LONDON — A couple who met and fell in love on the first El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv recently relived the journey — this time without the emergency landing.
Ralph Gartenberg, who was 24 at the time of the December 1949 flight, had a one-way ticket. “As I got ready to board, I noticed that most of the passengers were middle age or older,” he recalls. “There was only one pretty young woman on the flight.”
Rose Kraemer, 20, spotted the eligible young man as soon as she entered the El Al lounge in London. “I would like to get to know him,” she remembers thinking.
Kraemer was traveling back to Israel after a two-year course in orthoptics, a type of eye care, which had taken her to Leeds. Upon her return, she became the first professional in the field in Israel.
Gartenberg had been summoned to the country by his father — “I had a week’s notice to come assist him in a company he had taken over,” he says.
A planned stopover in Paris provided an opportunity for the two to meet. When Gartenberg went to buy a cup of coffee, he was refused because he didn’t have the local currency. Kraemer tried her luck and failed, too.
In a scene perfect for a Nora Ephron or Woody Allen movie, a gallant, wealthy young Arab man traveling with an entourage offered to pay for her coffee. Delighted, she accepted.
“Can you buy me two?” she asked. “One for my friend.”
Gartenberg, a former sailor in the Royal Navy, admired the spunky young woman. Before they reboarded, he asked a stewardess to seat him next to Kraemer, and found that conversation between them flowed easily.
“Back on board, we both dozed off during the night flight, but woke up around 3 a.m.,” Gartenberg says. “I looked out the window and noticed that one propeller was not turning. Rose said she smelled fuel, which seemed to be trailing off the wing. We asked the stewardess, and she told us the engine system was working, and that the plane [a Skymaster turboprop] could fly . . .Minutes later, the pilot said he was making an emergency landing in Athens.”
The experience, they remember, was eerie and dramatic.
“Ambulances and fire engines waited for us near the runway,” Gartenberg says. “We had to wait for a whole day for El Al to fly in a new engine from Israel. The Athens airport was being renovated, and conditions were awful. It was cold. There was no comfortable place to rest. Ladies had to pass through the men’s urinal to get to the ladies’ toilet. Joking about it helped.”
When the plane took off again, it flew right into a storm. But the excitement heightened the drama of the budding romance.
“I guess I was shocked into falling in love,” says Gartenberg, now 87. “After the landing, I made sure to find out how to keep in touch with Rose.”
“I proposed [in May 1950] in my parent’s house, while we were listening to a symphony. It took her three months to accept. We were married a year and a half after meeting, on her birthday — April 18.”
The couple’s big wedding was a particularly meaningful celebration for both families, which had escaped the Nazis and built homes in the newly reborn Jewish homeland.
Kraemer had warm memories of her early childhood in Czernowitz, in what’s now Ukraine, a German-speaking city known as Little Vienna. Her grandfather, Josef Ohrenstein, was the medical director of the Jewish Hospital in the city, where Jews were a plurality in 1930. Her father, a lawyer, headed the family business, supplying tools and machines to farmers, and worked as an agent for leading German manufacturers. War changed all that.
The Soviet army occupied the city in 1940. Fearful of deportation, Kraemer’s family fled to Romania, where her father purchased a “capitalist visa” for £1,000. “We managed to get on the last legal transportation to Palestine in 1941,” she says.
Kraemer was barely 12 when she arrived in Tel Aviv, with no knowledge of Hebrew. “Either keep up or you will stay behind,” she remembers being told. She kept up.
Gartenberg, meanwhile, spent his teenage years on his own in wartime England.
“My parents lived in Bedburg [in Germany], a small country town in the Rhineland where life was idyllic. In January 1938, I was send to Whittingham College, a well-known Jewish boarding school in Brighton, England, where a cousin of my mother’s taught. I loved every minute of it. I came back to Germany for my bar mitzvah, and for summer vacation. I was back in England when Kristallnacht shattered Jewish dreams in Germany.”
Following the pogrom, Gartenberg‘s father sold his retail haberdashery and drapery store to a competitor, then bought train tickets for his family to Lvov, part of Poland at the time. When Germany invaded, the family fled once again, to Bucharest, Romania, where they remained until they were allowed into Palestine in 1940, also on capitalist visas.
Ralph Gartenberg graduated from boarding school with high grades at the age of 16, and got a job fixing motors at the largest electrical motor repair factory in Birmingham.
“I really wanted to become an opera singer,” he says, “but that was not an option in wartime.”
Determined to become a soldier so he could avenge family members killed by the Nazis, he tried to enlist in the army, but eventually joined the Royal Navy instead, an experience he wrote about in a wry, as yet unpublished account of his life as a Jewish sailor. (He was one of three on his destroyer.)
Despite stormy seas, E-Boat attacks and several anti-Semitic assaults by fellow sailors, “Life on the ocean waves was much more to my liking than the army would have been,” he says.
In 1946, the Royal Navy granted him “compassionate leave” to visit his family in Tel Aviv, eight and a half years after he’d last seen them. He returned to England to complete his service in the navy, then found his first job in the button and accessories industry.
His return to Israel in 1949 was short-lived, with Gartenberg finding it difficult to work with his father after many years of independence. After two years of married life in Israel, he moved back to England with his young wife.
Six decades later, the couple live in Pinner, Middlesex, a suburb to the northwest of London, and both are active in the local golf club. Ralph, who rose to direct the factory where he’d first worked in Birmingham, eventually set up his own successful business; he retired in 1993.
He and his wife have two sons, Rob and Pete, and two grandchildren. On Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, Gartenberg was asked to place a wreath on the local war memorial on behalf of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, part of an interfaith ceremony attended by more than 500 people.
More recently, the Gartenbergs traveled to Israel, where they celebrated the 90th birthday of Rose’s brother.
The pair made a point of flying El Al, a nod to its role as their matchmaker.
After more than 61 years of marriage, they remain nostalgic about their first trip — but this time enjoyed sitting side by side on a non-stop flight, passing over Paris and Athens without concerns about the propellers.