When Heroism is Our Only Alternative

This Amazon warrior has become something of a schoolmarm, a veritable Ms Manners of the raging Cultural Wars. Thus, say I, “I don’t like delivering savage soundbites nor does debate as a blood sport turn me on.” Primly, I say: “Ideological opponents should engage in civilized exchanges and they should keep talking rather than retreating into dangerous silences or into overt warfare.


Oh what fine and pretty words–but what about those moments in history in which we must either act or we become collaborators in the death of others?

Either we rescue the child trafficked into sexual slavery or she dies, both slowly and soon enough, while she is still young. Either we rescue the victims of genocide or they die. There are no second chances. Memorial plaques and Truth and Reconciliation Committees do not resurrect the dead.

And acting always means risking everything: safety, happiness, health, our own lives, and perhaps the lives of our intimates. But, at certain moments in history, heroism is our only alternative. At least if we are heroes.

Some people pride themselves on non-stop talking; they never act. Instead, they consider “talking to the enemy” a moral virtue. But if talking substitutes for and glorifies non-action, then let me suggest that talking may be better suited for safe, not perilous times.

These thoughts lead me back to a film I saw at the Israeli Film Festival. “The Darien Dilemma” is a haunting and powerful drama made by a father and filmmaker son: Erez and Nahum Laufer.

In 1941, 1000 Viennese Jews were stranded on the frozen Danube awaiting rescue or certain death. The “Darien” was the name of the ship that the nascent Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) had purchased in order to transport these Jews to safety in Palestine. The “Dilemma” concerns how a small group of Palestinian Jewish heroes handled a direct order to abandon these Jews to their deaths–simply because the ship was needed as part of a larger political deal the Mossad had just forged with the British; the ship was to be used to help sabotage German oil supply lines.


What does it mean to disobey an immoral order or an order with which one disagrees? Is preserving the future of the Jewish state a greater good than that of saving imperiled Jewish lives? What kind of monsters can make such decisions? What kind of monsters can refuse to do so?

In this instance, and to their enormous credit, the Mossad members debated this decision for one full month. They reluctantly voted to obey the direct military order–and then they changed their minds and decided to disobey it. However, it was too late for the Darien refugees. There was no ship for them. Except for 200 teenagers whom the Mossad spirited away to join another Palestine-bound ship, all eight hundred refugees were shot to death by Austrian troops whom Hitler had impressed into service.

The film operates on several tracks at once. The historical moment is captured, not only with archival footage but by an Israeli theatre troupe whom we see in rehearsal and then as they re-enact a spell-binding dramatization of the events in Istanbul, Vienna, Bucharest, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, and Bratislava. More: Some of the living survivors of the Darien, now in their eighties, are interviewed on camera. It all works, as a dream does, and we do not know what is “real” from what is “acted.” All disbelief is suspended.

The hero of the film is a woman–Ruth Klieger. She was also a member of the same Zionist Youth movement that I joined in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a mere seven years after the Darien drama took place. Klieger was born in Kiev, Ukraine. She was fluent in nine languages, had received a law degree in Vienna, and was very beautiful (a fact she used to save other Jews, not merely to take care of Number #1).


Klieger left Palestine to re-enter a dangerous Europe. She personally commanded “The Tiger Hill,” the last ship to arrive in Palestine before Word War Two began and “The Hilda,” which arrived in Palestine in 1940 with 726 refugees. Ruth worked with the Hagana and the Mossad in Bulgaria, Istanbul, and Cairo. She discovered a Nazi-Egyptian plot and helped put Anwar Sadat into jail. Klieger also worked with the “Free French Forces” in Cairo.

Klieger was the first Mossad agent to enter liberated Europe. She conducted the first Passover seder for the survivors of Bergen-Belsen. Klieger was also part of the delegation at Lake Success when the United Nations declared Israel a state.

Yes, it has been rumored that Klieger and Ben-Gurion were more than just comrades and friends but whether that was true or not, Klieger still refused her final commission: According to some, Klieger had never been accepted as an equal by her mainly male comrades. She entered the private sector in Israel where she also excelled.

What a story! What a hero! In this lucky instance, heroism not only paid off–Klieger herself died in her bed, so to speak, and not in a Nazi interrogation cell, in Tel Aviv, in 1979.

Friends: Run, don’t walk to your local bookstore. I am told that Klieger was once the subject of a best selling biography by Peggy Mann. Read it–I’m certainly going to do so. But also, try to rent this wonderful movie as well–it will haunt and inspire you and you will never, ever forget it.


May we, in Klieger’s merit, acquit ourselves as nobly.


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