses told reporters. A soldier from the honor guard leaped to the microphone and shouted to everyone to run. The fear was that the plane would explode. Many fled, encountering the rope fence, overturned benches and parts of human bodies that had been hurled in every direction.

"The rotor mowed people down," a spectator said. G., who continued to circle above, says he saw Galin "execute a sharp turn to the left, level out a bit over the ceremony site and land straight into the audience. In the first seconds it looked like someone had stepped on an ant nest. I was so high that all I saw was black specks rushing in a panic every which way."

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