New book examines El Al disaster

CAPE TOWN, July 13 (JTA) — In 1955, an El Al flight en route from London to Israel was shot down over Bulgaria, resulting in the deaths of all 58 people on board. The story behind the tragedy has been shrouded in secrecy, but publication of a new book may now shed some light on the mysterious incident. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, it was nearly impossible to ascertain what in fact had happened. The book, “Flight 4XKCA,” is co-written in Bulgarian by the then-consul general of Israel to Bulgaria, Nir Baruch, and is an attempt to set the record straight with the benefit of documents recently released by the Bulgarian Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Reporting recently on the publication of the book in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz described the events of that time as seen through the eyes of Baruch, now 80 and retired from the Shin Bet security service. Baruch concludes that the shooting down of the plane was not at all justified and that the Bulgarian explanations of the incident “were nothing but a prolonged effort to blur the facts, deceive and throw sand in the eyes of Israel and the international community.” Baruch recalls that at the time of the incident he was on vacation at the Black Sea resort of Varna, when his deputy called to inform him that Israel was looking for an El Al plane that had lost communication with air-traffic officials. The four-engine plane had taken off from Vienna after refueling, on what was supposed to have been a routine flight carried out many times by the veteran pilot. The Israeli team investigating the disaster found that, unbeknownst to the pilot, the plane had veered off course as a result of faulty equipment. Baruch records his efforts and success at reaching the crash site shortly afterward — despite the best attempts of the authorities to keep him away. “What astonished me was that I saw no bodies and no suitcases or other items that belonged to the passengers,” he writes. He was, however, allowed to photograph the fragments of the plane and speak to the villagers in the area. “They said they had heard machine-gun fire, shooting in long bursts. “Then I too understood for the first time that the plane had been shot down and that it had not been just an accident or a crash. According to them, after the firing, the plane exploded in the air and fell to the ground.” The Bulgarians’ explanation was that the aircraft had penetrated their airspace over a closed military zone and had not responded to radio calls, leaving them no alternative but to shoot down the plane. The new documents, however, reveal that the Bulgarians were aware that their actions had been unjustified. “The entire incident was in the shadow of the establishment of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union’s decision to delegate command authority to its Communist satellites. The Bulgarians wanted to demonstrate to the Soviets their power and their ability to control their airspace, to prove their loyalty and that they were worthy of the mission and purpose that had been delegated to them,” Baruch concludes. One of the four South African victims of the tragedy, Mike Cohen, had taken their 5-year-old son to London for treatment of a cancerous tumor in his leg. At some stage, Cohen was told that he could return home, while his wife and son remained to complete the course of treatment. Cohen, who was well-known in Zionist youth circles of the time, decided to return home via Israel — hence his presence on the ill-fated plane. His son died six months after returning to Cape Town. Bessie Cohen sold the thriving electrical business that her late husband had built up in the city’s northern suburbs and, together with her remaining three small children, went to settle in Israel where she subsequently remarried. Cohen’s brother, Alec, who lives in the Cape Town suburb of Sea Point, told JTA of the family’s feelings of anguish at the time. “We were under the impression that somebody that the authorities wanted to eliminate was on that plane. “As Baruch describes in his book, we couldn’t get any information, they wouldn’t let anybody go near the plane and nothing further happened. It was tragic that my brother, who was a well-known personality in Jewish circles in Cape Town, had his life cut off at the age of 34. I was very attached to him — we were very close,” he said. The only tangible reminder of the incident — until now — has been a memorial in the shape of a plane’s tail at a Tel Aviv cemetery, containing the ashes of the deceased and on which their names are inscribed. Mike Cohen’s daughter, Shirley Yardeni, who was 4 years old at the time of his death, has similarly had an uphill battle trying to piece the story together, hoping to achieve some sort of closure for the family. Despite reluctance on the part of the authorities, she eventually succeeded in getting an official Israeli investigation under way, resulting in what she terms “a few answers.” At the time, there was speculation that the El Al Constellation plane — which had previously been used by the American air force for intelligence activities and had been bought by Israel — may have been involved in espionage or that it was smuggling Jews from behind the Iron Curtain into Israel. In fact, a few Russian Jews had boarded the ill-fated plane in Vienna. On a television program about the disaster that aired in Israel in January 2002, an interviewee said that what had appeared in the newspapers was far from the truth. Another told the researcher that she should discontune her investigation because she was risking her safety otherwise.