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Purity of Arms

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Audrey Benedict & Marie Roux - Both Nursing Sisters  E-mail
Two non-Jewish women, Sister Audrey Benedict and Sister Marie Roux, left on a Dakota flight from Palmietontein at the end of June, answering a cabled summons from South African Plastic Surgeon Dr. Jack Penn.  They were the only women aboard. The volunteers on the plane were unknown to them.

The southbound Union Castle liner steamed slowly through the Suez Canal (Sister Benedict had written in a newspaper article seven months earlier). I leaned over the rail, my eyes on a horizon of desert.  To the east lay Palestine, where storm clouds were gathering. The faint rumble of thunder was to be heard all over the world, but nowhere quite so audibly as in Britain, the country I had left a few weeks before and where I had been working for the past year.  The British like to be liked – jolly good sportsmen and all that – and many were the arguments I had had with Britishers on their Palestine policy.  I was not  a Jew, but I am a Zionist.  One day I hoped I would see for myself

Now she was on her way to see for herself.  The flight to Rome was uneventful although after the indoctrination the two nurses had received in South Africa on the need to preserve secrecy, they were startled to hear a voice call out at Ciampino: "All those for Israel here."

Next day the group left for Athens, their reception there a cool one. Their Dakota was alarmingly overloaded and the Greeks suspicious about many things. The group was herded into a little room and not permitted to leave the airport until the flight resumed.

"Benedict?" said the newly appointed official at the Tel Aviv Airfield.
"You're not Jewish"
"No."
"Your passport has not been endorsed for Israel."

His suspicion grew. His un-English ears related Benedict to Bernadotte. "I'm not exactly putting you under arrest" he said finally," but until we find out more about you, regard yourself as detained."

Marie Roux, whose papers were approved, refused to be separated from Benedict. The two were taken by jeep to a private house about a half hour drive from the airport and left in a room, not locked up, but not free either.

They were released next morning, Lionel Meltzer coming to their rescue. Transported to Haifa in an ambulance, the women began a life of meritorious nursing service to Israel.  The day after their arrival they presented themselves for operating theatre duties at the Bat Galim Hospital in Haifa.  They worked with surgeons from all over the world, American, British, German, Romanian, Russian and South African.  Most had a sound knowledge of English and the nursing staff began teaching the girls Hebrew.

The Hospital was civilian, though it had some military patients. A typical day's list of operations would include the repair of a cleft palate on a year old baby, amputation of a soldier's limb and a hernia repair.
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Limited in surgical supplies, doctors and nursing staff worked without wastage, using again and again such items as surgical spirits and bandages which could be washed and sterilized, and which normally would have been used once only.

They moved to the Rambam Hospital which housed many Plastic Surgery cases.  Surgeon Jack Penn and his two South African assistants worked devotedly to restore shattered appearances.  For a time all three were unpopular with Rambam's nurses who considered Penn's action in calling on his own theatre sisters a reflection on their capabilities, which indeed it was.  But when the South African staff settled down and worked without their assistance, doing shifts around the clock, until they were almost dropping from exhaustion, the Israeli nurses shamefacedly apologized, thereafter they were almost embarrassing in their desire to make good.  Both Benedict and Roux were taken to their hearts and became long-term friends.

At the Italian Hospital in Haifa the nursing sisters had attended to the Post Mortem of the assassinated Count Bernadotte and his subordinate.  They had been transferred to this hospital at the end of August.  This was entirely military and brought them in close contact with war casualties.  The Hospital also served as a clearing station for cases from the Front, as well as for rehabilitative work and cold surgery.

With the truce being constantly broken, the operating theatre became extremely busy with emergency  work, surgery carried out with the barest necessities and there were no disasters. On the contrary the patients did amazingly well.  There was no air-conditioning of any type, and with the “Hamsin blowing the long hours were exhausting.  There was, however, a feeling of comradeship and Sister Benedict never lost the sense that she was involved in important history.  She was given the Hebrew name of Bracha (Blessing) and Sister Roux the Biblical name of Ruth (The Moabite).

During three days leave Sister Benedict thumbed her way to the north to visit Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.  Surgeon Jack Wilton was delighted to see her and showed her his little hospital with pride.  He arranged for her to visit kibbutz Degania 'A' and she still had time to visit Ma'ayan Baruch with its many South Africans.

Getting back to Haifa was not easy.  Fighting had broken out again in that area.  When Sister Benedict reached Tiberias again, thumbing lifts from military vehicles, Dr. Wilton was greatly relieved, as he had worried about her passing so close to the fighting during her  visits.

Sister Benedict was due to leave for Haifa next morning, but during the night a number of casualties were brought in, and she assisted Dr. Wilton in treating them.  One young soldier had been hit in the head.  The only hope was to get him to Haifa as soon as possible where intracranial surgery could be done to remove the bullet.  Not waiting for dawn, Sister Benedict accompanied him in an ambulance.  It was a nightmarish journey, the jolting vehicle traveling without lights.  She tried to keep the young man alive, administering oxygen and drugs and keeping a blood transfusion going with the aid of a flickering torch.  At daylight the ambulance reached the Italian Hospital.  The patient was still breathing but his pulse was weak and irregular. Despite the night's vigil, she set about preparing the theatre for there was not a moment to lose.  It was too late.  The soldier died as he was being wheeled in.
                     
According to Dr. Arthur Helfet, an orthopaedic consultant, Dr. Penn's two non-Jewish theatre sisters Benedict and Marie Roux, did a magnificent job, and added efficiency and quality to the organization. Within two hours of their arrival at Rambam, they looked across the Bay at the outline of Acre and asked "Is this ours?"

Today Sister Benedict is Mrs Meyersfeld living in Cape Town.  

Sister Marie Roux left South Africa in 1963 to settle in the USA and in the 1970s worked at the Memorial Hospital in New York City.  She returned to serve Israel again during the Sinai War of 1956 and stayed on for three years working with Dr. Sheba at the Tel Hashomer Hospital.  In 1967 both before and during the Six Day
War she acted as Purchaser in New York for Medical Supplies required by Dr. Sheba.