I met Ruth quite by accident, at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. I was with the Director of the Israel Government Tourist Office, for I was doing travel articles on Israel. Suddenly he said, “You see that woman sitting alone at the table by the window? Her name is Ruth Kluger. Just after World War II her name was so well known that people who didn’t know her thought it was some sort of code name. Those who did know her, or knew of her, said that her name was synonymous with Jewish survival.
“The Paris postmen certainly knew her,” he continued. “She received hundreds of letters addressed simply “Ruth. Paris, France—from people asking her to try to find their relatives.
“At the end of the war Ruth was sent to Europe as the first official representative of the Jews of Palestine. She was the first Jew from Palestine to enter the death camps a day or so after they were liberated by the Allies. Some people called her the Israeli Joan of Arc.”
“It sounds as though she should ‘be a book,’ ” I said.
He nodded. “You’re right. And the most important story is the totally unknown one.”
He told me then about aliyah bet, the illegal immigrant movement, and the Mossad founded in 1938 to smuggle Jews out of Europe and into British-ruled Palestine. Of the 400,000 immigrants who came to Palestine in the 10 years preceeding the declaration of statehood, about half were “illegals.” In 1948 when the infant nation had to fight off the invading armies of seven Arab states, one-third of the population were “illegals”— smuggled into the country in the movement launched by ten young Jews; nine men and the beautiful, persuasive 23-year old redhead named Ruth Kluger.
“Israel could never have come to statehood,” I was told, “and could never have survived, without the added man- and woman-power provided by the illegals.”
I was introduced to Ruth, an attractive soft-spoken woman with a quiet charm. I invited her to my hotel room for tea. The room overlooked the Mediterranean and, while we waited for tea to be sent up, Ruth walked onto the balcony. She pointed to a red umbrella on the beach.
“Right off the coast there,” she said, “is the spot where the illegal ship, the Tiger Hill, rammed as close as she could get to shore on the day before World War II broke out. The Mossad had organized quite a unique rescue operation. Tel Avivians were secretly asked to sunbathe on the beach with extra towels, extra clothes. As the illegals came swimming to shore, they were quickly wrapped in beach towels and dressed in bathing suits; their old clothes were hidden. By the time the British Tommies arrived, no one could tell who was an illegal and who was a bona fide sun-bathing Tel Avivian.”
Ruth laughed. “That’s how 834 more ‘illegals’ entered Palestine.”
As she spoke on, I learned that Ruth had been left in charge of the Tiger Hill in Rumania—when “the secret ship” was suddenly discovered by the Rumanian Prime Minister, the feared, one-eyed Calinescu—who ordered it impounded.
If Ruth’s rescue of this ship had been fiction, it might have been deemed “too incredible to have happened.” But it was all true. It involved a cast of characters ranging from cut-throats to the movie-star Foreign Minister, a Greek Orthodox priest who looked like an Old Testament prophet to King Carol himself.
The Tiger Hill was only one of the ships which Ruth organized as the chief of Mossad operations in the Balkans.
Ruth Kluger’s story, the subject of The Last Escape: The Launching of the Largest Secret Rescue Movement of All Time, was a thrilling and inspiring one. I feel honored to have known her and to have brought her story to the public.
Peggy Mann’s by-line has appeared in most American mass-market magazines. She is the author of over 30 books, some for young readers. The Last Escape: The Launching of the Largest Secret Rescue Movement of All Time, which she co-authored with Ruth Kluger, was published by Doubleday in 1973 and became a Literary Guild Alternate, just reissued in paperback by Pinnacle Books, the book can be ordered from Pinnacle’s cash sales department, 271 Madison Ave., New York, 10016, for $2.70. The Secret Ship (Doubleday, 1978) is a version of the story for young readers. Peggy Mann’s latest book, on the Holocaust, “Gizelle, Save the Children!”, will be published in November by Everett House.