The 'James Bondian' Life of a Palmach Parachutist

A new film and 'comic book,' marking the centennial of the birth of Slovakian-born adventuress Haviva Reick, ask viewers whether they would sacrifice their lives for their principles as she did in WW II.

Courtesy of the Museum of Slovak National Uprising,

In the first scene of the comic book “Return to a Burning House,” published recently in Slovakia, a young woman is seen riding a motorcycle. This was not a common scene in 1931 in the streets of Europe, certainly not in a small town in Slovakia. But in this graphic work, as was the case in real life, everyone knows “the girl with the motorcycle.”

When she drove from village to village, farmers would wave to her; soldiers and drunkards whistled and sometimes made rude remarks. The girl on the motorcycle is Haviva Reick (1914-1944), the Jewish parachutist who lived in Palestine, and who at the end of World War II volunteered to return to her childhood home in Slovakia, to help the Allies fight the Nazis and try to save Jews who had not yet been sent to their deaths.

This summer was the centennial of Reick's birth, and November marked 70 years since her death at the age of 30.

While there was no national commemoration in Israel of these anniversaries, rather small-scale observances, a new documentary film entitled “Return to a Burning House” – on which the comic book, as its authors call it, is based – premiered in Slovakia. Reick's life has been honored in other events organized in her homeland.

GPO

Reick was one of four volunteers from Palestine who parachuted into occupied Europe and were captured and executed in what was called "black November" in 1944. Hannah Szenes, the best known of the group, was murdered by the Nazis on November 7; Enzo Sereni, on November 18; and Reick and Rafael Reiss, were put to death on November 20.

The latter two had been arrested by the Nazis and local collaborators in a surprise attack on a camp in the mountains, where Reick and Reiss were gathering dozens of young Jewish fighters. They were subsequently shot and buried in a common grave.

This year a number of events honoring Reick have been initiated by the Museum of the National Slovak Uprising in the city of Banská Bystrica, the heart of the enclave of Slovak rebels who were fighting the Nazi-friendly national government. This is the city where Reick grew up, and where she was captured and killed 30 years later. A military salute and a festival of Yiddish poetry were held here recently; the museum erected a statue and named a garden after her, and also organized an event in which 100 candles were lit in her memory.

One highlight among the commemorative events was an academic conference held last month, including the premier of the documentary “Return to a Burning House.”

From 'Return to a Burning House,' published in 2014, about Haviva Reick. Photo by Courtesy of the Museum of Slovak National Uprising.

The film, produced by Mirka Molnár L'achká and directed and written by Anna Grusková, and the comic book – written by Grusková, illustrated by Viliam Slaminka, and translated into English by Janet Livingston ־ were both inspired by the book “Haviva Reick: A Kibbutz Pioneer’s Mission and Fall Behind Nazi Lines,” written by two veterans of the Palmach (the strike force of the pre-state Jewish militia in Palestine), Tehila and Ze’ev Ofer. Their book was published this year in English, 10 years after it came out in Hebrew.

For her part, producer L'achká told Haaretz that, "We wanted to introduce [Reick] to the public and especially to young people. We believe that we ... her pioneer idealism can inspire people, especially the young ones."

Thus, she continued, "we will also make a short version of the film and aim it at students... It is not easy to approach young people with a traditional historical document and we did not want to bore them with too much text. The comic book is kind of a 'shortcut' between them and Haviva.'

According to L'achká, the film will help people "realize that people lived adventurous lives 'even in the past' and they are worth a comic book. And what is even more: This 'James Bondian' story is real!

Suspense novel

Haviva Reick’s story really does read like a suspense novel. It begins on the eve of World War I, with her birth in Slovakia only six days after the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, was assassinated – the pretext for the outbreak of that war.

The story continues with Reick, at age 18, joining the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and taking the Hebrew name "Haviva"; then working as the assistant to Dr. Oskar Neuman, head of the Zionist Federation in Slovakia, to help Jews get to Palestine; immigrating there herself in 1939; and becoming a member of Kibbutz Ma’anit. Reick joined the Palmach in 1942, where she became one of the first female commanders, and she volunteered to parachute into occupied Europe, where her mother and brother had already been murdered by the Nazis.

But beyond the saga of a heroic young girl and an idealistic woman, is the story of a hotheaded adventurer, who got married in Slovakia but apparently had many affairs with men, both single and married, throughout her short lifetime.

“Like a mother bursting into a burning house to save her children,” Reick wrote, describing how she felt when deciding to leave Palestine and return to Europe. She pursued her mission for weeks until the mountain encampment she had established with the three other parachutists was attacked. The British Royal Air Force uniform she wore did not help her cause.

At the end of the war, Reick's body was identified in the common grave. She was reinterred in Prague, but a cross was placed over her grave. In 1952 her remains were brought to Israel and buried in the military cemetery on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl.

All these events and others are depicted in the comic book, which will be distributed free to schools in Slovakia and translated into other languages, screenwriter-author Grusková told Haaretz.

"[We wanted] to present the most important parts of Haviva's life in an attractive way for young people, to present her as a courageous personality who loved life and was very far from any form of martyrdom," she explained. "The message should be positive: Haviva is still with us and knowledge about her could empower you!

The creators of the film and book, producer L'achká explained, are hoping to get people to think about tough questions, such as whether it is worth it to fight or even sacrifice oneself for one’s principles.

The renewed interest in Slovakia in Reick's life can be linked to a recent rebirth of national sentiment in that country, which became communist after the Soviet conquest in 1948 but which, after Czechoslovakia broke up, became independent in 1993 and a member of the European Union, a decade ago.

"Haviva is not national hero in Slovakia; this category is not so known in our country ... like in Israel," Stanislav Micev, general director of the Museum of Slovak National Uprising, told Haaretz. "But she is undoubtedly hero of the Slovak national uprising."