LONDON — At the junction of Jerusalem’s Bruria Street and Ben Gamla, sits Yolande Harmor Square. There stands a memorial plaque, stating, “From 1945, Yolande Harmor undertook activities in Egypt for the Political Department of the Jewish Agency which she performed with great courage and initiative.” But precisely who Yolande Harmor was, and what activities she undertook, remain relatively unknown.
During the 1940s, Yolande Gabbai de Botton — also known as Yolande Harmor —
provided intelligence to the political and military leaders of mandate-era Palestine, often at great personal risk. Now, several decades later, the nature and impact of her extraordinary clandestine life are revealed in a riveting, evocative and sensitive documentary film, “Yolande: An unsung heroine.”
Written and directed by veteran, independent Israeli filmmaker, Dan Wolman, the film received its UK premiere this month during SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival. The film uses a combination of remarkable footage, photographs and interviews with Harmor’s colleagues including key players in the Haganah — some of which had been conducted for an earlier version of the film made by her son, Gilbert de Botton.
“We hadn’t known what she’d done,” says Miel de Botton, Harmor’s granddaughter and the film’s producer. “[All] we knew was that — under the cover of a journalist — she basically helped to form the State of Israel. We weren’t given any details.”
Born in Alexandria in 1913, Harmor was educated in St Germain-en-Laye in France. At 17, she returned to Egypt to marry businessman Jacques de Botton but divorced him when their only son, Gilbert, was three or four years old.
Gilbert, founder of the financial firm Global Asset Management, and father to Miel and philosopher and writer, Alain de Botton, rarely spoke to his children about his mother, or his own past.
But his contribution in the film is perhaps the most affecting of all the interviewees. Having spent his early years with his grandparents in Alexandria, he barely knew his mother until he went to Jerusalem with her in 1942, in the wake of Rommel’s advance. He describes life with a single parent, a woman who was often absent because of the demands of her espionage work, and admits to having felt fear and concern that something would happen to her.
Yet he never criticized her for her actions, says his daughter. He only ever referred to her in idealized terms.
After Gilbert’s death in 2000, the family discovered trunks of diaries and photographs — information that had, until then, remained a secret.
Glamorous, charming and intelligent,Harmor first became drawn to Zionism in the early 1940s when she attended a lecture in Cairo given by Italian Zionist Enzo Sereni. He subsequently introduced her to Yishuv activists such as Moshe Sharett and Elias Sasson.
By 1945, she was recruited as an Israeli secret agent. Her cover as a journalist, writing articles about important Egyptian politicians, gave her easy access and acceptance into the upper echelons of Egyptian society, which included establishing a strong connection with the Egyptian royal court.
According to Ora Schweitzer, her assistant at the Jewish Telegraphic Society in Cairo, Harmor was unique. Not only was she very bright, she knew how to hide her intelligence by playing the dumb blonde. But although men may have fallen for her charms but the oft-used comparison with double agent and exotic dancer, Mata Hari, is an inaccurate one.
“My father hated that label,” explains Miel. “My grandmother was a sophisticated person and not a double agent. She had good relations with both sides,” she says.
The film evokes the exoticism and excitement of 1940s Cairo. It was a bewitching time and place. One Haganah activist describes the terrace of the Hotel Grand Continental where the representatives and agents of the intelligence and underground movements would each watch the other.
In 1945, Harmor was operating a network of agents that included members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Teddy Kollek, who at the time was Head of Intelligence at the Jewish Agency, emphasized that the dangers of her work were not to be minimized.
The papers had been sewn into her shoulder pads
Following World War II, head of the Haganah David Ben-Gurion visited her in Cairo — Gilbert recalls picking him up at the airport with her — and in January 1948 she flew to Lydda in Palestine to pass him secret plans by Syria and Egypt to invade the newly established State. The papers had been sewn into her shoulder pads.
After this, it was felt that Harmor should not return to Cairo as it was deemed too dangerous. But she disagreed: her mother and son were still in Egypt.
She returned, but in 1948, she was outed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outraged that an Israeli spy was permitted to move freely. She was arrested and put in jail, where she became very unwell – it later transpired that she had stomach cancer.
She was released after a few months and in September 1948 she and Gilbert moved to Paris where she was active in the Israeli delegation to the UN. But it was here that she fell gravely ill and spent five months in a clinic. Having made some semblance of a recovery, she insisted on returning to Cairo where she continued to be engaged in espionage work.
According to Gilbert, by 1951 it was clear that Harmor’s role in Egypt had come to an end. She and Gilbert moved to Israel, into a small apartment in Jerusalem. Yet, she was not nostalgic for the life she could have had in Egypt or Paris, he said, “She was not that type of person.”
‘She was dovish and her best days were obviously over’
But once in Jerusalem it became obvious that she had become marginal and was placed to work in an inconsequential desk job within Protocol, in the Foreign Office.
A combination of her illness and a prevailing shift of opinion in Israel meant that there was no longer sympathy or need for the old world that she had represented.
“She was dovish and her best days were obviously over,” says Gilbert in the film.
She was European educated and “elegant in a country where elegance was a sign of decadence. She was refined and gentle in a place where people were hard and pioneers,” describes diplomat Dan Avni Segre.
The last time Gilbert saw his mother was in 1954, prior to his leaving for university in the US. She died in 1959 — 10 years before Miel was born — and she is buried in the Givat Shaul Cemetery in Jerusalem, in a special section allocated to the Israel Foreign Ministry.
‘My father never actually showed me where she’s buried. He didn’t want to’
“My father never actually showed me where she’s buried. He didn’t want to,” explains Miel. His childhood had obviously left its scars, she says but it was important to him that he dedicate both the square in Jerusalem, as well as a patio in the cemetery in her memory.
Yolande’s suffered two great sadnesses: She felt she had been sidelined and forgotten by her former leaders, and the loss of the love of her life, her second husband, an airman called Harmor, whose name she preferred to be known by.
Although the film was initially released in 2010, it has recently been rescreened at Cinemateques in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as part of Wolman’s retrospective. Audiences have expressed amazement that her story is not more widely known, he says.
“I’m unsure why that is,” says Miel, “but at least now she is receiving her due recognition.”