In honor of these faceless characters, we have decided to raise from the depths of Israeli forgetfulness the unknown story whose headlines roiled the Jewish Yishuv in 1946, until it disappeared into the shadows. The tragic story of Otto Freund and Bernard Papanek, two young Jews whose lives were forever changed because of coincidental circumstances and an unfortunate choice of clothing.
Who was the traitor?
June 1946 was an exceptionally difficult month for the Zionist Yishuv in Israel. The tension between the underground movements (which worked together under the framework of ‘The combined Jewish resistance movement’) and the authorities of the British mandate came to a climax.
A succession of successful resistance activities, including “The night of the bridges” convinced the British authorities to take off their gloves and extract a price for the violence that was condoned by the leaders of the Yishuv. They decided to use the considerable force of the British army.
Saturday morning, June 29, “Operation Broadside” (later known as “Black Saturday”) went into action. Thousands of British soldiers spread out along the country. Some of the Yishuv leaders were arrested and a curfew was placed on the following cities: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa and Netanya.
Yedioth Ahronoth reports the kidnapping
Thirty additional communities, mostly kibbutzim, were placed under siege. Their members were arrested and intensive searches were conducted on the grounds for Palmach members and ammunition.
The intelligence branch of the Hagana received word of this operation a few days before. Many heads of the Palmach and Hagana went into hiding and most of the hidden weapons were transferred to alternate places.
Weapons cache in Yagur
Despite this advance planning, the British gained an important victory when they discovered a weapons cache at Kibbutz Yagur - an underground hall that hid 1000 mortars, dozens of machine guns, hundreds of sub-machine guns and half a million bullets.
After the siege, the Hagana intelligence came to Yagur, on the assumption that it was not just luck that led the British to the weapons cache. During the investigation, several kibbutz children testified that they noticed Otto Freund and Bernard Papanek, a pair of Czech immigrants and ex-residents of the kibbutz, wandering around the kibbutz wearing British army uniforms during the operation.
The investigation continued, and on the basis of additional testimony the investigators put together a convicting scenario: Papanek, motivated by revenge at not being accepted as a member of kibbutz Yagur, joined up with Freund.
The two contacted British officials with whom they were friendly (the two were soldiers in the Czech division of the Allied Army) revealed to them the location of the weapons cache and even helped them locate it during the search itself.
In Israel of the 1940’s, cooperation with the British occupier was not an event that passed quietly. Hagana intelligence conducted a search for the guilty parties and planned on a punishment that would serve as deterrence to those who would break the loyalty code of the struggle.
Kidnapped during the night
The date - July 3, 1946; the time - five in the morning. Heavy knocks were heard at the door of Sarah Diamant’s apartment at 61 Namal Street, Haifa. Otto Freund, a subtenant of the apartment, sleepily walked to the door and after a short dispute with the mysterious guests opened the door.
Three masked men charged into the apartment. They surprised Freund and covered his face with a rag soaked with a sleep-inducing chemical. They commanded Diamant at gunpoint to lie on the floor and began to run to the other rooms in the apartment. In one of the other rooms, they pulled Bernard Papanek - another tenant in the apartment and a friend of Freund - out of bed and within minutes they all disappeared into the night.
Three days after the kidnapping, the British Mandatory police announced that it appeared that the two men were killed by "The supreme court of the Jewish nation" for their involvement in revealing the weapons cache in Yagur. In the announcement the police denied that the two cooperated with the British army or were in any way involved with the "Black Saturday" event.
Two hostages in one cellar
In the following days the Israeli newspapers continued to cover the story. Witnesses later revealed that after the kidnapping, Papanek and Freund were brought to a cellar on Neviim Street in Haifa where they were bound hand and foot and held for a few days. Their investigators did not spare any method in which to extract a confession of their treason. According to several witnesses, the two were tortured and suffered severe wounds and burns.
The investigation lasted several days during which Freund was able to prove his innocence when it became clear that he was not at the Kibbutz during "Black Saturday" (he was actually stuck in a Haifa restaurant due to the British siege). A short while afterward the investigators covered his eyes, gave him some bread, eggs and grapes and set him free in a grove near Nahalal.
Papanek, on the other hand, was informed that he was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to death. On the eleventh day of his confinement he was moved to another room. Somehow he was able to free himself from his handcuffs, break a window and quickly escape.
A short while later, he arrived at the Haifa police station and described his ordeal to the police officers. In reaction to his testimony, the British Mandatory police remanded him to protective custody for six weeks. Afterwards he received a strong suggestion to leave the country, along with a one-way ticket that he used to return to his birthplace, Czechoslovakia.
It appeared that the story ended and the reverberations quickly faded from the headlines.
In March 1948, Otto Freund was drafted into the IDF and served in the Golani brigade. After his release he began a career as a merchant marine sailor. On August 26, 1956, he was interviewed by Yedioth Aharonoth. Time had not treated him well and he was presently living in a sailor's home in Haifa and living off welfare.
In the interview, he revealed the effects of those events on his life. He testified to the violence he suffered and blamed his kidnappers and interrogators (whom he claimed included Palmach commander Yitzchak Sadeh) for ruining his body and spirit in a way in which he could not rehabilitate.
Bernard Papanek (now Binyamin Palgi)- In August 1964, an acquaintance of Papanek, who became a journalist, publicized a news item that brought the story back into the headlines. Papanek, according to the item succeeded in lifting the "Iron Curtain" and escaped from communist Czechoslovakia to Austria.
A short while later Papanek continued on from Austria to Israel and for a few weeks he and his wife were living in a Ma'abara hut in Bat Yam. The return of the "traitor" to the holy land created a media uproar, which caused Papanek to go underground and he disappeared from sight.
The Israeli newspapers conducted an intensive search for him in an attempt to get an exclusive interview with the man who revealed the whereabouts of the weapons cache in Yagur. A week later, Papanek's brother (Yisrael Palgi) announced that his brother would give an impromptu press conference in front of his hut.
On September 19, 1964, the press was waiting at the appointed time in front of hut no.218 in a ma'abara in Bat Yam. Papanek and his wife arrived and a minute before he was about to give his side of the story to the nation, the police arrived and took the soon to be media star to the police station in Yaffo. The drama was cut short at its peak, and the journalists were left waiting at the hut.
An hour later, Papanek was released and returned home. He stood in front of the reporters who were anxiously awaiting his words, and after 18 years of exile, he detailed his Kafkaesque story:
In the late 1930's Papanek and his good friend Freund emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Israel. They soon arrived at Kibbutz Yagur where they lived until the second World War. During the war, they decided to enlist in the Czech brigade of the Allied forces. This decision angered the Kibbutz members who thought that the Yishuv men should enlist in the Jewish Fighter's Brigade.
During the war, Papanek was wounded and went on leave (as a Czech soldier). He returned to Israel with Freund and the two rented an apartment in Haifa, looked for work, and occasionally visited Yagur.
On the weekend in which operation "Broadside" took place, Papanek visited Yagur as he often did with his friend. When the British troops entered Yagur, he was arrested while he was wearing his Czech army uniform. Contrary to the Kibbutz members who refused to identify themselves as anything but "A Jew in Israel" (as per Hagana orders), Papanek identified himself as a Czech soldier on leave and was released.
The British would not let him leave the Kibbutz until Sunday. The rest of the Kibbutz members were still under arrest, and the children saw Papanek roaming around the Kibbutz in his army uniform. The children reported this later to the Hagana investigators. This unfortunate set of coincidences led to their kidnapping in the middle of the night.
As opposed to his friend Freund, Papanek decided to forgive and forget after all these years. He refused to answer questions about how he was interrogated and claimed that he holds no grudge against his captors and interrogators. His one request was to let him live in peace and rebuild his life quietly.
The next day the newspapers published the full story of "Papanek and Freund" and cleared their names of treason. Once they were released from the burden of the stain of treason, Papanek and Freund were forgotten. They are only remembered by a few as the wrong men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were forced against their will to pay the price of the struggle for independence.
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