Paul Kaye’s career of clandestine service in the Israeli military began in 1947, when he received a mysterious phone call while he was working at a record store in the Bronx.
An unidentified male voice asked him, “Are you ready to help your people?”
“If you want to help your people, be on the corner of 39th Street and Lexington Avenue at four o’clock. A man in a black leather jacket will walk by. If he puts a newspaper under his arm, follow him. If he puts it in the wastebasket, leave quickly. You are being followed.’”
Believing someone was playing a practical joke on him, the U.S. Navy veteran checked with his friends, but all of them denied having made the call. “They thought I was nuts,” he told NJ Jewish News in a March 27 phone interview.
Nevertheless, the young adventurer decided to follow instructions that seemed to come out of a spy novel.
“I stood out on the corner and, sure enough, a guy with a black leather jacket walked by. I followed him around the corner into what today is the B’nai Zion Building,” the headquarters of the Zionist aid organization. “I remember looking up on the wall and a prominent sign that read ‘Palestinian Students Lounge.’
“A man shook my hand and said, ‘We know you’re a marine engineer. We need people to sail small boats between Cyprus and Palestine. If the British catch you, they will hang you. Will you do it?’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’”
It was the start of a lifelong commitment for Kaye, which included transporting Jewish refugees to Palestine, working underground in post-World War II Europe, a stint in the Israeli Navy, and hunting Nazis.
Kaye will be guest speaker Friday, April 20 at Adath Shalom, the Conservative synagogue in Morris Plains, as it celebrates 64 years of Israeli independence.
Having grown up as an Orthodox Jew in the Bronx whose family “always dreamed of a homeland,” Kaye said he did not hesitate when the Israeli agent handed him a train ticket to Baltimore. There, Kaye boarded a renovated Coast Guard cutter called the Trade Winds. “It looked like it couldn’t cross the bay, never mind the Atlantic,” he said.
Docked nearby was another ship once called the President Warfield and renamed the Exodus when it was enlisted in Israel’s battle against British efforts to keep Jewish refugees out of mandatory Palestine.
The two ships sailed together to the Azores. When British officials denied them permission to refuel, Kaye said he muttered “oy vey” to a fellow crewman. A dockworker who understood Yiddish proceeded to load the Trade Winds with fuel, enabling it to set out across the ocean with 29 American crewmen aboard.
They sailed to Italy, where they picked up 1,500 European Jews who had been living in displaced persons camps after surviving the Holocaust.
“They wanted to go to Palestine. But the British blockaded us at sea and took us to Cyprus on a prison ship,” he said.
Kaye was transferred from there to Haifa, where he was incarcerated for two months in the Atlit detention camp. “But I escaped under the fence one night. I listened for someone whistling ‘Hatikva,’ who ducked me into a taxi and drove me to Haifa,” he said.
‘I can’t swim’
The Haganah — an underground paramilitary organization that was the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces — provided Kaye with a new identity and smuggled him to Marseilles. He worked with the Israeli underground there, then returned to the United States to procure more ships bound for Israel.
Back in the States, Kaye became the engineer aboard the S.S. Director, an old Hudson River Day Liner, which, after being renamed the S.S. Galila, transported 1,500 refugees from Marseilles to Haifa.
“After I arrived,” said Kaye, “one of my good buddies said, ‘Why don’t you join the Israeli navy?’” The ever-eager seaman said, “Let’s go.”
After being driven to the ancient Roman-era seaport of Caesarea, Kaye asked where the ships were.
A commander told him, “‘We don’t have ships, Paul. You’re now a member of the underwater demolition unit. You’re a Navy Seal.’”
Kaye protested. “I told him, ‘I can’t swim.’ He laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry. We don’t swim on top of the water. We swim on the bottom.’”
Kaye told NJJN that he learned to scuba dive and build bombs, then, halting his story abruptly, he said, “I can’t talk about that.”
After the War of Independence he returned to the United States. Rather than pursue the engineering degree he desired at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he enrolled, at the Israeli Navy’s insistence, at Wingate University in North Carolina, where he studied physical education.
Then he became a Nazi-hunter. But, he said, “I’d rather drop that whole subject.”
As he approaches his 85th birthday in June, Kaye lives a far more quiet life with his wife, Susan, and commutes to a sales job in Manhattan from their home in Bayside, Queens. He is the former president of American Veterans of Israel.
He and his wife have five children and 10 grandchildren and are active members of two synagogues, Temple Hillel of North Woodmere and South Huntington Jewish Center.
When he speaks at Adath Shalom, Kaye said, his message to the congregation will be a simple one.
“I want people to know that if you are called upon, step up and help your people. That’s important.”