Trading in the good life for the Zionist adventure
By Raphael Ahren

IT must have been a great experience for a young Zionist who grew up in the Diaspora to arrive in Tel Aviv just months after the state of Israel was founded. Well, not quite. When Sydney Lossin immigrated to Israel exactly 60 years ago this week, the city had a very different feeling than it has today. No one thought of a nice, relaxing walk on the beach, no magnificent high-rises. Lossin only remembers "very shabby peeling plaster buildings, many pockmarked with bullet holes, sandbags piled up around every apartment entrance, and soldiers stopping everyone for identity cards and looking for army deserters."

After joining Habonim, a Zionist socialist youth movement in the Cape Town area of South Africa, the 19-year-old Lossin, who was then still called Brunow, and her fianc? in 1947 decided to leave their safe and sheltered existence and head to Palestine to help build the future Jewish state. When Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, Lossin, who had quit her architecture studies, was still on a pre-immigration training farm ("hachshara") that was supposed to prepare the young pioneers for life on kibbutz. But no simulation in the outskirts of Johannesburg could have prepared a middle-class South African family for what reality had in store for them. "We didn't know what we were coming to," the 79-year-old said during a recent interview at her house in Asseret, a small community near Gedera. "We really didn't have a clue."

The mere journey to the Promised Land was already full of adventures. Together with some 20 other young pioneers, Lossin and her then-husband embarked on a "top secret" three-day journey on an unconverted military Dakota airplane. The young women and men were told to pretend being students on an organized tour to Italy and France, and had obtained the relevant visas. In those days, the aircraft was only able to fly for three hours at a time before it had to be refueled, forcing the group to "bounce up Africa" eight or nine times before arriving in Israel.

They spent one night on the shores of Lake Victoria, near Entebbe, sleeping in wooden shacks under mosquito nets, Lossin remembers. On the next day, the plane arrived in Juba, near the Sudanese-Ugandan border. The name Juba was familiar to Lossin, because back in architecture school, she had worked on a project to build a restaurant and bathroom facilities at the Juba airport. "Imagine my amusement when the 'airport' turned out to be one tiny brick toilet marked ladies and gents, and absolutely nothing else," she laughs. "I suppose there were fuel supplies somewhere, but we did not see them and were left standing around the toilets while the plane moved off to refuel."

After further stops in Khartoum, Wadi Halfa (at the Egyptian border) and Rome, the plane finally landed in Israel, where the group was left with their suitcases, "standing in the middle of the deserted who-knows-where for half the night," Lossin recalls. Finally, after many other trials and tribulations - she says the Israeli bureaucracy was terrible already back then - they managed to reach the Tel Aviv offices of the South African Federation and were sent to their intended destination, the Northern border kibbutz Maayan Baruch.

Though they rejected the bourgeois middle class and were ready to make sacrifices for their socialist ideals, Israel still managed to catch her group off guard. "It was all a great adventure," Lossin reminisces. "We knew that there has been a war here, we knew there had been fighting. We had really such a protected and insular life in South Africa, and then you came here and you suddenly saw a really battle-marked country." But in spite of the "enormous culture shock," bad housing conditions and food shortages - the jam was so "watered down that it ran off the bread quicker than it could be spread," Lossin says - she never thought of returning to her comfortable life in South Africa. Was it her belief in Zionism that made her stay? "I don't know how much Zionism was strong, but it felt right to be here. It was a difficult time for everyone and for us, but it was a good time, really, from the state's point of view. Everyone was together in the general endeavor."

Yet, what began as a mission born out of deep conviction has turned sour over the years. "We were on a high, with feelings of coming to build the Jewish nation, build the Jewish state, create a new and wonderful world," says Lossin, who spent 30 years before recently retiring as the coordinator for international courses at the Agriculture Ministry's Volcani Center. "We were young and stupid, young and naive. What did we do, did we change the world, did we create an equal, egalitarian state, a better place to live after World War II? Nothing. I don't think we achieved anything."
Still, she doesn't feel bad about having embarked on that Dakota plane 60 years ago. "I've never regretted it," she says, "because for a long time, South Africa wasn't an option, because of Apartheid. We were very much against Apartheid, so it was never as if we'd go back if we didn't like it here. And then, [after Apartheid ended in the early 1990s], Israel had become where our lives were. This is where we belong."

Sydney Lossin

The immigrants' Dakota at Wadi Halfa

The control tower at Wadi Halfa Airport

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