Ruth Godson was an unlikely heroine of Operation Balak, the clandestine operation organized by the Haganah to secure arms, equipment, and aircrafts from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to and during the 1948 War of Independence. These arms proved crucial in swinging the war in Israel's favor as it struggled to survive the onslaught of a vastly better equipped coalition of Arab armies.
Ruth was just 19 at the time. She is now 94, but she remembers those years with pride and delight. In her flat in Tel Aviv where I have come to interview her, she shows me the medal honoring her membership of the Haganah and a photo of herself flanked by two young Haganah men, both of whom she remembers as being handsome.
Ruth was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on April 20, 1927. Her parents were members of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie and she grew up in very comfortable, easy circumstances.
The much loved only daughter of Leon and Berta Perlman spoke German at home, as befitted members of her class, although she also spoke Czech. Her mother came from an old Czech family and her father originally from Poland. Both were highly educated and by all accounts exceptionally good looking. Ruth was a pretty child, well mannered, well spoken, clever, sweet natured, and the pride of her parents.
Leon had done well. After qualifying as a lawyer at Charles University in Prague, he joined a major Austrian insurance company called "Der Ancher" as its Prague representative. Life was good but then Leon was asked to make a fateful decision. The company had ambitions to expand outside Europe and in 1933 asked Leon to go to Palestine and open an agency in Tel Aviv selling life insurance and then at a later stage oversee the opening of offices throughout the Middle East. Leon must have hesitated to give up the comfort and security of Prague and drag his family off to an unknown life in Mandatory Palestine, as it then was. He was however a Zionist and accepted the offer in what subsequent events were to reveal was the single most important decision of his life. In 1933 he set off for Palestine to prepare the way. Ruth followed with her mother in 1934.
Unlike so many Jews who in later years struggled to reach Israel, arriving harassed and penniless, Leon was able to buy a flat and a car, so little Ruth began her new life in unusually comfortable surroundings. The flat on Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv, became a mecca for other cultured Jews and evenings were often spent with her talented father singing Schubert and Strauss lieder to the accompaniment of the piano. Two young Israeli brothers, Boaz and Yossef, were engaged to teach the parents Hebrew and became lifelong friends.
After spending three years at a school for the children of manual workers, Ruth transferred to the Gymnasium Balfour on Maze Street but her early school experience made her aware that not everyone was as lucky as she was. Her closest schoolfriend lived in a shabby wooden hut in a grubby street. Ruth was so embarrassed by the fact that she lived in relative luxury that she did not feel able to invite her friend home, a source of regret to this day. It was at that first school that she also learned to keep secrets. Every May, Ruth would join her schoolmates on Histadrut marches where she would wave a red flag, while making sure she never mentioned this at home.
Thus, the cosseted little girl from Prague developed the determined, tough streak which was to propel her to join the Haganah at the age of 16 and then go on to play a heroic role in the run-up to the War of Independence in 1948.
Joining the Haganah was no easy task as it required the personal recommendation of another, existing member who could vouch for your suitability. She remembers the day her school friend Milca put her forward as one of great excitement. There were further hurdles, including being interrogated by a senior member of the organization at a secret address, but Ruth clearly had what it takes and was accepted.
The Haganah differed from the Palmach which another school friend called Leah (who later became Leah Rabin) thought Ruth should join. However, Ruth did not feel up to it as the training for the Palmach was much tougher and more physical and she had always regarded herself as being pretty feeble at sport.
On the other hand, she was mentally tough and good at keeping secrets, so on weekend training missions she would tell her parents she was going on a school field trip. Instead, she would make her way to secret facilities in various kibbutzim and there she learned to clean guns, assemble hand grenades and work out how to move across country in the dark, using the stars as a guide. Later, she joined a special unit of the Haganah called Chel HaKesher (the Signal Corps) where she learned how to decipher messages transmitted by wireless operator.
One day, while training in secret in the Galilee, the girls were told that they would shortly be joined by a group of boys and their commanders. She remembers that they all swiftly combed their hair, hastily dabbed on some make-up and then lined up excitedly to watch the new arrivals. There, leading from the front, was her own father. Their eyes met, they blinked in astonishment but said not a word to anyone about their relationship. That evening, Ruth slipped off to meet her father and was teased later by the other girls who jokingly accused her of having a penchant for older men. Despite the teasing, she resolutely kept secret the identity of her father.
Meanwhile, back at school she was burnishing her linguistic talents, adding English and French to her German and Czech. Her plan was to a become an interpreter and her dream was to work in some international agency like the United Nations. Her parents eventually agreed to send her to Geneva to the L'École d'Interprètes where she arrived in September 1947.
Destiny struck eight months later before she had reached the end of her course. On May 14 1948 David Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the new State of Israel following a vote in the United Nations to bring an end to the British Mandate and create two independent states, one Arab, and one Jewish. There was jubilation in Israel but it was to be short-lived. The Palestinian Arabs and the Arab world had vehemently opposed the Partition Plan from the moment it was adopted in November 1947. Four Arab nations – Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq – immediately joined forces to create the Arab Liberation Army which launched what in effect was the start of a war which lasted until March 1949. In January 1948, the Old City was blockaded and its 100,000 citizens faced with the prospect of starvation. Convoys were attacked and civilians murdered.
That low-level war turned into a full-scale onslaught after the Declaration of Independence and Ruth felt she had to get home as soon as possible. However, just as she was making the necessary arrangements, she received a call from Michael Harari, a sabra who was born in the Neve Zedek district of Tel Aviv. Mike wanted her to immediately board a plane to Prague where she was desperately needed to help finalize the delicate negotiations for the supply of weapons and training by the Czechs.
She was expected to board without preliminaries, without a visa and without knowing what would happen when she reached her destination. Her only instruction was to tell the Czech officials who would be questioning her on her arrival that "I have come to see Felix". It was a terrifying experience and Ruth feared she would end up in some gulag-style communist prison, never to be seen again. Instead, she was whisked away and given, in her words, "the red carpet treatment." The mysterious Felix was in fact Otto Felix, another Czech Jew whom she had known as a frequent visitor to her parents' house. He was the man who would accompany her father on the piano during their musical soirées and had kept the young Ruth amused by initiating musical quizzes and games.
Otto Felix had been dispatched to Prague some months earlier to start negotiations with the Czechs for the supply of arms, planes, and training. The decision to make preparations for full-scale war was taken by David Ben-Gurion who realized after the November response of the Arabs to the Partition Plan that Israel would have to fight for its life while the world stood by. Everything was coming to a head just when Ruth reached Prague in May. She was immediately put to work as the decoding officer for all the secret messages that were being passed backwards and forwards between the Czechs and the negotiating team. As Operation Balak reached its final stages, she worked night and day out of the Israeli legation offices in Prague. Although Ruth never met the Czech side face to face, her role was pivotal.
She spent a year in Prague. "The Czechs saved us" she says, adding "even if it was for all the wrong reasons." Her understanding is that while the Czechs may have had sympathies for the Jews, the Russians were vetting the whole process and the deal was only allowed to go ahead in exchange for large amounts of money and to further Russian ambitions. Russia was hopeful that pro-Soviet parties would play a key role in the new government and that Russia would thereby be able to wield influence in the new country.
Czechoslovakia received almost $14.5 million for its arms, a truly huge sum in those days. In return, it supplied mortars, machine guns, explosives, tanks, and 24 Avia S-199 fighter aircrafts. It also helped train the pilots and mechanics who were needed to fly and maintain the planes. Ruth also remembers that the Czech authorities allowed Czech volunteers to go to Israel to help in the war effort.
Some arms had been smuggled into Israel ahead of the war but the planes and most of the heavy equipment had to be flown in at the last minute from an airfield in Zatec, Yugolsavia, to the Ekron airfield near Rehovot. It was a daring mission and Ruth worked hard to make the complex arrangements work.
Ben Gurion later acknowledged that without the Czech arms deal Israel would not have survived the 1948 War of Independence and that without the ingenuity of all involved, the deal would never have been done.
Ruth does not think of herself as a heroine, just someone who did what she had to do. She stayed on in Prague for almost a year and then, at her request, was sent to work at the Embassy in Paris, only returning to Israel finally in 1950.
It was a wonderful homecoming but Ruth was restless. She had tasted action and found the thought of resuming her studies and living in digs unappealing. Instead, she applied and was accepted to work at the newly established Israeli Foreign Office in Jerusalem. She did well there and in 1955 was offered a posting to the Israeli Embassy in London, initially to do decoding work but later to also act as social secretary to the Ambassador Eliyahu Eilat. She became involved in all the social activities of the Embassy and it was at a party that she met Joseph Godson, a widower who was serving as Labor attaché at the American Embassy.
They married and Ruth had to abandon her job at the Embassy - much to the chagrin of the Ambassador - to join her husband in his many and varied postings throughout Europe and to bring up her son and two stepchildren. London was the family base but Joe and Ruth spent much time abroad.
Joe died in 1986. Ruth stayed on in London for some years to be close to her son but eventually decided she wanted to grow old in the familiarity of her childhood surroundings. She returned to Tel Aviv in 2007 at the age of 80 and with her habitual grace, determination and high spirits was soon back in the swing of things. To her Israeli family and friends, it must have seemed as though she had never left.