Ruth Klüger and the Mossad le Aliyah Bet

After learning the story of Ruth Klüger*, one immediately understands why Nahum Laufer, the screenwriter for the film The Darien Dilemma, in which Klüger’s character plays the central role, chose to abandon his initial storyline regarding his mother’s escape from Europe when he became acquainted with Klüger’s history. Klüger’s autobiographical account of her activities with the Mossad le Aliyah Bet between June 1939 and June 1941, coauthored by Peggy Mann, and titled The Last Escape: The Launching of the Largest Secret Rescue Movement of All Time, is a quintessential page-turner, containing suspense, drama, politics and romance. It is a true story centered on a 25-year-old woman and her participation in an, otherwise, all-male organization determined to save Jews by secretly sending them from Europe to Palestine.


In the years preceding World War II, it became more and more evident that war was bound to occur. Klüger (along with historians) cites the Kristallnacht as the major turning point in these pre-war years. For her, ”a copy of the top-secret teletype message,” which referred to the night of November 10, 1938 and read, in part, ”The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police,” was extremely valuable in persuading others to seriously acknowledge the dark future for Europe’s Jews. ”These detailed instructions from Reinhard Heydrich [head of the S.S.] proved that there was nothing at all ‘spontaneous’ about the Kristallnacht. They proved that the Day and the Night of November Tenth had been a government-sponsored campaign… aimed exclusively against Jews,” she says. ”This paper was the strongest weapon we had for our claim that the Jews who remained in Hitler’s Reich were doomed.” With the objective of the Kristallnacht so clear, Jewish emigration became a more pressing goal.

For the great majority of Jews, however, emigration was far from easy. In July 1938, the official delegates of 32 nations had convened for the Evian Conference. Held in Evian-les-Bains, France, the point of the Conference was to discuss where to send the Jews of Germany and Austria. Ultimately, says Klüger, each delegate did nothing more but ”announce that his country naturally wanted to help. But was, unfortunately, unable to do so,” citing his country’s reasoning for why it could not accept more Jews. ”And so it went,” Klüger explains, ”With thirty-two nations. Each had its own careful regulations – designed to keep out Jews!” Additionally, these delegates declared their countries unwilling ”’to undertake any obligations toward financing involuntary emigration!,’” requiring that all immigrants be financially sound, something impossible since the Germans disallowed Jews from leaving the country with more than the equivalent of five dollars. ”Therefore, by that one resolution, the Evian delegates made every Jew from Germany or Austria officially and automatically unacceptable to the countries of asylum.”

The majority of the world seemed satisfied to leave the Jews who were directly in harm’s way right where they were. ”But there is one place,” Klüger insisted, ”There is one small group of people in the world who do want the Jews of Europe. The Yishuv – the Jews of Palestine.” Because of the British White Paper (Palestine was under Great Britain’s control), however, the majority of Jews were not allowed to leave Europe to travel to their sole sanctuary.

The White Paper, issued on May 17, 1939, was the British decree severely limiting the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into Palestine. The British allowed immigration certificates to be ”given out twice a year; five thousand at a time” before Jewish immigration into Palestine was to cease altogether. British border patrols were carefully stationed along the Palestinian border and continually on the lookout for Jews trying to gain illegal entrance into Palestine.

The Mossad le Aliyah Bet

The first major group of European Jews with legal certificates who left for Palestine occurred in the 1880s and, along with subsequent groups, are known as the Aliyah Aleph (The first Hebrew letters of the words of Isaiah are, ”Children of Jacob, let us go up!” Aliyah refers to ”going up.” Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.) In 1937, ”when the illegal immigration movement was started,” this group was referred to as the Aliyah Bet (Bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet).

As a way to help desperate Jews who did not have the resources to get to Palestine, the Mossad le Aliyah Bet was formed in 1937 in order to serve as an official means of helping Jews reach Palestinian land via carefully organized trips. The Institute of (or Organization for) the Illegal Immigration, Klüger says, is ”the ‘Institute’ that smuggled Jews out of Europe and into Palestine” and became the ”largest single rescue operation in the world” at the time. Mossad members organized every part of the trip – from leasing ships and reconstructing portions of the holds, to stocking the ships with food and water and arranging for ports of exit and entry. Further, Mossad members risked their own security by speaking with individuals they thought may be influential to their cause, specifically those with money and authority. They had to find and pay for ships and captains and crew members who were trustworthy enough not to turn them in. There was the purchase of visas, bribing of port authorities and the arrangement of hundreds of individuals who were to leave one part of Europe via train (more bribes to stationmasters and guards at all borders) and travel days on cramped ships, all with the hope of landing Jews in Palestine without being caught by British patrols.

In June 1939, there were nine members of the Mossad le Aliyah Bet. Ruth Klüger became the tenth, and the only woman. She was 25 years old. Her qualifications were well known to Berl Katznelson, a founder of the Histadrut, the labor union in Palestine where she worked. He knew she was born on April 24, 1914 in Kiev, was raised in Romania and that her mother was ”a dedicated Zionist.” He knew she graduated with a law degree from the University of Vienna, knew eight languages, and had been married to her husband, Emmanuel, for five years. He also knew a secret she thought no one knew – she had helped smuggle a group of Polish Jews out of Greece and into Palestine.

Returning to Palestine from a trip to Romania, Klüger had come across a group of 16 Jews at a port in Greece. Desiring to make it to Palestine, but having ”no certificates of entry, no legal papers, no money for tickets or bribes,” Klüger collected money from some Greek Orthodox priests as well as from some first-class passengers and then used the money to bribe two of the ship’s officers. The 16 Jews were dressed as sailors (the four girls in the group had to cut their hair) and escorted at night into an empty first-class cabin where they were locked up for the remainder of the trip.

One spontaneous illegal venture, however, could not have prepared Klüger for the rescue attempts she would help coordinate as a member of the Mossad. ”Our work is considered illegal by every government in the world,” she was told before joining. ”If you land in prison, we’ll have no way to get you out. You will disappear.” Acknowledging that her safety would be at risk and her personal life would cease, Klüger asked to join.

Under the pretense of selling shares of land in Palestine, Klüger left for Constantza, Romania and immediately set about the task of following up on leads regarding a 50-year-old ship, the Tiger Hill. Bargaining her way to a reasonable leasing fee she, in her naiveté, assigned herself the job of raising the initial portion of the funding to pay that fee. She accomplished this deed by employing some characteristic traits. Klüger was a fast-talker who used persuasive arguments and incited compassion in her audience. She committed facts and figures to memory and carried newspaper clippings and other written materials in her purse, ready to present them if and when she deemed necessary. No name or job title was to commandeering to intimidate Klüger. If she became aware of an individual who may be able to help the Mossad, she stopped at nothing to acquaint him or her with the necessity of getting Jews out of Europe and insisted that those who helped to make this possible would be considered saviors for making an effort.

After achieving the funding to lease the ship, Klüger went to view her purchase. She was the sole Mossad member ”to ascertain how many passengers the Tiger Hill could feasibly carry. Yet, I knew nothing whatever about ships.” Still, the ship was to be reconstructed so as to contain separate men’s and women’s quarters, with layers of boards used for beds.

In the meantime, a passenger list was compiled, with Klüger helping to determine, with the input of each Mossad member fighting for the Jews in the country he thought most acceptable, which passengers would sail on the Tiger Hill. The ten Mossad members covered eight countries and each member stationed in a different country had an opinion on why ”his” Jews (whether from Romania, Berlin, Poland, Czechoslovakia…) were the most acceptable passengers. Ultimately, it was agreed that degree of danger would determine which nationality made it onto the Mossad’s ship. Yet, emigration laws, the number of borders to cross, risks of capture, ease of and time for organization were all taken into account. Eventually, 501 Poles made the list, as well as 54 Russians who were living in Bulgaria when they heard about the ship and moved onboard. Those, ”along with thirteen pioneers from Latvia. And fourteen from Lithuania” set sail for Palestine, only after more desperate work on behalf of the Mossad.

A few weeks later, Klüger got word that the Tiger Hill had reached its destination. On its journey, the ship’s occupants were forced to pick up more illegals from a sinking non-Mossad ship, the Prosula. With a passenger load that then totaled 1,159, ”on the night of September first, they rammed the ship as close to shore as they could get. Off the cost of Tel Aviv.” Those who could swam or used rowboats to make their way to the beach where people were waiting to rush them to their homes. ”They managed to get about half of the Tiger Hill passengers off the ship. And hidden. The British searched house after house,” Klüger was told, and ”they found no one.” Those caught by the British were sent to the Sarafand camp, but they had made it to ”Eretz Israel,” and it was doubtful they would be sent back to Europe.

With the first trip she helped prepare deemed a success, Klüger began arranging for more ships, one of which – the Hilda – was no easier to get to Palestine than the Tiger Hill had been. After tireless preparations, the Hilda, now waiting in Balchik, Bulgaria, ”was supplied, manned and ready to sail for Palestine,” but for one setback. A group of Jews had made it as far as Kladovo, Serbia, but could only get transit visas if authorities saw that there was a ship ready to take them from Europe. The Hilda could not hold these extra passengers, but could ”be used to gain them all transit visas to a Black Sea port. And once in a port it would be far easier to make their way somehow to Palestine.” The Hilda’s passengers – all 729 who were crammed on board – agreed to wait until these visas had been attained. They ended up waiting for almost a month. While still under the impression that the Kladovo Jews would receive their visas ”any day now” and the Hilda would be on its way, Klüger was given a message from the Ship’s Committee, informing the Mossad of a few facts: The Hilda was frozen to the pier and unable to sail, most of the members of the drunken crew had left, the fresh water was frozen, they were almost out of food, two passengers were nearing the ends of their pregnancies and, if something was not done immediately, the passengers intended ”to inform the world that they were being held in bondage under inhuman conditions” in their Balchik port. Klüger, along with two companions, set out the next day.

Upon arriving, the 13 members of the Ship’s Committee informed Klüger that they had been forced to let their fellow passengers off the ship to get snow, that none of them had taken a bath in over six weeks and that the ship’s generators were broken so there was no electricity – only oil lamps and candles for light. Further, among the problems of which she had already been made aware, the Committee members yelled that the passengers had been told a top official would meet with them to discuss the situation. When the passengers saw her, ”a woman,” there was sure to be even more trouble.

One of the rules of the Mossad was that none of the passengers ever see any of the members of the Organization. ”Perhaps,” Klüger assured her fellow Mossad member when he objected to her visiting the passengers, ”each emergency creates its own rules.” With that, she walked onto the Hilda’s deck and descended down the ladder into the hold. ”It was like climbing into a cesspool,” Klüger remembers. ”The stench of sweat, excrement and vomit was unbearable,” as she addressed her contemptuous, bitter audience. ”Shalom, Haverim…,” she began. She told the passengers the Organization was doing everything it could to help them and that they must continue to struggle through this journey and to struggle through it silently. ”I’ll tell you exactly what will happen,” she said, referring to the course of events which would transpire if the passengers were to inform anyone of the ship. ”Rumanian officials would come at once and confiscate our ship. You would all be sent back where you came from. And, in all likelihood, the Mossad would be unable to function any further.” She told them how difficult it was for the Mossad to attain ships and, once word came regarding those in Kladovo, the passengers would help make the decision as to whether or not to continue waiting.

The passengers continued to listen as she told them that others had gone before them in ships far more crowded. ”They are now members of the Yishuv in Palestine…Say that to yourselves…I must endure this so that I too can reach Palestine.” She told them she would get more supplies and try to arrange for heated baths. As for the two pregnant women who were ostracized by their fellow shipmates, Klüger referred to a biblical passage: ”The Lord said…’Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion…I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them…the woman with child and her that traveleth with child together.” Before departing, Klüger told them that ”Every Jew who struggles and suffers to escape… to keep alive… is a hero… It is because of people like you that Jews will always survive.”

The Darien II

Its trials were not over, but the Hilda eventually landed in Palestine, where its occupants faced a six-month stay in either a detention camp or an immigration house before being released. But what of the 1,100 refugees still at Kladovo? On September 7, 1939, during the time that Klüger was making arrangements for the Hilda, she was thrilled to learn one of her fellow Mossad members had, by some chance of luck (and a drunken sea captain), purchased a ship. He renamed it the Darien II, ”after a gulf in South America – since she’ll be flying under some South American flag.” (II because there was already a ship registered by the same name.) Once the ship had undergone construction, it would sail up the Danube to pick up its Kladovian passengers. Since the Mossad owned the ship, ”she would sail where and when” the organization ordered. Thus, it could easily make the three trips to Kladovo, which were necessary to accommodate the number of passengers.

That was, however, until Yehuda Arazi introduced the Darien II dilemma. Arazi, one of the top men of the Haganah (the part-time underground defense army which protected Palestinian Jews from Arab attacks), informed Klüger of his intentions. ”Our plan is this,” Arazi began, after explaining that the Haganah was working with the British Intelligence. ”As the Darien II comes up the Danube, she’ll appear to be empty. However, she’ll be carrying several thousand boxes of dynamite and a quantity of depth bombs. When she comes to this spot [pointing to map] – she’ll blow up. The Danube will be blocked, perhaps for months. The Germans’ oil route to Rumania, for example, will be cut off. That single fact alone could do a great deal to bring the war to an early end.” Klüger, stunned, reminded Arazi that the Darien II was owned by the Mossad, an independent organization which did not deal in sabotage. It had been set up by the Haganah, which wanted it to make its own rules.

Orders soon came, however, that Shmarya Zamaret, the Mossad member who had purchased the ship, was to sell the Darien II to the British. A majority of the members of the Mossad then came forward in agreement with the order. They knew the Darien II was unique in that it was American-owned and, thus, would be allowed up the Danube by the Germans. ”We had thought that nothing could break up the solidarity of the Mossad,” Klüger states. ”The Darien was doing that.”

Rather than improving, the situation went from bad to worse. The Mossad member in charge of ”the Kladovo people” decided they should stay where they were – that it was safer in Yugoslavia than risking the mines in the Mediterranean. Klüger informed another Mossad member to be ready with a list of refugees should she be unable to board the ship with the Kladovians. He did so and, though none of the refugees had been given any details, 180 of them made their way to Sulina and boarded the ship. With those 180 on board, Klüger was spared the final details pertaining to the Darien II until after it had landed in Palestine.

One night in December, Klüger helped to rescue passengers from a sinking non-Mossad ship. The ordeal left her extremely ill and she was only informed of the Darien II’s fate after her recovery. The ship had set sail and come to port at Varna, where the Bulgarian authorities forced the passengers to make room for some of their prisoners, prostitutes and thieves, warning that they would, otherwise, confiscate the ship. These passengers boarded, along with a group of individuals who forced their way on board. The 123 survivors of the Salvador (survivors that Klüger had helped rescue) were also taken aboard and an agreement was reached. ”The British would allow the ship into Haifa port. The refugees would be interned at Athlit. The British would confiscate the ship. Use it for their own purposes – after paying us the agreed-upon fifteen thousand pounds.” With that, the Mossad could afford to buy another ship. No ships were even remotely available, however, and soon, even if by some extreme chance a ship could be found, it was almost as impossible to fill the ship with Jews the Mossad could smuggle out of various countries. With the selling of the Darien II, ”the last road of escape had closed for the Jews of Europe.”

The Effects of World War II

The Darien II landed its 878 passengers at their destination on March 19, 1941, where they were interned at Athlit camp. In doing so, it became the last of the Mossad’s successful illegal immigration attempts before it discontinued its efforts in 1942. (The Mossad reemerged in 1945 and continued until 1948. The Aliyah Bet remained active during World War II, ”but at a slower pace and under more dangerous conditions, with hundreds of lives lost at sea,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ”Despite the dangers, 62 such voyages were carried out from 1937 to 1944.” The Aliyah Bet continued after the War as well.)

Early in June 1941, Klüger received new orders from the Mossad. Working out of Cairo, she raised money and helped form a rescue operation to smuggle the Jews in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria into Palestine. Before she arrived, Jewish Palestinian organizations all over Egypt seemed to be asking for money. ”Finally,” says Roger Oppenheim, a Zionist Organization member who knew Klüger, ”the Jewish Agency made an agreement with the Mossad. All other money raisers would be called off. Only Ruth would have the responsibility for raising money in Egypt. I was told that half the money she raised would go to the Jewish Agency, half to the Mossad.” In time, he notes, she not only raised money, but ”turned many of these wealthy Jews into ardent, working Zionists” as well.

Klüger continued her work in Egypt until 1944 when she went to France ”as the first official representative of the Jews of Palestine,” recalled Ehud Uiberall, a member of the Mossad. ”At first Ruth was entirely on her own in Europe. Later, when others were sent and the operation grew, Ruth still had only one immediate superior, Ben-Gurion. [It was David Ben-Gurion who suggested Klüger's Hebrew surname, Aliav.] She took orders only from him” and, ”despite the fact that the nation of Israel had not yet been born or named, I sometimes hear Ruth referred to in Paris as Lady Israel. That, in effect, is what she was.”

In 1945 Paris, the Lady of the Mossad, as she was also known, talked her way into a meeting with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He put her in touch with a member of his staff, Colonel Ernest Witte, who helped in her quest of landing Jewish refugees in Palestine. He deemed upon her the honorary rank of colonel in the United States army and, with it, the power to authorize travel permits. Moreover, Witte offered Klüger the use of a ship, the Ascania, which soon took approximately 2,600 Holocaust survivors to Palestine but, because of the British influence, was disallowed from making any further trips.

After the war, Klüger assisted those displaced persons who fled Eastern Europe for Palestine via the organized but still illegal movement known as the Brihah. The Mossad worked with other organizations to smuggle Holocaust survivors to Palestine using old and overcrowded ships. These ships were almost always disallowed entry and their passengers were, instead, forced into detention camps by the British.

Before she passed away in 1979, Klüger traveled to South America and to the United States, continuing to work as a fundraiser. In 1948, she became the public relations manager of the ZIM Palestine navigation company. (Around 1947, this company had started transporting Holocaust survivors to Palestine via the Kedmah, which was called ”the first Hebrew ship” because it was the first ship owned by a Palestinian company. The Kedmah carried legal passengers, some of whom were concentration camp survivors, but also carried illegal immigrants on its journeys.)

Nahum and Erez Laufer’s The Darien Dilemma

The 2006 film The Darien Dilemma is proof that each and every one of the Mossad’s attempts at transporting Jews to Palestine is a story in itself, able to stand on its own as testimony to the tireless efforts of this Organization. That screenwriter Nahum Laufer had initially intended to tell the story of his mother’s escape from Europe before learning of Ruth Klüger’s unbelievable contributions to the Mossad attests to the remarkable nature of the woman who then became his main character.

The plot of the film details the story of ”the Kladovo affair,” in which a group of approximately 1,200 Jews from Bratislava sailed down the Danube until they reached Kladovo, Yugoslavia, where they split up into three riverboats and docked for a few days. ”By a twist of fate,” explains one survivor, the Danube froze over and the passengers were stranded for six months. Afterward, forced to return their three boats, they waited for the Mossad to send a ship. That ship, the Darien II, however, had been sold to the British. The passengers eventually get on a coal barge, eager to reach the Black Sea, but end up in Savatz, Yugoslavia, where they wait another 12 months for a ship. Klüger pleads for an allowance of extra time so the Darien II can rescue these abandoned individuals. They are left in Savatz, though, where most of them are killed.

The political backdrop which influenced the Mossad and its members’ actions toward the Kladovian affair, as well as toward the Darien II, is extremely complicated. The film’s continually-changing scenes, though they help to maintain interest, also tend to create a disconnect. The film contains pieces of historical footage, scenes performed by actors, various survivor interviews and portions of Nahum and his son Erez’ preparations for the film. Even Erez, who directs the ”documentary drama,” admits, at one point, to being somewhat lost. The subject is extraordinarily complex and it benefits most the audience member who has previously studied the topic in depth.

The Laufers prove an extremely likeable and complimentary team, both passionate about different but equally important issues in the docudrama. Further, Nahum’s esteem for Klüger and admiration for the manner in which she went about her work is quite endearing. It is clear that the happy and good-natured personalities of the Laufers had a positive and direct effect on the most excellent portion of the film – the survivor interviews. The firsthand accounts of the Kladovo affair by various survivors do more than lend mere information to the body of the film. They are the faces of the real dilemma, and the Laufers, like Klüger, understand this.

Ruth Klüger and Raoul Wallenberg

Ruth Klüger introduced herself to Lynda Goldman while the two carpooled to Tel Aviv after the day’s activities concluded at an international women’s conference in Jerusalem in 1978. The next day, rather than return to the conference, Klüger persuaded Goldman to accompany her to Jerusalem’s Intercontinental Hotel. ”In the lobby we were greeted by two people: Nina Lagengren and Guy von Dardel, Raoul Wallenberg’s sister and brother,” explains Goldman. The siblings ”had come to Israel to meet with the then Prime Minister Menachem Begin,” who intended to encourage the Russian government to reveal the details of Wallenberg’s fate. ”[Klüger] and Teddy Kollek [former mayor of Jerusalem]” had been ”very instrumental” in arranging this meeting with Begin.

Goldman, rightly, credits Klüger for her introduction to Wallenberg’s siblings and, consequently, her introduction to Wallenberg’s story. A correspondent for The San Francisco Examiner at the time, Goldman wrote an article on Wallenberg and ”the story was picked up by The New York Times wire service and suddenly appeared in dozens of publications throughout the world,” instigating Wallenberg’s status as a ”cause ‘celebre.’” In Israel, Klüger helped Goldman as she queried Russian immigrants as to Wallenberg’s fate. ”We took out ads in the local Russian newspapers asking if anyone had information about Raoul Wallenberg…I think there may have been about seven to ten Russian-language newspapers in Israel when we did our search.” That search proved fruitful, and there were ”two replies of special interest.”

The first response came from Abraham Kalinski, who had learned from Simon Gogoberidze, a friend he made while at Vladimir Prison, that ”the famous Swede was a fellow inmate,” says Kati Marton in her book Wallenberg: Missing Hero. ”To authenticate his claim,” Goldman continues, ”Avram [Kalinski] handed us a postcard sent from Lubyanka to his sister in Israel in the mid-’50s where he wrote her that a ‘Swedish diplomat who saved many Jews in Hungary is in the cell next to mine.” (The original postcard cited ”Rumania” in place of ”Hungary” – Kalinski’s way, he said, of avoiding censorship.) ”We sent the post-marked card to Nina and Guy in Sweden…From the postcard we realized Raoul was still alive in the mid-’50s.” (In Wallenberg, Marton adds that when Kalinski spoke with the recently-pardoned Gogoberidze in 1967, ”he learned that Wallenberg had still been at Vladimir when Gogoberidze was released earlier in the year.”) Kalinski, ”through the Russian émigré grapevine,” notes Marton, also heard of a woman named Anna Kaplan Bilder, whose father, Jan Kaplan, had spent 18 months in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. Jan informed his daughter during one telephone call that he had ”met a Swede in the Butyrki prison hospital who has survived thirty years” (Marton 209). ”Ruth and I contacted Nina and Guy with this new information,” Goldman notes. ”Could it be that Raoul was still alive in Russia, now in 1978? As we tried to get more information…we were suddenly informed by Anna that her father was re-arrested in Russia and that she no longer had any contact with him.” Anna’s mother, though, smuggled a letter to her daughter, which explained that the arrest had occurred ”because of a letter concerning a Swiss or a Swede named Wallenberg whom your father knew in the prison infirmary…” The letter was especially important because it constituted ”the first official Swedish communication on the subject.” The document did not change the Soviet’s response, however; ”Raoul Wallenberg died in 1947,” (Marton 209) they maintained.

Ruth Klüger’s support in determining Wallenberg’s fate only serves to increase the dynamicity of her character and deems her especially endearing considering the scope of her humanitarian efforts. Klüger possessed a number of attributes which enabled her to save Jews while her status as a female member of the Mossad le Aliya Bet proved extremely beneficial. The defining factors which served to strengthen her cause were numerous but her story, especially as chronicled in The Last Escape, is one of a kind.

*Not to be confused with fellow author Ruth Klüger, born in Vienna in 1931 and author of the autobiography, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.