Israel's Mossad intelligence agency is famous the world over for its heroic, Bondesque operations. But now, two former agents come forward with a wholly different kind of heroic story.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the spy agency held a memorial event featuring the former agents who decided to share their accounts of the Holocaust for the first time.
The two brave secret agents led countless clandestine operations over the years without their colleagues ever finding out about the trials and tribulations they went through during those harrowing times.
Haim Victor Tayar, whose full name and picture were revealed, and Sylvia, whose identity remains hidden due to the significant operational damage its exposure might cause despite her advanced age, sat down and recounted their stories.
"I lower my head with great humility in face of your courage and your life story. The lessons of the Holocaust and the security challenges teach us that we must build our strength, and trust ourselves only," said Mossad Director David Barnea.
A teary-eyed Sylvia, a former operations commander, shared her life story with her fellow agents. "I was born in Białystok in 1940 to the Weissotzki family. When the Russians entered Białystok, my mother ran with me to Warsaw and we lived there in the ghetto," she said.
"When I was two years old, my mother realized there is no way we would survive the atrocities. In order to at least save me, she coordinated with a Polish guy she knew and asked him to be on the other side of the ghetto wall. She wrapped me with rags and threw me over the ghetto wall. The Polish man handed me over to his parents, but at a very young age, I ran away from them because they sent me begging on the street. It was really bad and I escaped as far as I could.
I arrived at an orphanage in Kraków, and later, I was adopted by a childless elderly couple who raised me as a Christian. My parents perished in the Holocaust, and after the war, only my aunt survived. She found me and we made Aliyah in 1950."
Sylvia later joined the Mossad and served in a variety of significant roles, scaling her way to the upper echelons of the spy agency.
"No one in the Mossad knew I'm a Holocaust survivor, and I didn't want them to know so they won't give me special treatment, I wanted to be like everyone else. I love Israel, and my operational activity in the Mossad is a dream come true, and it gave me a real sense of strength and resilience." Sylvia is a mother of three, and a grandmother of six.
Haim Victor Tayar, who was born in 1935 in the capital of Libya, Tripoli, shared his story with great elan.
"In June 1940, fascist Italy ruled Libya and it declared war on Britain and France. This move lead to massive bombardments on the city of Tripoli, and my family had to escape to Zawiya where my young sister passed away due to the arduous journey," Tayar said.
"Later on, our family, along with 1,500 other Jews from all across Libya, was deported to a camp in Tunisia. Of them, 660 were sent to the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in Germany. In Tunisia, under Vichy and Gestapo rule, the men were sent to labor camps. And after a few months, we were transferred to Algeria, where our French citizenship was revoked, and we were sent to Laghouat [a city in Algeria] in the Sahara Desert where we lived under harsh conditions, facing famine and disease. My mother wanted us to stay close to her, and she didn't let us go anywhere because she was afraid of the vicious soldiers.
In 1943, the Allied and Free French forces invaded Algeria under Operation Torch, which was made possible thanks to the actions of the Jewish resistance that was made up of 800 members. This operation set off the retaking of Europe and the ultimate defeat of the Nazi regime. I lived with my family for several years in a concentration camp, where my grandmother and younger brother passed away, until we returned to Tripoli, moved to Marseilles and then to Israel in 1947."
Tayar enlisted in the Israeli military and served in the Givati Brigade until he joined the Mossad in 1956.
"As a persecuted child of the Holocaust who experienced the terrible atrocities, for me, serving in the Mossad and contributing to the security of the State of Israel is a huge personal achievement and tremendous pride to be a part of the Mossad family." Tayar is married to Ziona and has two children and five grandchildren.
"This day rattles the soul. It's hard to talk, the mind finds it hard to understand and the heart can't believe what our people and you, dear survivors, went through during the Holocaust. Even after more than 80 years, what you have been through is still shocking, almost unbelievable, unimaginable. Only that these things really happened, and you're here to tell us, to the people of Israel, to the whole world, about it," Barnea added after the two erstwhile spies concluded their testimonies.