Private Meeting with President Shimon Peres
The President’s Residence, Jerusalem
Sunday – 1 June 2008 – 11:00 a.m. – noon
“Operation Mural”: Casablanca 1961
(16 March–24 July 1961)
David Gerald (“Mural”) Littman
Mr. President, it is a great honour for all of us to be welcomed at Beth Hanassi, here in Jerusalem, by an illustrious Founding Father of the State of Israel and Nobel Peace Laureate.
On 16 March 1961, nine weeks after the ‘Egoz’ tragedy when 44 Moroccan Jews drowned – half of them children – I flew to Casablanca and my wife joined me two weeks later. Without the devoted presence and close collaboration of Gisèle – a true daughter of the Nile and the later Bat Ye’or – while caring for baby Diana, our mission would have failed.
What was later known as “Operation Mural” began with key letters of recommendation from René Steiner, the head of the Swiss Red Cross /Children’s section in Bern, and from others there. It slowly gained momentum through my collaboration with those I met clandestinely in Casablanca, although I had no idea that they were Mossad agents. They knew me as “Gerald”, my second name, which I used in rather than David, a name which is very Jewish-sounding in Morocco.
How appropriate that our dear, life-long friends are here on this very special occasion, 47 years later: Shmuel Toledano [87 years], Deputy for Diaspora Affairs to Isser Harel, renowned head of the Mossad; Carmit Gatmon, widow and companion in life and work of Alex Gatmon, the remarkably outstanding Mossad chief in Morocco, who died prematurely in 1981; Gad Shahar – “Georges” to me [85 years] – his close collaborator and my main ‘contact’ in Casablanca, with whose constant advice and support the operation slowly evolved; Pinhas Katsir – “Jacques” to me [70 years] who took over from him as my ‘contact’ for the last fortnight; and Miriam Korshia who, with her husband Abraham-Hubert Korshia, provided the logistics for those parents who wished to inscribe their children for Swiss holidays, en route for Zion – in some cases three or four children – although unsure of seeing them for many anxious months or more, until they could eventually join them in Israel.
This is also a time to recall the risks and recognise the devotion of all those unnamed and unsung volunteers of the misgeret in Morocco – about 200 youngsters – and, of course, the late Efraim Ronel, Chief Mossad agent in Paris and head of the misgeret – the “frame”, as it was called –and Tova, his widow [93 years] is also with us today. And, last but not least, the late Naftali Bargiora of the Jewish Agency who proposed the first ‘Swiss holiday’ idea, after the Egoz sank, and then found me by chance in Geneva, via Professor Jacques Bloch, director of OSE-Suisse whose friendly contacts in Bern were indispensable, facilitating a new name – OSSEAN: Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants de l’Afrique du Nord. Prof. Bloch helped to save between 2000 and 3000 Jewish children in France during the Second World War before arriving in Switzerland.
The documentary film by Yehuda Kaveh and Ronit Dor, “Operation Mural: Casablanca 1961” – currently a Nominee for Best Documentary at the Israeli Film Academy Awards / Ophir 2008 – has been selected for more than four Jewish film festivals worldwide, gaining awards such as ‘Best Jewish Film’ at the DeREEL Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia. The film will be screened for the 2nd time soon on Israel’s TV main Channel 1. Mr. President, you were aware of these 1961 activities and the subsequent mass aliya that followed in your senior Deputy Defence Ministry position – and you were present at Alex Gatmon’s funeral 20 years later in 1981.
It was Shmuel Segev who first devoted an entire chapter to the ‘Mural’ story 25 years ago in his book, Operation Yakhin [in 1984, and a full chapter in Maariv , 20 April 1984]. His recent book, Hakesher ha-Maroccani (‘The Moroccan Connection’) covers this ground more fully, in chronicling a sequence of events in Israel’s special relationship with Morocco from 1961, which had a dramatic aftermath 15 years later when Yitzaq Rabin flew to Morocco in October 1976 and Moshe Dayan followed him the next year. These fruitful contacts with King Hassan culminated in the historic Jerusalem visit of President Anwar as-Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977. Unfortunately, Shmuel Segev could not join us as he is lecturing in Marrakesh on this newly revealed Israel-Morocco relationship.
Operation Mural succeeded “beyond all our expectations” – these were the words used by Alex Gatmon to me the very night before I left – mainly due to a simplified system of ‘collective passports’. This ‘feuille de route’ method was first recommended to me – on the very day of my arrival in Casablanca – by the chief delegate of the League of Red Cross Societies in Morocco, A.E. Reinhard. Of course, he was only advising me with reference to “Swiss holidays” or convalescence for Moroccan children in general, but this proposed ‘collective passport’ system, which I then backed wholeheartedly – despite repeated counter-instructions from my superiors in Geneva – was also preferred by the Moroccan authorities as I soon learnt from senior officials in Rabat and Casablanca.
Finally, with Mossad backing for this special system, 530 Jewish children made their aliyah via Switzerland in summer 1961, soon followed by 100,000 more Jews – this time, entire families, via ‘Operation Yakhin’ [1962-64] – using this same method, under the cover of the HIAS organisation – but this time with the king’s approval.
It is a symbolic testimony to these courageous children that Yamin Ouaknine, who reached Israel at seven, is here with us – Aluf-Mishne / Colonel Yamin Ka’anan.
Mr. President, allow me to quote from the prophet Jeremiah a pertinent passage:
“Behold I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child (…): a great company shall return thither. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them (…) And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord; that thy children shall come again to their own border” [31:8-9]
At this truly memorable moment, I also wish to state – in the presence of the distinguished Swiss Ambassador Walter Haffner – that this Moroccan page of Israel’s heroic history occurred as a result of the diplomatic discretion of the Swiss authorities, who turned a blind eye to what might have become a potential exodus of Jewish children from Morocco to Israel via Switzerland, and implicitly accepted mass collective passport and Swiss visa facilities. This is now confirmed by the documents I received three months ago from the Federal Archives in Bern, thanks to the gracious initiative of the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Canford School, in Dorset, where I studied as a boy – while much preferring sports – had a Latin biblical logo motto under an oak tree: Nisi Dominus Frustra / Without the Lord all is in vain. I am tempted to add, regarding “Mural”: Nisi Helvetica Frustra – since, without this positive Swiss attitude all would have been in vain for “Operation Mural”, as with so many other humanitarian aliyah missions after Morocco’s independence in 1956. This crucial green light in 1961 deserves full recognition as a page of Israel’s history.
Yes, indeed, the ways of the Lord are often difficult to fathom. With this in mind, I now turn to our darling daughter Diana, who is very happy to be here with you, Mr President, and all of us today – especially with her parents, her artistic sister Ariane, her nieces, Tair – now in the army – Daphne and Kalia, and our dear friend Elizabeth Wider.
Without Diana’s presence alongside her mother, I would never have remained in Morocco for 130 days. She also represented a solid asset to complete our Anglican ‘cover’– a gorgeous, blue-eyed, blond baby. So again, I shall propose a last Latin motto: Nisi Diana Frustra – without Diana, all would have been in vain, and perhaps far worse. For 10 weeks she played a unique role, being a great joy and comfort for us as we lived our double family life in Casablanca. Here at Beth Hanassi, Diana would like to sing a delightful song she learnt 40 years ago soon after the Six-Day War.
With our fervent hopes for a future in the Middle East, in which “every man shall eat in safety under his own vine what he plants; and sing the merry songs of peace to all his neighbours”, as Shakespeare wrote so eloquently. [King Henry VIII: Act III, v. 34]
I now call on Diana Littman to sing for His Excellency, the President of Israel,
for the Swiss Ambassador, and for all of us, that blissful melody on the
Eternal City of Jerusalem:
Yerushalayim-shel-zahav / Jerusalem of Gold.