“Return to a Burning House” at the Center for Jewish History Highlights the Heroic Role of Haviva Reick in WWII Slovak Uprising
- Tod Shapiro
- On June 4, 2015
By Tod Shapiro and edited by the Flatiron Hot News Editorial Staff
This past Wednesday evening, the Center for Jewish History featured, in conjunction with the Leo Baeck and the Remember the Women Institutes, the debut American screening of a remarkable documentary on the life of Haviva Reick. Reick, a true proto-feminist and beloved icon of the World War II era and pre-independence Israeli state, was one of the original heroes of the nascent Jewish Yishuv, and her tale is one of stunning courage, patriotism and determination that, in the wider world outside of Israel, is not well known. Reick’s story encompasses the birth of Israel, and the saga of the the Jews and the captive nations of Eastern Europe.
CJH featured an enlightening program before and after the American debut of the documentary film “Return to a Burning House“. The significance of Reick’s historic role, both to Israel and post-war Europe, was emphasized in introductory comments by Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel, and Jana Trnovcova, Consul General of the Slovak Republic, on behalf of Havivi’s native country, and her adopted land of Israel. The film’s name derives from the dramatic image of a mother, heedless of danger, rushing into her burning home to save her family – an apt description of Reick’s return to her native post-war Slovakia as part of a daring Yishuv-inspired secret mission to parachute secret agents into Slovakia in support of Partisans during the uprising against the Nazis in the latter stages of World War II. The Jewish community in then-Palestine was desperate to give moral and material support to the surviving Jews in Eastern Europe, both for posterity and to set an example of a new “Fighting Jewish Nation” in the aftermath of so much passivity in the face of the Holocaust.
Reick grew up as an assimilated secular Jew in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia, where she, along with her family and fellow Jews, benefited and prospered from Czechoslovakia’s democratic and pluralist ethos. Like many of her peers, she came to be an ardent Zionist, particularly as the European world began to descend into the nightmare of Nazism and fascist antisemitism in Slovakia after the Nazi’s destroyed the country subsequent to the events at Munich. Reick ultimately moved to Palestine and became a founding member of that era’s Kibbutz movement. She was a true Israeli patriot and singular feminist, becoming a fighting member of the elite Palmach, the strike force of the pre-independence Haganah. Reick’s involvement with the Kibbutz movement, her entry into the Palmach, and her concern for her native Slovakia and fellow Jews left behind made her an ideal candidate for the heroic “Paratroopers” selected for the secret mission to Slovakia. The elite group was enrolled in the British army, and parachuted into Slovakia via Allied bombers, and played a role in the heroic but ultimately failed uprising. Haviva was captured and executed along with other partisans by the Nazis and their collaborators, perishing at the young age of 32. She, and the others who fought with her, are remembered and honored by the documentary and accompanying book revisiting her life story.
Mirka Molnar Lachka, one of the documentary’s producers, participated in a panel discussion after the film to comment on the film’s significance, and what it says about Slovakia historically and its impact on events in Europe today, where antisemitism still exists in many places. She was joined by Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of the Remember the Women Institute, who gave some perspective on Haviva’s life as both an Israeli and Slovak patriot and feminist, and in establishing the value of women as contributors to the war against fascism and in helping establish the state of Israel. Thomas Ort, Professor of Modern European History at Queens College-CUNY, was also on hand to fill in the audience on the historical context of events surrounding the film — including the stunning role of his grandfather in these events. Ort’s grandfather actually participated in the Slovakian uprising against the Nazis at the same time as Reick, but was able to survive to tell the tale.
The film and panel discussion was followed by a friendly reception with refreshments, where all those in attendance had a chance to meet and discuss the evening’s events with the speakers. All in all, it was a remarkable evening for the 150 in attendance, and typical of the many fine efforts spearheaded by the Center’s Director of Academic and Public Programs, Judith Siegel. The institution on 16th Street’s many programs help it fulfill ts mission to represent the history and culture of the Jewish people. Click below for a quick Flatiron Hot! News video clip to get a sense of what happened on Wednesday evening. For those interested in more info on Haviva Reick, see Times of Israel Article – Haviva Reick showcasing a recent posting from the Times of Israel detailing her life and historic background!
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