Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Yom HaZikaron Tribute: Chaviva Reich

I could have sworn that, at some point in the past, I wrote about her. The paratrooper who shares my name. When my blog started taking off her name dropped further and further down in the results and I felt a huge guilt in that. So I thought I wrote about her on Yom HaZikaron, but looking through the archives it appears that she got an ever-so-brief mention on a post where I donated some money to the Friends of the IDF.

Where to begin? I chose the name Chaviva for myself prior to my Reform conversion in April 2006 after a conversation with my rabbi about naming. He picked up a book of names and we explored options that were similar in meaning to my birth name, Amanda, and he came up with Aviva, Ahava, Chaviva, and so on. I chose Chaviva because I like that throaty guttural sound -- it really makes you work for the name. It was a few years before I realized that there was someone particularly unique with the name Chaviva out there and that she had done more for Am Yisrael than I could ever do. I don't remember exactly how I stumbled upon her name or her story, but once I did, I knew that if I ever went to Israel I'd have to see her grave on Har Herzl and pay my respects to someone who honors the name in such a unique way.

I'd forgotten about this special Chaviva until my Birthright group was walking through Har Herzl in late December 2008. There, in the middle of this separate space, were the graves of several paratroopers. And there, amid those paratroopers, was the grave of Chaviva Reich (Haviva Reik). The group was rushing through the area, but I insisted on stopping, placing a stone, taking a picture, and thanking her for what she did for Israel. Thinking about it now even makes me emotional. I don't know why I feel such a strong tie to this woman who died more than nearly 70 years ago defending the Jewish people's right to survive.


Chaviva Reich was born on June 14, 1914 as Marta Reick in Nadabula, Slovkia and grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. As a child, she joined the HaShomer Hatzair youth movement and subsequently made aliyah in 1939 where she joined Kibbutz Ma'anit. Later, she joined the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah underground military organization.

She then became one of 32 or 33 Palestinian Jewish paratroopers sent by the Jewish Agency and Britian's Special OPeration Executive (SEO) on military missions in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Reich joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as "Ada Robinson" and then joined SOE for specialist training, including a parachuting course. After a short time, she assumed another name for her mission: "Martha Martinovic" and was promoted to sergeant.

On August 28, 1944, the Nazis began to start occupying Slovakia in order to eliminate an uprising, and it was during this time that Reich and three others waited in Bari, Italy, to be parachuted into Slovakia. There was a bump in the road when the British refused to fly a woman behind enemy lines for a military operations, so Reich hitched a ride with a group of American pilots who were flying there. After Reich and the three other parachuters and an additional parachuter convened in as-yet unoccupied Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, they set up relief and rescue activities, organizing a soup kitchen and community center for refugees. They also facilitated the escape of Jewish children to Hungary and on to Palestine.

Then, on October 27, 1944, German troops occupied Banska Bystrica. Reich and the other parachutists escaped with about 40 other Jewish partisans and community leaders to build a camp in the mountains. They were, however, captured a few days later by Ukrainian Waffen SS soldiers.

Less than a month later, the Germans and their Slovakian collabortors shot most of the captive Jews, including Reich, and buried them in a mass grave in the village of Kremnicka. Two of the other parachutists were deported to Mauthausen and later killed. Only one of the parachutists -- Haim Chermesh -- escaped and returned to Israel. Chaviva Reich was only 30 years old.

After the war ended, in September 1945, Reich's body was exhumed and buried in the Military Cemetery in Prague. Then, in September 1952, her remains were moved and buried in the Har Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem along with the famous Hannah Szenes. Today, Kibbutz Lahavot Haviva, the Givat Haviva institute, a small river, a gerbera flower, a big water reservoir, an Aliyah Bet ship, and numerous streets in Israel are named after her.