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Escape to Freedom - The Story of Zipporah Machtei

Stuart Stanton

"I thought Hedda was a Scandinavian name."
"No I am an Israeli."
"Tell me."

This was my introduction to an amazing story.

I had met Hedda in London, and the story she told me about her mother, Zipporah Machtei, started 72 years ago.

Holocaust history is the story of round ups, executions, and terminal transit to concentration camps. Rarely did the very footprint of Nazi tyranny lead to freedom. This is such a story. Hedda’s mother, Zipporah Machtei, was born on 26 December 1912 in Stolpce, Poland. Her parents were Orthodox Jews and Zionists. Her uncle was a member of Poale Zion and a local schoolteacher. When Zipporah was old enough she joined Hashomer Hatzair and at the age of 17 (1929) she left home and travelled alone to Palestine; her older brother Yosef was already there.

Zipporah decided on a nursing career and in 1935 applied to enrol as a student nurse at the Henrietta Szold School of Nursing in Jerusalem.

"Further to your announcement in the press that you are recruiting applicants to the school, I would request that you will consider my candidacy to the school."
Zipporah at the time of her enrolment.
Zipporah Machtei (top row, third from right) with her friend Shoshana Shternberg to her right, amongst the graduation class of 1938.

Later the same year she married Arieh Klapper, an agriculturist who worked in an orange plantation in Natanya.

In March 1939, Zipporah decided to visit her parents and family in Byelorussia, and was six months pregnant with Hedda when she arrived there. By that time German storm clouds were gathering over Europe, and on 01 September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. England declared war on Germany on 03 September 1939, and the Second World War began. On 06 September 1939 Hedda was born in Poland. The Nazis found Zipporah and Hedda and took them to Berlin.

On 13 November 1939, Mrs Shulamit Cantor, Principal of the Henrietta Szold-Hadassah School of Nursing, wrote this letter to the Central Bureau of the Red Cross in Geneva.

"Mrs Zipporah Klapper (née Machtei), a graduate of our school of nursing, went to Poland this summer to visit her people, whom she had not seen for many years. During her visit, in Warsaw, she gave birth to a child. We understand that when Poland was occupied by Germany, Mrs Klapper and her infant were taken to Berlin and placed in a concentration camp. Could you help trace her? We are informed that she may have been able to establish contact with the American Consul in Berlin."

On 03 December 1939 Arieh Klapper, who was living in Natanya said he had received a message from a friend of Zipporah (Shoshana Shternberg) to say that, "my wife Zipporah Machtei-Klapper is in Berlin and her circumstance is quite dire. She begs that everything possible should be done to bring her back."

On 06 December 1939, Dr Alec Cremer, of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, wrote back to say, "After having stayed in Poland, she arrived in Berlin with other refugees around 12 October 1939. She had a baby girl, Hedela on 06 September. She is staying at the Hotel Bollin. Mrs Klapper obtained permission to leave Germany via the United States Embassy, and would travel through Romania to Palestine." Mrs Cantor passed this good news to Arieh Klapper.

In December 1941, Zipporah and Hedda were exchanged as prisoners of war for the Knights Templars in Palestine (these were Germans who supported the Third Reich, and whom the English mandate was anxious to deport back to Germany). She and other refugees travelled by train on a route similar to the Orient Express, ending in Istanbul. From there they were picked up by boat and taken to Haifa, and then to a transit camp in Atlit where the authorities checked them for spies and undesirables! Hedda remembers travelling to Haifa and being collected by her father.

Once in Palestine, Zipporah resumed nursing, working initially with Kupat Cholim in Natanya and then Petach Tikvah. She completed a course in midwifery and became a health visitor. She gave birth in 1945 to Yali and then seven years later to twins, Shulamit and Rona.

Hedda came to England in 1962 and married Bruce in 1965. She has two daughters, Dafna, who went back to Israel, lives in Eilat and has three children, and Shona who lives in UK.

Zipporah, in common with many survivors, talked very little about her ordeal and mostly in general terms but every so often, little snippets emerged of what life was really like in the children’s home in Berlin.

Arieh died in 1978, Zipporah died in Israel on 27 July 2002.

None of the successful outcome of this story would have been possible were it not for the help of Mrs Judith Steiner-Freud, Chair of the Alumni Association of Henrietta Szold-Hadassah Hebrew University School of Nursing. In 1948, when Mt Scopus was surrounded by Jordanian troop, she rescued the entire nursing archive and took them to Ein Kerem.

In 2011 I was fortunate to meet Mrs Judith Steiner-Freud, who recalled meeting Zipporah Machtei as a student nurse. I began to complete the jigsaw. To my astonishment, Mrs Steiner-Freud showed me the original documents and photographs of Zipporah Machtei.

We arranged for two of Hedda’s sisters, Yali and Shulamit, to travel to Jerusalem to meet Mrs Steiner-Freud, and see all the records relating to their mother, of which hitherto they had been unaware.

Date: 3/6/2012 12:00:00 AM

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