My 11th Pen Pal - Letters from Menahem

Honey Gluckman is a former lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at JCE, now the Education Faculty of Wits. Her subjects included Philosophy of Education, with an emphasis on Critical Analysis. She is today part of the ‘Granny Program’ run by the Chevra Kadisha, assisting young black learners in acquiring language skills using educational games she has developed.

Feature image: Front cover of From Sembel to Gilgil, reissue of the Book of Imprisonment and Exile (published by the Ministry of Defense, Israel, 1980)

In 1948, as a high school pupil aged 15 years, I read an article in a Jewish journal asking people to write to prisoners in camp Gilgil in Kenya. Since I was going through a pen pal stage (I had 11 of these from all over), I decided to add to my collection. That is when I ‘met’ Menahem Heppner, aged (I think) 26. We corresponded for many years, with his early letters closely written on thin, now yellowing airmail paper which sometimes made certain words difficult to decipher. But, after rereading them, I realized that they form a historical record of the birth of Israel.

I have mostly kept the English he used (as a second language speaker) but have split the handwritten account into paragraphs (for easier understanding).

I have omitted many of his personal comments to me, as they are not relevant to this history. What was obvious was that he was so desperate to relieve his boredom that he was prepared to write to someone much younger than himself. As a result, his early letters were filled with paternal and at times, the slightly condescending comments of a kindly adult writing to a child.

5 June 1948

“Dear Honey!

Some hours ago, I received your letter from 8.6.48 and it’s hard to describe my feelings at that moment. I was very happy and reading your letter was very delightful. You could hardly believe that this letter created a big day for me in our life. I myself wouldn’t believe it if I lived outside. But it’s right.

Now let’s go on with the real letter. Your first question about the reasons for my being here is the difficultest and I’ll keep it to the end of the letter. I’m surprised to see your interest in politics, especially your viewpoint about the British interference there in Palestine. You are absolutely right about them and if you had seen their behaviour there as I had, I suppose the outcome would not be far as mine. E.g. being in Kenya [He comments with amusement on the fact that I have 11 pen pals]. I myself write only to family in Israel, London and S. America.

I had to break up this letter in order to go to our weekly picture. The movie is coming to us and today I saw a very nice picture [name given – illegible]

I’ll attend now to your first question about the reasons of my being in this ‘sanatorium’ in the Kenya highlands. Although I arrived at this camp only one and a half years ago, let me give you the short history of our camp, which exists now nearly four years. The ‘pioneers’ were 250 boys exiled by the British Government from Palestine to Eritrea. Then they were transferred to the Sudan and back to Eritrea and at last, two years ago they arrived here at Kenya, “The pearl of the British Empire”, as written in one of the tourist books here. When you ask me about the right which allowed them to exile Palestinian citizens to another country, well, that’s too much for me. You have to forget about the existence of laws and rights when you live under British 'Administration' (that is(Occupation)! It seems that for the English the right to live exists only for themselves and no other people have the right to demand the right to live. Sorry to break up your beliefs (if there were any) in the English colonial system. Let me as an example tell you my history of detention, which I hope will not bore you.

It was October 1946, (quite a pre-historical date) when I lived in Jerusalem a quiet civilian life of a native under British rule. My father is a doctor there and the days were full with ‘terrorism’ against the English. Every day some police or army officers were killed by ‘terrorists’ and the English ruled a reign of terror against the Jews without differentiation between ages and membership of party. I was a member of the Revisionist Party and commander in chief of the Betar Jerusalem. Well, this was nothing illegal because the party was a legal one and recognized by the government.

Then one afternoon in October, when the railway station was blown up by Jews, when I returned home from my work, I saw the lovely symbol of the police before our door; a police truck and two armoured cars, occupied by policemen with various arms. Just when I entered the street, I saw my father carried out under heavy escort into the car and driven out. They wanted him for only a moment, but this moment was about two weeks. As I found out later they accused him of giving first aid to ‘terrorists’ and put him in prison together with Arabs and plenty of bed bugs etc. The same night at 12 o’clock a second visit was paid to us and this time my younger brother and younger sister and I were taken for a ‘journey’ in a nice car between two dozen Tommy guns. We were driven to another prison which was quite clean and everyone had a special chamber. For two days we got no food and then we were separately investigated about our doings and especially our father’s doings. Of course we knew nothing.

On the second day afternoon, I was ‘asked’ by a civil police inspector in his car and driven to the central prison where I met my father in a very bad condition as he was then 58 years old. After a quarter of an hour ten of us were separated, thrown into a car and taken to the detention camp Latrun [half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv]. They took good care of us on the way. Twelve armed police guarded 10 bounded Jews. One hand was bound to the car and the other, each to the other’s hand. We were not allowed to speak or to move and of course neither of us wanted to risk his life by a little bullet from their guns pointed on us.

Well, the Latrun camp is just as any other camps in the world, not bad and not good. There I spent half a year, meanwhile my family was released and only I remained the scapegoat of the ‘terrorist’ family. Then came the 11th May 1947 when suddenly one night we were awoken in the barracks of the camp by “His Majesty Forces.” 50 of us were taken under heavy escort into trucks and the ‘trip’ to Kenya began. Four special airplanes awaited us and together with the guard we entered our first air journey. It was not comfortable as we were bound again and could not move from our places. Eight hours we were in the air until we arrived at Asmara in Eritrea where we ‘rested’ one night. The next day we continued our trip by air, again 9 hours until at last we arrived at the Capital of Kenya- Nairobi. From Nairobi to Gilgil it’s a way of 7 hours, a wonderful way through jungle and mountains of Kenya. Long after midnight we arrived here and were warmly welcomed by our comrades.

Well, that’s the story I have to tell and if you did not fall asleep meanwhile I congratulate your patience….One and a half years idle life in Kenya prison makes one rather dull. One does not recognize special events and one has only thoughts of the past to enjoy.

Please don’t let me wait for your letters too much and answer immediately.

Well, good night.

Sincerely your devoted 11thpen pal


Irgun and Lehi detainees in Eritrea

Irgun and Lehi detainees in Eritrea

At the top of this first letter is a hand-drawn picture of a fenced-in camp and a tall watchtower with lights on top. At the side is written “behind the fence”. At the bottom he drew a picture of a Mickey Mouse postman holding a letter, followed by “Hurry up- postman!”

Gilgil, Kenya 29.6.48

[Drawing of a tall giraffe touching the top of the watch tower with the words “jungle meeting”]

“Dear Honey,

I just received your letter and it’s impossible to put in words my joy when I found your nice photo together with 7 pages of your letter….

Just now we received a telegram from the Red Cross London about our problem of returning to Israel. It said that the colonial office had informed the Red Cross that the Jews in Gilgil are not held there for “any particular ground”. That means we were sitting “just so” without reason and limit. Well, by this you see that our correspondence will not be broken in the near future as we are probably staying for some months or years more….

You asked about some sketches of you made from your photo…but my painting is specialized in landscapes…only here as I looked for a hobby, I found myself good enough for painting. But I got in and began to do some nice pictures. One of them was given as a gift to Rabby Rabinowitz on his visit to us”...

The reference is to the Chief Rabbi of South Africa’s Federation of Synagogues Rabbi L I Rabinowitz. Because of a comment I had written, Menahem next replied with a four page-long political lecture on why he prefers the Afrikaner nationalists, who were against the British, to Smuts, who favoured the British Empire.

“Well! I write and write without an end… (He encloses a brooch he made with my Hebrew initials). Again thanks for everything and write me very, very soon! I’m waiting and anticipating your next letter!

Kenya 5.7. 48

“This will be my last letter from this place to you as we are tomorrow leaving this camp on our way to Israel! It’s hard for me, even impossible to describe you our feelings! This is the day we have waited for 3 years and it’s like a dream too good to be true!

If everything will be straight then we’ll be in Israel at the end of the week and we’ll be home with our families. For us from Jerusalem it will be another problem how to get there, but I hope that this too will be solved. You’ll understand when this letter will be very short because of the excitement around us. It’s too hard!

I would be very glad if I should continue our letters from Jerusalem. Forgive the shortness of this letter, but you’ll understand my present mood. Only 18 hours more then we’ll go! Well, that’s the end of this letter and this exile too!

Please continue writing and thanks for all you’ve done to me before by writing your nice letters and sending your photo which made my life more easy!

Good luck and see you “again’ soon!

Returnees to Israel bringing Sefer Torah from Gilgil detention camp, July 1948 (source:

Returnees to Israel bringing Sefer Torah from Gilgil detention camp, July 1948 (source:

Jerusalem 8.8.48

“Dear Honey

I’m living now in a quite different world than before. It’s called freedom but it’s a battle even when it’s officially ceasefire. Especially in Jerusalem, it’s a very strange cease fire while the shooting in the old city is going on every hour, day and night. There is a military censorship now, for it is possible that our letters are going through Arab countries and we must be careful not to give them valuable information about military objects. Until now, all this life seems to me as an unbelievable dream. Less than a month ago, life was more comfortable but harder to bear. It’s difficult to explain to you as you will never understand the position in Israel today.

In Jerusalem, everyone is a soldier and is doing his duty. Two weeks after my arrival in Jerusalem, I’m already a fighting soldier and doing my duty as an officer in Irgun Zwai Leumi’s army which now exists only in Jerusalem, while in the other parts of the land, the Irgun ceased to exist and the members joined the Israeli army.

You must understand that in Jerusalem and especially in the old city, its war. We, the Irgun have much posts there and have to guard the Arabs from capturing our positions…

Now I’m back again in our camp, back from the front. It’s very interesting how Jerusalem today is divided into 2 different parts. The Jewish modern city is now quiet and its peace and life are going on. The old city and surrounding is in war. The Arabs are trying to take Jewish positions back and so there is every day fighting and shooting.

Well, I wanted to tell you about our way home. We were told about our journey only 36 hours before the departure and they didn’t tell us where we were going.

Then the day arrived when we stood ready before the gate. First we were driven from Gilgil to Nairobi, the capital, in armoured cars behind wire. In Nairobi, we stayed one night on the airfield and the next morning, we were loaded onto planes.

The airplanes carried us 8 hours to Codycross [?] the capital of Sudan. It was very hot there and we stayed again one night under guard. From this place, we again were carried by airplanes to Tobruk, the British post on the Mediterranean. There we went on a ship, one of those on which the refugees were transported to Cyprus. It was a very bad ship and we were put into cages and heavily guarded by soldiers. [?] days we were at sea and at last we arrived at Tel Aviv our harbour where we were met by a Jewish cruiser.

You cannot imagine how our feelings were when this happened. It was wonderful! So we came home! I stayed a week in Tel Aviv and after that I went to Jerusalem. Well, now I am home and once again a free man with the right to do everything.”

So again, thanks for everything. Write me again quick and I’ll answer promptly.

11.1.49 Jerusalem

Although I received the last letter you sent to me to Kenya after my leaving there, I postponed my answers until today. The last three months I was awfully occupied, not with fighting actually, but with fighting ideologically. I was working for the movement I belong to. … After the declaration of our state, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the national Military organization, headed by Menahem Begin, the big ‘terrorist’ joined the Israeli army because there could not exist any private military forces in a free state and especially no underground movement. So our leader created a new legal party under the auspices of the former Irgun, which is called now “TENUAT HAHERUT”- Freedom Movement. Our chairman is Menahem Begin who is assisted by former member combatants. Our youth is called “BNEI EZEL” Sons of Ezel. You will understand there is much work to be done before the elections of our first parliament….let it be said that in many points we disagree with the policy of our present govt. headed by Mr. Ben Gurion. It is difficult to explain our ideas in a letter as there is strong political (not only military) censorship and I don’t want you to receive this letter cut into pieces. My part in all this political stuff is the propaganda for Bnei Ezel, managing a monthly booklet. The quiet days of our Kenya life have passed forever.”

20.5.49 Tel Aviv

I’m now living in Tel Aviv, our temporary capital. It’s impossible to believe the difference now existing between two so near cities, Jerusalem and T.A. It’s another atmosphere, another life, in short another world. There is life here while in Jerusalem there is no life. It’s like a dead city. On evenings, the streets are almost empty and the centre including the three main streets seems very poor. Only a few hundred metres away there is the old city, still in the hands of the Arab legion, not passable for Jews.

I was in Jerusalem on the first two days of the feast and the city was full of tourists who came to look at the ruined places where fighting was carried out only a short time before. Entering one of the shops, I overheard an amusing talk which shows exactly the big difference of atmosphere between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two people, surrounded by a lot of luggage were in the shop and in German, they asked the man behind the desk to tell them where they could find the bus going to the Wailing Wall (old city).With an astonished look, the shopkeeper answered there is no such bus as the old city and the Wailing Wall is over a year in the hands of our enemy. Well, they said, very surprised, then tell us please how we may visit Rachel’s tomb (about 8 kilometres from Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem, and from the beginning of the fighting in the hands of the Egyptians). The man and I could not suppress our laughter and we told them that this place too was in Arab hands.

With an angry tone, the two people said to us, “Well, don’t laugh at us as we are not from here and could not know things like this before.”

Well, we thought, they must be tourists from overseas, S.A. or America. So we asked them, “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv,” was the answer. Tel Aviv is about 70 miles from Jerusalem.

Some time ago, we had a meeting of all “Kenya boys” in Tel Aviv where we met the chief Rabby Rabinowitz from S. Africa who visited Israel. It was very nice to meet him on another base and in other circumstances than a year ago in Kenya. Most of us were accompanied by girls, wives, etc and we showed them the film taken by us then. Our people … were surprised by the good conditions we had. Some asked, “Why did you have to come back from such a convalescence camp?” Well, we know that not everything that shines is gold….

Thank you very much for your jersey for which I’m waiting for now very eagerly. I hope it will arrive soon. Normally Pesach is a spring feast in Palestine, but today it like Chanuka, the feast of winter. I really need a thing like that very badly in such a strong winter as now. It’s just awful. Just imagine, in April, still snow in Jerusalem!

Meanwhile, the question of Akaba is settled and we’ve got it. But you write that it seems as if

Britain is interfering again. When did it stop from interfering?

Well, dear Honey! This will be enough for the time being.

Shalom and write me soon

Tel Aviv 25.5.49

“Dear Honey!

This week I received your nice present- the long awaited jersey- and I can’t express my joy and pleasure …it suits me very well and the colour is wonderful.

Now I have some news for you concerning myself…I’m engaged to a very good girl and maybe very soon we’ll marry. It depends on a flat which today in Israel especially Tel Aviv, is a very hard problem. Every day after work I and my fiancée are going to search for a place to live in, but I hope that shortly we’ll find something suitable and then we’ll marry on Sukkoth in Jerusalem. I hope that we’ll make some photos and I’ll send you a snap of me and my future wife.

Now concerning something more generally. I’m doing very well in Tel Aviv. It’s a nice place and much place for amusements are here. I like most of all the beach where I sit and bathe most of my free time. With our Kenya friends I meet often for we have organized some club….

Well please forgive me when I don’t answer your letters immediately, but please keep answering me quick please!

Tel Aviv 1.8.49

“Let me give you a short picture of the big and first parade of our army on Dr Herzl’s death day two weeks ago. I’m sure that nobody could imagine such a success and such an army after only a year’s time. Never before has a nation shown such a thing in such a short time. The parade passed the place in one and a half hours and there was every unit and formation a modern army needs: Navy, Air force and even pigeons for post connections. It was really magnificent to see our first army and all of us may be proud of being a citizen of Israel….”

[Then, in response to what I must have written, there follows a long commentary on the different relationships between Jews ‘in exile’ (us) and their gentile neighbours, and the relationships between the state of Israel and other countries. He contends that while the first question is a matter of feelings, the second is a matter of politics and interest. The first one…will explain the appearance of antisemitism… but relations between Israel (an autonomous country) and other countries are based upon the interests of those countries.-upon politics and because of this it may appear that even an antisemite will appear as pro- Israeli because if he votes for the founding of Israel, he will have somewhere to send the hated Jews and so get rid of them…]

Well, that’s enough for today but don’t let anything you disagree with influence or interfere with our correspondence.

Be well and answer quick,

Tel Aviv. 29. 10. 49

“Dear Honey!

At last after a week’s time then I am married I have time to thank you for your cable you sent me and which I received exactly on the wedding day. You will hardly imagine what a big crowd there was on the wedding, but it was wonderful and my wife and I, we were a week in Haifa on Mt. Carmel and we had a nice time. Now we are back in Tel Aviv and normal life began for us….Thank you again in my wife’s name who don’t know English.

After this, the long letters stopped and were replaced by annual Shona Tova cards.

In 1970, Sam and I visited Israel and finally met Menahem and his wife Malka. We met at Menahem’s small restaurant in Jerusalem. We came in and sat down at a table and after a while a woman rushed up and said, “Is it you?” It was indeed us. So we met Malka.


“Dear Honey,

All of us are well. Our son of course is in the army but we see him often and he is well. We had a hard time and it is still not over. The war is still going on in the north.

We are very happy to learn from your letter that we will meet shortly in Jerusalem for a longer time than last time and meet your children too.

Please write soon and tell us more about your program here.

From my crowded diary: "25.6.1974. Met Menahem and walked and talked. Malka ill with cancer. Had lunch at his restaurant, then toured the old city, all 5 of us. Supper at Heppners.

Met Gidon, Menahem’s son. A nice lad. Then we all went to his flat. Malka marvellous . Smiles her lovely smile, but in obvious pain whenever she sat down. Gidon and Menahem did everything for her. Talked till nearly 11, with children talking to Gidon".

"27.6.1974. Ate at Heppners. Met his daughter, Edna and son in-law Hillel, Gidon and girlfriend who left early. Malka looked a bit better. God restore her to health. Lovely people".


“Dear Honey,

This letter should have been written since Rosh Hashana …Malka was always telling me to write….First of all, Malka is feeling much better. She is doing a lot at home…(Page torn) She also spends a few hours a day in our restaurant meeting people and helping me. We all hope that this will continue to go this way and we will have a future again.

Edna and her husband are going to settle down in Jerusalem. … Gidon is going to get married on the 2nd December and also will live in his flat in Jerusalem, of course. We will have the whole family around us. We got greetings from you through your friends who came to our shop.

The economical situation is very difficult and there are lots of problems of all sorts but as long as we are healthy, nothing is going to hurt us… Now both of us are very happy and look on every day as a present of God …

Yours Malka and Menahem”

Jerusalem 7.1.76.

“Dear Honey and Sam

It took a long time to decide if I should send you this letter because it is to be a sad one. Malka is no longer with me and did end her sufferings for good. She passed away into her eternal sleep on the 28th November 1975 just two days after her 49th birthday and on the same day of Edna’s 5th anniversary of her wedding. The last event she enjoyed was Gidon’s wedding and she kept all her strength toward this event. The 2 months after it were very hard on her and the last three weeks she was in hospital and I was beside her until the end which was very quiet and peaceful. Now at last she rests and for me a hard time is beginning but somehow I will have to adjust myself to this new life after 26 happy years, really happy….’

Yours with love,


Thereafter, apart from some Shona Tovah cards, after more than 30 years, the correspondence petered out. I tried to contact Menahem, but to no avail. Friends who visited Israel also could not find him.

As my busy life went on, I no longer thought of him until, clearing out old stuff recently, I found his letters and memories returned.

R.I.P. Menahem, my old pen pal.

As ever,


Recent Articles

Anti-Jewish bigotry at University of Pretoria (UP)

Offensive display of Anti-Jewish bigotry University of Pretoria (UP)

For the past few weeks, the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) at UP have been subjected to a barrage of hostile and discriminatory statements and actions. This culminated today in a sit-in protest aimed to exclude the Jewish Student Representative body from working with the SRC.

SAJBD statement on the passing of the Prevention and Combatting of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill

SAJBD statement on the passing of the Prevention and Combatting of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill in the National Assembly on Tuesday March 14th 2023

Date: 15 March 2023

After over a decade of advocating for hate crimes legislation in our country, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was delighted that the National Assembly passed the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill yesterday on Tuesday March 14th 2023.

SAJBD partner with Alexandra Chamber of Commerce

On Human Rights Day the SAJBD will be partnering with the Alexandra Chamber of Commerce in arranging a Wellness Day for the children of Alexandra.

The day will include measles vaccines, children’s wellness assessments administered by Workforce, hearing assessments conducted by the SA Association of Audiologists and the distribution of reusable sanitary pads by Fingertips of Africa.

Please join us for this special event.