This work by Ada Aharoni is one of the latest in her long and distinguished career as a University Teacher, Author, Poet and Political Activist. It relates and contextualizes the remarkable story of Sister Thea Wolf, a German Jewish Nurse who came to work in Egypt before the outbreak of World War 2 and thus survived the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.
However it is much more than this, for it also shows that it is possible for Jew and Moslem, Arab and European, Sephardi and Ashkenazi to co-operate in what is the most important project known to us as human beings - the saving of life, especially under duress. As such it has a resonance for today's tumultuous world where peace is so difficult to bring about, whether in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict or the Balkans or Northern Ireland, and where people fleeing for their lives from oppressive regimes are often treated as prospective criminals when they seek sanctuary in the envisaged safe havens of Western countries. It is a work that combines biography, reportage and literature. Ada Aharoni also weaves in relevant examples of her own poetry and creates linkages with what is going on today in terms of developments in Arab-Israeli- and especially Egyptian-Israeli relations.
There are three important factors that have helped to make this a very special work. Firstly, from an early age Thea Wolf kept meticulous records and notes relating to her experiences and, even after she left Egypt and settled in Israel, endeavoured to find out what had happened to the many people she helped to save from the Nazis. These notes proved invaluable to Ada Aharoni, who in turn became personally enmeshed in this project and was instrumental in discovering the fate of some of those in whose rescue Thea Wolf had participated. Secondly, the fact that the author herself was born in Egypt and spent her early, formative years there provides a deeper understanding of the nature of that society. This is also a huge benefit to her parallel project - showing how it is possible for Jews and Arabs to co-operate, even under difficult circumstances. Thirdly, the rapport that obviously developed between Ada Aharoni and Thea Wolf was such that each could bring out the other's strengths and this enriched the work tremendously.
The title of the book is derived from Thea Wolf's statement 'I did not want to live in vain.' As a child she overcame privations brought about by Germany's defeat in the First World War and then fought prejudice from her community in terms of training as a nurse. When she had the chance to serve at the Jewish Community Hospital in Alexandria, her family was aghast, but once again her strength of character prevailed and she left, never to return to her family home. The Nazis exterminated her family, apart from three relatives.
In Egypt, the hospital, although primarily established for the benefit of the flourishing Jewish Community of Alexandria, never refused a patient it could help, irrespective of their background. Egyptians were also employed at the hospital and their friends and relatives were treated there on equal terms. When Jews fleeing Europe began arriving in Egypt, many Egyptians who had experience of the hospital came to enlist the help of Sister Thea and her colleagues. From 1937, in conjunction with sympathetic locals, three groups were formed in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said in order to try and help people fleeing by ship from Europe. In some cases, the authorities were persuaded to allow them to disembark and stay in Egypt.
Some bizarre ruses were instigated in order to save the fleeing Jews. One such example took place in 1939 when a young German sailor arrived at the hospital with news that 13 people were on board his ship and were likely to be transported back to Germany as no-one had been willing to accept them. This sailor realised that if he could convince the authorities that a serious epidemic had broken out, this would have to be reported and the ship would have to remain in port until medical clearance had been obtained. To this end he arranged with the hospital to administer a dose of sleeping pills to the refugees which gave the appearance of a coma. Eventually, the hospital was contacted and removed them.
Once off the ship, however, all declared that they wished to go to Palestine and despite repeated efforts, the British authorities refused to grant entry visas. Thus it was decided that they would have to go illegally and elaborate preparations were made, which involved transferring them to the port prison in Port Said. From there they were transferred - with the co-operation of the local police - to a fishing boat which was scheduled to take them to Palestine. Sister Thea accompanied them on board and ascertained that there would be enough food and other supplies. She then returned to Alexandria to await news of their safe arrival. Just in case they were spotted by the British patrols, a fast cutter was also rented to 'shadow' the fishing vessel. In the event this proved a wise decision since this is exactly what happened. The refugees had to be transferred to the cutter, which managed to land on the beach at Tel Aviv, where members of Haganah met it. They looked after the refugees until they could be collected by relatives.
It was indeed fortuitous that Sister Thea was able to arrange this rescue for the thirteen refugees, since this German ship was the last to visit Egypt before war broke out. Had she not done so, they would have been repatriated to Germany and would have almost certainly perished in the Holocaust.
A number of similar daring and risky ventures were engineered by Thea Wolf and her colleagues, with the help of Egyptian officials, which led to the survival of many people. Not least among these was her own temporary evacuation on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein. There was no question that the local people involved in these escapes participated genuinely for humanitarian reasons. Differences of politics, religion and culture were set aside. This surely is a lesson that could serve as an example for today, in terms of bringing together Israelis and Palestinians.
Thea Wolf remained in Alexandria until 1947, when she decided to move to Palestine. This decision was based on her idea of 'owing it' to those who had died in the Holocaust to establish a safe haven for survivors and for future Jewish generations. Accordingly, Thea left Egypt and in April 1947 started work as a nurse in a government hospital in Tiberias. After the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine, she was urged to return to Egypt for her own 'safety' by Arab friends - even by the Egyptian embassy in Jerusalem - as it was inevitable that war would break out after the British left Palestine in May 1948. In the event it was not the Jews of Palestine who were forced into exile, but the Jews of Egypt, many of whom were expelled from Egypt after the establishment of the State of Israel.
Thea married Julius Levinsohn, a lawyer from Germany, whom she met in Tiberias in 1947. She also adopted a young boy, Michael, a relative of her father, who was discovered to be living on a kibbutz nearby. Thea eventually settled in Jerusalem and engaged in voluntary work to bring about peace. She lived to see the beginnings of peace between Israel and her neighbours and prayed that this would be taken to its ultimate conclusion - Israel living normally alongside her neighbours in the region. Regrettably this process has suffered a setback recently, but Thea's example shows us that we should never give up hope or cease working towards this aim. Let us ensure that like Thea, our lives are not lived in vain in this regard.
September 1, 2001
Dr. Judith Bara is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of London, and a British literary critic.