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Purity of Arms

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Overland Safari from South Africa  E-mail
South African Jews, like all others, declined to accept the British imposition of conditional rights to enter their spiritual and national homeland. Accordingly, the Zionist Federation, challenging and defying the British limitations, initiated a pilot plan for "illegal" immigration. The plan was for a path-finding group of eight – ostensibly on safari – to cross Africa by truck to Cairo, and there to make contact with appropriate people who would see to the rest.

The plan did not succeed. If it had succeeded, it would have carved the way for an Aliyah Bet¹ from South Africa. At least, that is the belief of Eddy Magid, one of the eight, but it is not shared by Phillip Navon, another of the group, who maintains that the British District Commissioners they met on the way, alert and intelligent men, would have understood quickly enough the significance of successive "safaris" of young men from South Africa.

Two reasons are given for the failure of this pilot effort. The first – not valid – is that the 3-ton, ex-Army truck purchased for the "safari" was a "crock." Indeed it was: its first breakdown, a broken gasket, was just after Pretoria and thereafter there were regular breakdowns. The demoralization that these breakdowns brought about was, however, temporary. A greater degree of professionalism and meticulousness in equipping and planning of the "safari" would certainly have eased what turned out to be a rugged, halting and arduous trip. Nevertheless, the eight did reach Ed-Duem, a town south of Khartoum. It was on the lap between these two places that the unforeseen happened: an accident knocked Henry Harris off the truck and injured his back. The upshot was that he had to be flown back to South Africa. The money for this could only be acquired by selling the truck.

The eight young men, their ages ranging from 18 to 24, were Benny Miller of Oudtshoorn, who led of the expedition; Phillip Navon (then Nowesenitz) of Randfontein; Harry Bloch originally of Port Elizabeth; Henry Harris of Johannesburg; Morris Galp of Johannesburg, today of Cape Town; Issy Rieback of Johannesburg (now in Israel); Hymie Zahavi [Goldblatt] of Johannesburg (now in Israel); and Eddy Magid², today a Johannesburg City Councilor. Five were drawn from the general Zionist Hachsharah farm near Johannesburg and three were Betarim.

Finally, only Morris Galp managed to worm his way into Palestine. The story, in some detail, is as follows:

Two hours after midnight on December 15th, 1946, the truck nosed its way out of Johannesburg. By night-and-day driving, with a few pre-planned stops at pre-supplied addresses, the eight men hoped to reach Cairo in twenty-one days. Their tinned food was stacked inside compartments of the truck. A driver, co-driver and an observer were in the cab in front. For the five off-duty men there were three mattresses on the floor of the truck and two hammocks. Duties were to be performed by rotation.

The adventure had its chronicler. Eddy Magid, then 19, kept a diary. The document is not untypical of what would be the record of any youth on such a mission, often scribbling by twilight. The diarist offers no insights into his companions; only once or twice does he communicate mood or temper ("Boys in the back bitching we're going too fast"); vast, mysterious, endless Africa provokes no comment, and neither do the interesting human encounters during the trip. The diary is, in fact, a logbook, a series of brief, bald, staccato statements of events. But it fixes times and dates and in its cumulative detail reflects the rigor of the forty-six days to Khartoum before it passes on to the untoward events that broke up the group and diversified the adventure in the settings of Alexandria, Port Sudan, Massawa, Aden and the Seychelles.


To return to the beginning:

Sunday December 15: Spent day in backyard of garage south of Pretoria.

Friday December 20: Reached Salisbury last night. New rings £20.

December 27: Reached Lusaka. Truck serviced. Tires changed. Continued journey: mud, ditches, skids; radiator leaking; wild animals. Made Broken Hill 1 a.m. Issy and I slept in the ladies' waiting room at the station.

Sunday December 29: Arrived Ndola 5:30 a.m., Arrived Elizabethville, Congo 8 p.m.

Monday December 30: Spent day fixing starter of truck. Boys all crossed off with truck. Hospitality that day with Mr. R.

Tuesday December 31: Stuck with generator trouble at 4.30 a.m. Ben and I walked for help, roads slippery, raining, very dark, stopped at every noise of wild animals. Found South African mechanic. Bought new generator. Arrived Jadotville 11.30 p.m.

Saturday January 4: Passed over Luika River by primitive ferry service.

Sunday, January 5: Reached Costamansville at noon. Received at beautiful home overlooking Kivu. Slept over. Strawberries and cream. Had truck repaired.

Wednesday January 8: Reached Rutshuru early morning. Trouble with lights. Slept on mountain.

Friday January 10: Drove on using handbrakes. Had brakes and lights fixed.

Saturday January 11: Gasket and radiator bust. Tried soldering all night. Failed.

Sunday January 12: Harry and I walked for help, reaching farmhouse after six km. Found mechanic who replaced gasket. Sign on road read: “Grobler” – went in and had tea with South African farmer. Spoke Afrikaans.

Wednesday January 15: Entered Sudan, Arrived Juba midnight.

Friday January 17: Nile in flood.

Friday January 31: Arrived in Kosti 10 a m, met trekkers going to South Africa at rest house. Left in afternoon. Got stuck two miles out. Henry and I walked to next house for help. Slept over, brought help next morning.


The accident happened on the night of Saturday February 1. Having enjoyed a sundowner with the town major at Ed-Duem, the men accepted his suggestion not to carry on but to rest for the night at a nearby rondavel. At 9 p.m. they made their way to it, with Henry Harris ensconced in one of the two tires lashed to the roof of the truck and Eddy Magid sitting beside him. When the truck turned into a side street, the two spotted huge overhanging branches forming an archway. The driver did not hear their shouts. Eddy Magid flew through the air, landing ten yards behind the truck, fortunately not seriously injured. The wedged-in Henry Harris took the brunt of the blow, suffering a cracked vertebra.

After a bad night Harris was sent to hospital at Khartoum by steamer, with Morris Galp accompanying him. The remaining six set out in the truck.

Thursday February 6: Fought with gasket most of the day. Had just about given up all hope, when car arrived from nowhere. An Englishman stepped out and gave Issy and me a lift to Khartoum to bring help in the morning.

The rest of the story is richly anecdotal but only of passing relevance to the story of Machal. Briefly, the truck was sold in Khartoum for £370, Henry Harris was sent back by plane to South Africa on March 2nd and on March 15th, the remaining seven entrained for Port Sudan. Here an Englishman, owner of a 7-ton yacht, Three Bells, motor and sails, came into their lives. Demobbed after World War ll, Harvey, as he became known to the men, had earned money in 1946/47 by taking aboard press correspondents and photographers to follow the landing in Cyprus of Jewish refugees prevented from entering Palestine.

Harvey was bound for the Seychelles and needed four deckhands. By ballot the four came to be Benny Miller, Phillip Navon, Eddy Magid and Issy Rieback. Their secret plan was to turn the yacht around for the coast of Palestine but Harvey, perhaps not unsuspicious, kept the sextant to himself and nothing came of the plan. The will to execute it was also lacking.

Left at the Seamen's Mission at Port Sudan were Morris Galp, Hymie Goldblatt (Zahavi) and Harry Bloch.

The picture of March 25th to April 25th is that of the four men in the yacht, often violently seasick, bouncing in the Red Sea; a sojourn in Massawa, then a risky sail to Aden. Here there was an unexpected reunion with Harry Bloch and Hymie Goldblatt (Zahavi) who had arrived in Aden on a French cargo ship with £2 between them. They reported that Morris Galp "could not leave Port Sudan until everything was paid for."

Benny Miller, Phillip Navon and Hymie Goldblatt (Zahavi) sailed with Harvey to the Seychelles. We leave them for the present to trace the return to South Africa of Eddy Magid, Harry Bloch and Issy Rieback. Rieback had had enough. Seasickness had laid him low for many days. He boarded a cargo ship, Fort George, at Massawa, and worked his passage to Lourenço Marques, where he entrained to Johannesburg, arriving in April 1948.

Eddy Magid and Harry Bloch had not yet given up hope of reaching the Promised Land and made contact with some Yemenite Jews, then in a Jewish camp in Aden, in the hope of an overland caravan trip with them through Mecca to Palestine. The Yemenites backed out at the last moment, saying it was far too dangerous for them to be caught with the strangers.

The two men then sought a ship going north to the Suez, but as this proved fruitless, they worked their way to Beira on a French cargo ship, and there entrained for South Africa.

Sunday May 25: Arrived in Mafeking 9:30 a.m. Bought copy of Sunday Times. Arrived in Johannesburg 7:30 p.m.

Benny Miller, Phillip Navon and Hymie Goldblatt (Zahavi) enjoyed a pleasant interlude of three months in the Seychelles, waiting for money from South Africa, which eventually came. They bought a sailboat (no motor) for £20 and made for the east coast of Africa. As Phillip Navon put it, "If you're a sailor, you would know the dangers, but if you're not, you just go."

So they just went, having learnt something of sailing from Harvey. The sea concealed its darker tempers and in the passage which took several weeks they made Zanzibar, though they intended Mombasa. For various reasons they sailed up to Mogadishu, then went south to Mombasa, where they boarded a Union Castle ship for Durban. Waiting to greet them was Eddy Magid.

Morris Galp made it to the Promised Land, but almost a year later. His experiences divide into several parts. Needing money, he sought and obtained a work permit at Port Sudan, where he met a Mr. Bishop who owned a gold mine sixty miles in the interior, reputedly the gold mine of Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. Here he worked for two months with two Europeans and 100 Arabs, earning £120 a month.

Back in Port Sudan, he boarded a Canadian steamer Aden-bound. In Aden the question was: back to South Africa or go north? The issue was decided by the arrival of an Australian ship carrying back Italian POWs of World War ll. The POWs were to disembark at Port Said, entrain to Cairo, thence by plane to Italy. Galp's good fortune was that he spoke Italian, having learned the language in Italy during the war. His problem was how to get through customs and immigration, since only the Italians were allowed to land. An arrangement with an Arab curio-vendor who boarded the ship was fixed for near midnight. The two slipped onto the quay from the engine room (then pumping in oil) by sliding down the oil pipe.

This was the beginning of Galp's haunted life in Egypt, a land where documents of identification were demanded everywhere and where xenophobia was virulent. On the first night, as luck would have it, he fell in with a group of the Italian POWs making for their hotel. He overcame the obstacle of lack of papers by speaking Italian, giving an address in Italy known to him and successfully passing off as one of the group.

Thereafter he became "a merchant seaman," Cairo-bound for a day or two by train. His story was that his papers were with the purser of his ship. In Cairo he sought the address given to the safari group in Johannesburg. The door was opened by a woman in mourning. The man of the house had died a few weeks earlier. She had "enough troubles of her own," and couldn't help him.

A Jew in a strange city seeks out other Jews and a day came when Galp made contact with a Zionist who gave him a letter to someone in Alexandria.

The bus journey from Cairo to Alexandria was perhaps the most stressful of his wanderings. There were three roadblocks on the way, the reason for the Egyptians' diligence being a cholera epidemic, and the need to check on all people moving from city to city. Galp surmounted these obstacles thanks to the merchant seaman story and the inability of the checkpoint officials to handle the pressing streams. In Alexandria he made contact with Hashomer Hatzair³ and under its umbrella he was able to stay in Egypt for seven months and learn some Arabic. Hashomer Hatzair had ways of slipping Jews into Palestine: for example, one of the ways was of the "married couple" going on holiday. A ship took this "Egyptian" and his “wife” to Haifa. Two months later, Galp was working with the Kibbutz Timorim group at Ein Sara, near Nahariya.

¹ Term applied to illegal immigration of Jewish refugees into British Mandate Palestine.

² Later, in the 1970s, Eddy Magid was elected Mayor of Johannesburg.

³ A left-wing Zionist youth movement.



Source: Henry Katzew’s “South Africa’s 800”