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Unpretentious and unconventional, and still full of vim and vigor as he celebrates his 90th birthday, Murray Greenfield continues to be an example of Zionism in action

Ilana Kraus
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Murray Greenfield came to Israel the hard way, as an American volunteer in 1947 aboard Hatikvah, one of ten Aliyah Bet (clandestine immigration) ships purchased in the US and run by American volunteers. He settled in Israel and established one enterprise after another to help other olim and to promote Israel and the message of Zionism. A self-proclaimed enfant terrible, Murray combines American ingenuity with Israeli chutzpah.

Murray Greenfield

From Far Rockaway to Palestine

Murrays emblematic sense of fair play and commitment to democratic values, as well as his entrepreneurial savvy, were already evident in his Far Rockaway, New York high school, where he was class president. My parents were born in Poland and arrived in the US before World War One, Murray recalls. The fourth of five brothers, he fondly remembers going to the Yiddish theater with his mother.

Three of my brothers served in World War Two, and when I graduated high school, I signed up with the merchant marine, he says. But by the time he finished, the war was over and he served on several tankers. Once, when I was home, I met a fellow in shul who said that they were looking for guys like me. He arranged for me to meet someone downtown, Murray recounts. We had coffee at Horn & Hardarts, and talked about Holocaust survivors and their desire to go to Palestine. You may go to jail. Its dangerous, he warned me. What do I get paid?, I asked. No pay, he said. I was 20 years old, so I agreed.

Murray recently wrote a book, The Jews Secret Fleet (published by Gefen), which tells the fascinating story of these unsung heroes of Aliyah Bet, the American volunteers. The product of ten years of research, it chronicles the 200 sailors and the voyages of the ten ships (some over 50 years old) purchased in North America to carry thousands of Holocaust survivors to Palestine between 1946 and 1948, more than 50% of all the illegal immigrants. Most of the vessels were intercepted by the British navy and the refugees were taken to barbed wire enclosed internment camps in Cyprus. Murray was interned together with the survivors.

To mark his 90th birthday last month, Murray Greenfield’s family surprised him with a trip to Cyprus, where he had been interned in 1947

Filmmaker Alan Rosenthal created a documentary, Waves of Freedom, based on Greenfields book, which includes actual footage of the events, as well as interviews with refugees, British naval personnel, and the volunteers, Murray among them.

Many of the Americans did not realize what they had done, how they had been instrumental in the founding of Israel. But everyone got the biggest payment of their lives, so much more than a check in their pocket: a life of pride, he declares.

Zionist Renaissance man

After his stint with Aliyah Bet, Murray went to work for the P.E.C., now known as the Israel Economic Corporation, an American company founded by a group of prominent Jewish families to promote investments in Palestine. He would meet potential investors at their hotels, take them around the country, and show them how they could get in on the ground floor of the fledgling states development projects. Always anxious about sticking to the facts, he decided to take the official tour guide course. In 1951, I became the first American-born licensed tour guide, he states proudly.

Murray helped found the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) in the 1950s and went on to become its executive director, raising funds for mortgages and arranging for the construction of housing in Tel Avivs Afeka neighborhood, Nayot in Jerusalem, and other places around the country.

Later, Greenfield set up his own eponymous company that catered to olim. With offices in New York, London, Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and Beersheba, it was a one-stop duty free shop for purchasing all the goods they were entitled to import as new immigrants. He even wrote a book: How to be an Oleh or Things the Jewish Agency Never Told You.

In the 1980s, Murray put his entrepreneurial and fundraising skills to use to help the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ). He coached the Ethiopians about raising awareness of their plight and raising the money needed to get out of Ethiopia. All of this was before the mass airlift operations that brought them to Israel. He was also involved with the immigration of Soviet Jewry, among other things helping to found a Russian language magazine, Dawn (Rassvet).

Starting in the mid 1950s all the way till 1973, Murray and his wife, Hana, owned an art gallery exhibiting and promoting only Israeli artists. But the jewel in the crown is Gefen Publishing House (see side bar). Established by the couple in 1981, Gefen has carved its own niche in the publishing world, specializing in books of Jewish interest, in English, covering topics from Jewish thought and religion to Zionism, history, biographies and fiction, Ilan Greenfield, their son and Gefen CEO, explains.

Hana was the highlight

The highlight of his life, Murray states without hesitation, was not participating in Aliyah Bet, founding the AACI, helping Ethiopian and Russian Jews, or running a company, an art gallery, or a publishing house but, rather,  marrying Hana in September 1954. A Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who passed away on January 27, 2014, Hana worked side by side with him in all his ventures, and he was also actively involved in everything she undertook: encouraging others like her to tell their Holocaust experiences, setting up an educational organization for teaching the Holocaust to youth in the Czech Republic, and helping to establish the Czech Torah network for rescuing Torah scrolls.

It is not easy being married to a survivor, but I was able to do it, Murray notes. The Greenfields have three children, Meira, Dror, who passed away in 2003, Ilan and ten grandchildren, all living in Israel.

Murrays spark remains undimmed. He still feels like hes twenty, says his son Ilan. My father lectures about his book and the film, touring the US and speaking to youngsters in Israel about the heroic deeds of the American volunteers, who helped bring refugees – Holocaust survivors – to Palestine. W

Gefen Publishing House

Gefen Publishing is the worlds leading Zionist publishing house. It is very much a family affair. Founded in 1981 by Murray and Hana Greenfield, their sons also joined the company – Ilan, the current CEO, in 1982, and Dror (now deceased) in 1986. Over the years, it has been a vehicle for publishing works related to Jewish themes, from religious thought to history, from literature to humor, not to mention Murrays The Jews Secret Fleet, as well as Hanas haunting memoir, Fragments of Memory, which has been translated into Czech, English, Hebrew, Russian and German, selling over 30,000 copies.

The foremost English language publishing company in Israel, Gefen has published such titles as The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu and Miriams Song – the story of Miriam Peretz. It has published works by Natan Sharansky, Yosef Mendelevitz, Prof. Ben Zion Netanyahu, Lihi Lapid, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Prof. Aryeh Eldad, among many other authors. Books such as Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto by Moshe Arens, and Defensive Shield by Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch have helped expand knowledge about the events they describe, while The Jews of Lithuania by Masha Greenbaum is considered a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of Lithuanian Jewry.

Our titles deal with an array of subjects, all of them connected to the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael, Ilan Greenfield elaborates. We have published several books on Ethiopian Jews. To the best of my knowledge, Gefen has published the only volume dealing with the Ethiopian prisoners of Zion, Dreams Behind Bars by Rachamim Elazar and Baruch Hameiri.

Aside from Hana Greenfields memoir, Gefen has put out numerous scholarly and literary works dealing with the Holocaust. Ilan describes the recently published Sifting through Ashes by Bruce Gendelman and Robert B. Miller as a very powerful book that makes you feel as though you have visited Auschwitz yourself.

And Every Single One Was Someone by Phil Chernofsky is a one-of-a-kind book, he says. It has only one word in it – JEW – repeated six million times, on 1,250 pages, each one representing a person murdered during the Holocaust. Ambassador Ron Dermer presented this volume to President Obama when he came to speak at the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C., Ilan reveals.