| Family First Feature |

Behind Bars  

Four women who were imprisoned in hostile countries share their stories of incarceration — and eventual redemption

Fernanda Benato-Shapiro


ow old do I sound to you?” Fernanda challenges me at the beginning of our conversation. It’s hard to believe the woman with the clear, energetic voice recently celebrated her 84th birthday. “I might sound young because I experienced clinical death a few decades ago,” she comments. “I’ve heard people say that someone who experiences clinical death starts to count his years of life over from that time. That’s why it’s possible I’m actually the age of my oldest son…

“It doesn’t matter what my exact age is,” Fernanda continues. “There isn’t a day when my memories don’t carry me back to my time in an Egyptian prison, after I was caught spying for the Mossad. I remember those dark nights in the prison cell well.” Her voice is thick with tears. “It’s impossible to describe what I went through there. I didn’t think I’d make it out alive.”

Fernanda’s story is riveting. Her parents were Italian Jews, her father, a diplomat, and her mother, a medical professor. “We were very wealthy,” she says. “As part of my father’s job, we moved from one country to the next every few years. My older sister was born in Czechoslovakia, and I was born in Egypt. That’s where my father was stationed at the time.”

She relates that at the beginning of the 1950s, when she was a young girl, there were hardly any Jewish schools in Egypt. That’s why her parents — who weren’t observant — sent her to a Christian institution.

“I was the only Jewess among 500 Christian girls,” Fernanda explains. “In general, the other girls treated me well. I don’t have anything bad to say about the teachers, either. Every so often, they reminded me of what they claimed the Jews did to that man, whose name we don’t mention. But there was nothing significant beyond that.”

At the age of 17, Fernanda says, when she was deep into her matriculation exams, two men wearing British army uniforms came to speak to her. They said to her in English, “We’re from the Mossad in Israel.”

“I had no idea what they were talking about,” Fernanda says. “But they continued, saying, ‘Israel is in a difficult situation. It has big problems with Egypt, and we need your help. Because your father is a diplomat, you can access offices and other secret places. If you accompany your father to meetings, you’ll be able to provide us with materials we need.’

“Maybe I should have felt frightened, but I was so innocent I actually felt proud, that finally, being Jewish was significant. I asked, ‘Do my parents know?’ and they replied, ‘They don’t know and mustn’t know. From now on, you’ll be our contact person. Do you agree?’

“I didn’t think twice before agreeing. It was clear to me that as a Jew, I’d be ready to do anything to save Israel.

“They left, and I began to feel very excited. Until then, I knew that I was Jewish, because on Pesach we ate matzah, on Yom Kippur we fasted, and on Rosh Hashanah we held a big meal for the Jewish diplomatic staff. But this was the first time I felt great pride in my Jewish identity.”

Fernanda says that the first mission she was tasked with was to reach the Egyptian interior minister, who was married to an Italian woman. “The Mossad agents instructed me to join my father when he went to meet the minister, and then to chat with his wife and convince her to let me into her husband’s office. They told me there were metal drawers in the room, and in the bottom drawer there was a rolled-up newspaper with a rubber band around it. Inside it were documents about the Suez Canal. That’s what they needed me to get.

“I wasn’t afraid at all. It was clear to me that I was carrying out an important mission. I joined my father on the visit, and when we entered the opulent home, my father went to meet the minister, and I remained with his wife, who offered me a cup of coffee.

“I asked her, ‘Who makes the decisions in your house? Can you even go into your husband’s office?’ She was offended by the question and showed me the keys to the room. I suggested we drink our coffee there.

“She opened the door for me, and when she left the room for a minute, I opened the bottom drawer. It was all there, and in a flash, I put it into my bag. She came back, we drank the coffee, and at one point I said to her, ‘I’m not feeling so well. I’d like to go home.’ She ordered a taxi for me, and I walked out with my bag slung over my left shoulder. That was the sign for my Mossad handlers that I had what they’d asked for, that the mission was successful.

“I continued carrying out various tasks for the Mossad. They usually left me notes about where to meet them, and there they would make requests. This went on for a few months, until one day, the contact person arrived and informed me, ‘Golda Meir wants you to be responsible for all the communication in Egypt.’”

“I was almost 18,” Fernanda notes. “And I felt very complimented. I received guidance on how to do my own reconnaissance, to try and obtain materials without me actually having to meet up with the agents and receive instructions.

“The contact people kept telling me, ‘We’ve lost control. We’re in a very bad state, security-wise. We can’t offer more details, but try to be in the right places and to listen.’”

And that’s what I did.

“I was able to get to one of the most strategic places for military planning. One night I heard screaming in Arabic, ‘The Zionist paratroopers got the wrong instructions, and they landed right where our army is. They’re sleeping in tents there.’

“I called my contact person and told him what I’d overheard. I couldn’t function for two whole days after that — that’s how nervous I was — wondering if the soldiers would be spared.

“Later, my contact person told me that in my merit, the soldiers fled within 20 minutes. Golda Meir herself said that I’d prevented 700 Jewish mothers from sitting shivah.”

Fernanda paused her narrative for a moment to point out: “For years, I wanted to know who those mothers were, and only after 50 years of searching did I learn the name and number of the brigade I saved. Since then, I’ve met quite a few mothers of soldiers from that brigade. Those meetings were very moving for me.”

But then one day, the thing Fernanda most feared happened. “I returned to my parents’ house, and the guards at the entrance said to me, ‘Someone’s watching you, be careful.’ I thanked them and went up to my room. Then I heard a crash, and the front door burst open.

“Standing there were three generals bedecked with medals. They came into the house, found me, and screamed, ‘You’re a Jewess, our enemy, and you’ve betrayed us.’ They added, ‘We killed your mother!’

“I looked downstairs, and saw my mother sprawled on the floor. She’d been badly beaten, but she was alive. I was also beaten, and then they handcuffed me and took me to prison.

 “My parents had no idea what I’d done. My mother was sure the generals were thieves, and she also told me afterwards that she kept screaming at them, ‘The safe is on the shelf!’ She had a safe filled with jewelry and diamonds.

“For a year and a half, I was imprisoned in a room the size of four tiles, which was always dark. Once in three days, they brought me a bowl of rice. That was all the food I got. I weighed 70 pounds when I was released.

“Every night, a female warden came, woke me up every few minutes, and whispered in my ear, ‘Tomorrow you’ll be hanged. Isn’t it a shame you did this? Tomorrow, you’ll be hanged…hanged…’ These whispers reverberate in my head to this day. It’s a trauma that doesn’t heal.”

Fernanda takes a deep breath before continuing. “Every day, they’d take me down to the military court in the prison building. I came shackled, and they’d shout at me, ‘Zionist, you want your coffee with sugar or without? Ha ha ha…Give her a cigarette…’ And then they’d burn me with a cigarette. I still have scars.”

Fernanda swallows back her tears, preferring not to continue with the macabre descriptions. “I can only say that to this day I have lots of medical issues because of the torture I endured in prison.

 “They wanted to know who my boss was, what the name of the man who recruited me was. I told them over and over again that it was a complicated name, and I didn’t remember it, but they didn’t accept that.

 “What enabled me to endure was that I had a very strong nature, and it was clear to me that I’d carry my goal to the end, even if the end would be bitter.”

But the end was not bitter — it was miraculous. Throughout Fernanda’s time in prison, there were people working on her behalf to have her freed, namely her father, who paid a hefty bribe for her release.

“One day, the warden informed me, ‘Get up fast. Today they’re hanging you!’ She measured the rope, but noted there was a problem because I was too thin, and thus my clothing too loose. They couldn’t hang me in a way that my flesh would be exposed.

“She went to get me a smaller shirt, and at that moment, two people dressed as Red Cross members ran through the open door. They grabbed me and told me, ‘Your father sent us.’

“Within minutes, I was in a Red Cross ambulance that had been waiting outside. They put socks in my mouth, so that I shouldn’t make any noise, and that’s how they smuggled me out of the prison.”

Fernanda adds parenthetically that her parents had no idea she actually had been a Mossad agent until they were reunited in a transit camp in Kiryat Ata.

“Life in Israel wasn’t easy for us. We’d lost everything. My father no longer had a high-ranking status, and my mother’s expensive clothing and jewelry had all been left in Egypt. But with all the difficulties getting acclimated, I remember that wonderful feeling of finally meriting to arrive in the Holy Land, the homeland of the Jewish people.

“Even in later years, it was neither easy nor simple, but always, when things were difficult, I reminded myself of the 700 mothers who didn’t sit shivah because of me, and I knew that everything I endured was worth it.”

Fernanda notes that in recent years, she’s also merited to become much closer to Hashem. “I always had emunah, but recently, I’ve been zochah to become stronger. I’ve been listening to lots of Torah shiurim, and I try to keep as many halachos as I can. Davka, because of my experiences, I know it’s HaKadosh Baruch Hu Who runs the world, and I want to give Him nachas ruach.”


Golda Masaj

“I’m very happy to share my life story,” says Golda Masaj, née Rodshevsky. “I hear about so many people whose life story is only published after their passing, and the facts and details aren’t always accurate, because there’s no one left to ask… Baruch Hashem, I’m still here, and I can share my story.”

Golda was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1930. “Until the age of 11, I led a regular life,” she relates. “Lithuania was a developed place, my father was a senior accountant in a beer factory, and we belonged to the middle class. We lived in a thriving Jewish community, with shuls and Torah shiurim. The president’s wife was Jewish and was my mother’s good friend.”

But then World War II broke out, and nothing was ever the same again. Golda will never forget the day the war reached them. On 28 Sivan 5701/1941, they heard the sounds of the first Russian aerial bombardments.

“My father was in the factory, together with his cousin, who worked with him. The minute they realized what had happened, my cousin hooked up horses to two carriages — one for us and one for him,” she says.

“He came home to collect us and then we set out. I sat in the back of the carriage with my brother, who was then three years old. Because of the bombardments, there was fire burning up ahead, and the horses stopped and refused to move forward. My father’s cousin tied something around their eyes, and that’s how we rode, with fire all around us.

“My father always loved helping people, and as we advanced with the carriage, he picked up refugees. When there was no more room, we tossed out packages and clothes that we’d taken along.”

After traveling over 30 miles, Golda and her family reached a train station. All the people who’d fled the city were crowded there. They boarded the train, which was designed to transport cattle, and as soon as it began to travel, it became the target of bombs.

“The train advanced despite it all, and we were miraculously spared. From that point on, we didn’t stop seeing miracles. They simply accompanied us the whole time.

“We passed through Latvia, where some thugs tried to murder my father, but my mother began to shriek, and at the last minute, Russian soldiers came and released him.

“We continued traveling into Uzbekistan. We were there for a few years, until the war ended. There were many other refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. We lived in huts and we had nothing, not even extra clothing. I had to wear the same skirt and top the entire time. I washed them each day and hung them in the sun to dry.

“We were always hungry, and that also caused illness. First my father got sick, followed by my mother, and then my brother and I. The only food we were able to get were vegetables we obtained through the kolkhoz, the communal farm in the area, and that’s how we survived.

“At the end of the war, we returned to our home in Lithuania, but two years later the Russians arrested my father, accusing him of helping people to flee. They were referring to the assistance he’d given people before the war, when he allowed refugees to sleep in our house, and provided them with food. He’d also helped them make aliyah through illegal channels.

“My father was taken to prison,” Golda says, pain in her voice. “For a very long time, we didn’t know what had happened to him, until one day, an acquaintance came and told us he’d been taken to Siberia.

“What we didn’t know was that my father had been put on trial, where it was determined that we, his family, also had to be sent to exile — permanently. About a year later, they came to take us.

“I was 18 years old,” Golda says. “I was taken from school by the KGB, and so was my brother. My mother was at a friend at the time, but people from the community ran to her and said, ‘Hurry home, your children are in danger!’ And that’s how they arrested all three of us.”

Golda remembers and shudders. “Outside was an open truck, and four soldiers with bayonets were waiting for us. They took us to a train, and we traveled on it for days, with almost no food or any necessities, until we reached Siberia.

 “We were the only Jews on the train, and in Siberia, we were the only Jewish family in the area. We were surrounded by huge expanses of ice and snow. Nearby was a massive river that froze over in the winter.

“In time, we learned that about 60 miles from where we were, there was another Jewish family, who we were actually acquainted with. But we weren’t allowed to move beyond a six-mile radius of our home.

“True, I wasn’t in an official prison, but I was later recognized as a Prisoner of Zion, because the conditions we were kept in were almost the same as those of a prison. The only thing that encouraged us in those days was that our father was alive, although we knew that he was many miles away from us. We wrote him letters, but I don’t think they ever reached their destination.

 “For ten years, we worked cutting down trees. In the fall, spring, and winter, my hands froze and blistered. In the evening, my mother would bandage them. In the morning, I went out to work yet again, without letup. Imagine what it means. For ten years, working in temperatures that were often minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There was a Polish anti-Semite in charge of us. One day he got angry at us for some reason and threw away the only heater we had. We were left without a way to warm ourselves.

 “We got 200 grams of bread a day. Sometimes they brought a few other food items. Whenever we asked the guards when we’d be released, they replied in Russian, ‘When the turtle climbs the mountain and trumpets.’ In other words, it would never happen.

 “What gave me the strength to survive first and foremost was my mother. She was a very special woman, and never gave up. She believed firmly in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Even on the hardest days, she’d tell us, ‘One day, the turtle will climb the mountain and trumpet.’

“When I look back, I realize what a great woman my mother was. She grew up with eight sisters and a brother. Five of her siblings perished in the war. Three sisters made it to Eretz Yisrael, as did my grandfather — my father’s father — and two uncles from my father’s side. My mother always encouraged us by saying we’d also get to Eretz Yisrael and would join the family there. Because of her, we believed that it would happen.”

And after ten years, it did. “Our release didn’t happen in one minute,” Golda clarifies. “It began with the news that Stalin had died, and at that moment, my mother told us that if that had happened, surely we’d be released soon.

“In time, I received a permit and traveled to the capital of Siberia, from where I continued alone to Lithuania. I arranged whatever I could, and then went back to get my family.”

Golda and her family were reunited with their father, and they traveled to Israel. After their arrival, they lived first in the Yad Eliyahu neighborhood in Tel Aviv. There, Golda was instrumental in helping people with aliyah, among other things, in her capacity as an employee at the aliyah and absorption department of the Jewish Agency.

“We had some wonderful years in Israel until my parents passed away. They merited to live and be buried in the Holy Land, as they’d always dreamed of doing. Baruch Hashem, I have children and grandchildren, and they’re so beautiful and successful,” she adds with grandmotherly pride.

“They come to visit me every day, and when I ask them what they’re looking for in their old grandmother’s home, they reply, ‘Savta, you’re not old, you’re experienced.’ ”


Neta Adulula

For 22 years, the residents of Bnei Brak knew Neta Adulula as one of the senior secretaries at the municipality. Only a few knew of her background, including the story of her incarceration in Iraq.

Neta was born in Baghdad in 1954. “My father was a textile merchant, and was very successful,” she says. “One day, in 1955, he went to collect money that was owed to him by some merchants, and they murdered him in the street. This all happened when I was just a year old, so I never knew my father, Hy”d.”

Neta grew up in a large family. “We were ten siblings, and I was the youngest. The 1960s was a relatively good time for the Jews, and it was possible to make aliyah. My brother and sister came to Israel, and the other eight of us remained in Iraq with our mother.

“There weren’t any serious anti-Semitic incidents, but it was an Arab state, so it was never calm. From when I was a small girl, I was afraid to go out in the streets alone. One day, policemen came and took my mother to prison. When my siblings began to scream and ask why she was being arrested, they were told, ‘You’re Jews, and we know you have a lot of money.’ In prison, they tortured Ima, and as a result, she passed away half a year later.

“Already then, my older siblings claimed that our aspiration as a family had to be to make aliyah. Unfortunately, by that time it wasn’t possible to leave, and not long after we were all taken to prison.

 “There was a system of administrative detention, which meant there were no trials, and the authorities could arrest whomever they wanted. They didn’t have to have any reason to arrest us, beyond the fact we were Jews.”

Neta was 12 at the time. “I remember that the police came and told us they were taking us for interrogation. We cried a lot, but it didn’t help. We were all taken for interrogation and accused of being spies. My brothers hired a lawyer in an effort to alter the indictment, but it wasn’t simple and took a long time.”

The siblings spent varying amounts of time locked up in different facilities. “I was in prison for nearly three years, along with my sisters,” Neta relates. “Our cell was the size of a large bathroom, and there were 30 other women there. Every so often we were moved from one prison to another. Each time, we were shackled and accompanied by a police car, as if we were the lowest criminals.

“In most prisons, the conditions were very harsh, and there was also very little food. Because the food wasn’t kosher, local Jews brought us meals twice a week. We had to divide the food into tiny portions so we’d have something to eat all week.

“We slept on the floor. In one prison, there was a Jewish family that gave us a mattress of sorts, and that was so helpful. It was icy cold, and the mattress  warmed us. I lay on it with my sisters, and we warmed each other up.

“In prison we weren’t allowed to talk,” Neta adds. “So we couldn’t really give each other support. But just being together gave us strength.”

Every so often they would be taken out to a small courtyard. “The miracle was that the prison was structured like a typical Arab house, with high walls, but open on the top, and that allowed in a bit of light. At least the place wasn’t dark.”

Despite the difficulties that she and her family endured, Neta says they were relatively fortunate. “We heard later about other Jews who were also imprisoned for spying, and their end was bitter indeed — they were hanged. We heard about others who endured horrific torture and didn’t survive.

“Our lawyer was able to get them to retract the accusation of spying. Later, we found out that my brothers had paid him a fortune. We were a wealthy family, and we had homes and many assets. What wouldn’t we do to save our lives?”

In 1979, the government changed, and the prison told Neta and her family they were free to go. “We went home, and a few days later, fled,” she says. “We left all those assets, money, and possessions behind. One brother and sister remained in Iraq, but they joined us a while later.

“Because there is no way to fly from Iraq to Israel, we went via Iran, which was then under the rule of the Shah — it was just before the ayatollahs’ revolution. We were there for about four months and lived with the Jewish community. Later, we boarded a train to Teheran, the Iranian capital. From there, the Jewish Agency arranged a flight to Israel for us.”

When Neta speaks of their arrival in Israel she chokes up. “My brother and sister who’d made aliyah earlier were waiting for us at the airport. The reunion with them was very emotional.

“Initially, we all stayed with my sister, and her home became a magnet for Iraqi expats. People came to us seeking information about their families, and their fates. Everyone was afraid of the worst.

“Sometimes I feel a longing for my childhood, especially the shuls in Iraq, which has some of the oldest and largest batei knesset from the days of Yehoyachin Melech Yehudah. I have a lot of good memories, but as every Iraqi you’ll meet will tell you: We remember, but we refuse to go back there. As someone who was jailed for so long, I know there’s nothing more valuable than freedom. Thanks to Hashem, we merited that.”


Sarah Tasma

During the conversation with Sarah Tasma, a native of Ethiopia, I found myself pausing every few moments and pondering the fact that my knowledge of Ethiopian Jewry is very minimal. I know almost nothing about how they were moser nefesh to make aliyah, nor of their lifestyle back in Ethiopia.

“I was born in 1949 in a village in Northern Ethiopia,” Sarah begins. “We were a very large family of 15 children. In our village, there was a small Jewish community, which was very conservative and self-contained. There was a distance between the Christian and Jewish areas, so we didn’t mix at all,” she explains.

“From a very early age, we worked in the fields. We lugged pitchers of water from the river and helped prepare food. We also had meat and poultry, and every so often a shochet came from nearby Gondar.”

Sarah notes that her father was a big talmid chacham. “He learned all day and knew Tanach by heart, literally. We also had a sefer Torah in our home, and my father and brothers regularly learned from it.

 “For as long as I remember, I heard talk about Eretz HaKodesh. On Rosh Chodesh, we would wish each other, ‘This coming month, we should merit to make aliyah.’ On Rosh Hashanah we wished one another, ‘Next year, we should eat apple and honey in Jerusalem.’ We lived in anticipation of it.”

In the 1970s, shortly after Sarah married, a difficult period began for Ethiopian Jewry. The northern part of the country was riven by war, and there was much hunger and suffering.

The Jews suffered more than the rest, which led many of them to flee via neighboring Sudan, and from there to Israel. Sarah and her family were among those who escaped.

“We went via Sudan,” she says. “We walked for days on end, with all our packages and belongings. It was very hot. I had a baby, and we needed to carry her the whole way. We nearly collapsed.

“In Sudan, we concealed our Jewish identity, because it was a hostile Muslim country. We knew that if we’d tell, they wouldn’t allow us in, and worse, they could have turned us into the authorities. There was a cash prize for whoever turned in Jews.

“We lived in refugee camps for two years, and then, when we were already in the process of aliyah with covert Absorption Ministry representatives from Israel, the Sudanese discovered we were Jews and took us to prison.”

There, Sarah gave birth to her second child, a son, and named him Daniel. She’ll never forget the bris that took place in the Sudanese prison. “We couldn’t make him a seudas mitzvah because we had nothing to serve. We also didn’t have water to shower. We washed ourselves with earth.”

A short time after Daniel’s birth, Sarah became unwell, most probably because of malnutrition. She was hospitalized. “When I returned, I discovered that my daughter had disappeared. Some further querying revealed that some locals had taken her, and only miraculously were we able to get her back.”

After two years, they were released. “To this day, it’s not clear to me what led to our release,” Sarah notes. “I just remember that it was on Yom Kippur that fell on Shabbos that year.

“We walked that whole day until we reached a plane. Then my mother announced she wasn’t ready to desecrate the holy day under any circumstances and wouldn’t fly. In the end, we were asked to board the plane just as the fast was ending, so my mother was able to join us.

 “First we flew to Juba, in southern Sudan, where we got off the plane. Again we were taken to prison, for about half a year this time. American guides came and paid money for our release. I saw the money change hands with my own eyes.”

Sara describes the harsh conditions in the prison. “They put us, the women, in a large room where we crowded together. We could hear through the wall how they beat the men. They kept interrogating us, as if we understood or knew something. There was terrible hunger, and little Daniel almost died of starvation.”

They arrived in Israel almost three years after leaving Ethiopia and were settled in Kiryat Gat.

“I had two more children in Israel,” Sarah says. “Baruch Hashem I found work, and we still live in Kiryat Gat to this day. When I remember what we went through, in prison, I cry. But now, after all these years, these are tears of gratitude. It is clear to me that HaKadosh Baruch Hu was with us all the way through. He never left us.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 818)

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