Rafael "Rafi" Reiss was a young Jewish soldier who, during World War 2, was sent in parachuting behind enemy lines with other Jewish individuals on military and rescue missions in Nazi occupied Europe. Reiss and others including Haviva Reik were dropped by the British into Slovakia on a mission that was two-fold. The young parachutists were tasked with locating and making contact with British parachutists and pilots who had found themselves in Nazi territory and helping them reach allied territory again. Simultaneously, their mission was also to establish contact with surviving pockets of Jewish communities in Nazi occupied Europe and rebuild the local Zionist movements as well assist the individuals with escaping from the Nazis.
Reiss was one of 37 individuals from the Jewish community in Palestine who volunteered to help rescue Jews in Europe and help the allied fight against the Nazis. Other individuals who participated in this parachuting campaign have been memorialized in Israel, with kibbutzim (Lehavot Haviva), ships, and educational centers bearing their namesakes. Unknown to the general public however are the great sacrifices that Rafael Reiss and three others who were never properly memorialized made when they gave their lives attempting to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.
Reiss, Haviva Reik, and others involved in the mission were well aware of the risks before undertaking the task, and bid uncertain goodbyes to their loved ones before leaving. The volunteer soldiers recieved parachute training in Palestine and were then sent to await deployment in Cairo. On September 14 1944 word was given by commanders and Rafael Reiss along with Zvi Ben-Yaakov and Haim Hermesh were parachuted into Slovakia behind enemy lines in what was known as "Operation Amsterdam". Originally Haviva Reik was meant to join the jump but she was denied by British Authorities who had strict rules about sending a female soldier behind enemy lines. The three men took the jump without her and landed safely, making their way over the course of the next few days to Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia where they were surprised to find Reik already waiting for them. Once established in Banská Bystrica the group of parachutists got to work on relief and rescue activities, including the offering of financial assistance to local Jews and the establishment of a soup kitchen. Reiss and Reik organized pockets of resistance within the city's Jewish population and facilitated the escape of Jewish individuals to Palestine. They also provided assistance to allied airmen and servicemen who had been shot down or injured in battle.
German commanders in the region organized to put down the Jewish resistance in the cities, and on October 23 1944 German SS troops began advancing on Banská Bystrica. Reiss and the other parachutists were able to narrowly escape with about 40 Jewish individuals from the city, and they built a camp in the nearby mountains. The camp was subsequently found and overrun by German soldiers, who captured Reiss, Reik, and Ben-Yaakov. The Nazis killed Reik and Reiss on November 20 1944 and buried them in a mass grave outside of Banská Bystrica. Other parachutists were captured and sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, and others such as Haim Hermesh managed to escape and fight their way back to Palestine.
After the end of World War II, in September 1945 the bodies of Reik and Reiss were exhumed from their graves and buried in the military cemetary in central Prague. On September 10 1952 the remains of Reiss, Reik, and Szenes were once again exhumed and placed in their final resting places at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
Sources: Haaretz (November 15 2014);Yad Vashem; "Perfect Heroes: The World War 2 Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory", Judith Taylor, University of Wisconsin Press 2010;