The Enigma of family secrets
By Barbara Sofer
August 28, 2020
April 8, 1944. Second night of Passover. A knock at the door. 72 Donnington Road, Willesden, Northern London, NW2.
Not Elijah, but there is an unnamed Elijah in the story.
Muriel Buchman, 19, opens the door. The visitor looks down at her because she comes up to his chin. He’s Louis Goldman, a soldier stationed in London. American. By good fortune he’s met her father while seeking the Heathfield Park Synagogue. The soldier has been walking for an hour because he’s billeted on Harrow-on-the-Hill. Her father has kindly offered a bracing snack before services, and said his daughter would walk him to synagogue. Afterwards, he’ll be staying for the Seder.
Louis is 32 and balding. Muriel thinks he’ll be right for an older friend. When he asks her out, she assumes he was fulfilling a duty because her family was so hospitable.
Nine months later, Muriel Buchman and Louis Goldman are married at the Heathfield Park Synagogue. The vivacious bride wears a wartime gown made of parachute silk, designed by a John Lewis couturier.
In 53 years of marriage, Goldman never reveals being a member of Alan Turing and Gordon Welchsman’s team that built and perfected the machine called the Bombe that cracked the Nazi Enigma Code.
GOLDMAN, FROM Hartford, Connecticut, was already a mechanical and electrical engineer when he volunteered for the American army. He trained in radar and cryptology and was scheduled to ship out on the SS Normandie, a militarized French luxury liner. A fire, perhaps arson, broke out on the Normandie, and Goldman was sent home to Hartford. A rabbi from pre-state Israel was visiting that Shabbat, and blessed the soldier that he would return healthy and fit from the war, but, he added “not alone.”
The American troops sailed east on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, which had stealthily left British waters, dodging U-boats across the Atlantic. Painted gray and armed, the Queen Elizabeth would carry more than a million soldiers during the war. Goldman and other Jewish GIs slept and prayed in the ship synagogue, which still had a Torah scroll.
In London, General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters were set up in the sub-basement of Selfridge’s Department Store on Oxford Street. The Enigma project was sheltered in Bletchley Park, a country estate in Buckinghamshire. The Americans were to reinforce the British code breakers. Among them were Jews like Goldman and German-speaking young adults from the Kindertransport.
When Muriel asked about his work, Lou was vague. Anyway, he was never garrulous. He hadn’t talked until he was nearly four years old. At five he built a crystal radio.
After the war, a pregnant but feisty Muriel flew a multi-stop journey on a Boeing Clipper and met her American in-laws. Demobilized a month later, Goldman joined her in Hartford. They brought up four children while Goldman worked at Hamilton-Standard and Pratt and Whitney Aeronautics. Officially, he was an engineer in charge of quality control. No one is exactly sure why his initials appear on the moon-landing space suit in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and why astronaut Neil Armstrong came to Hartford to thank him and his team.
In 1969, their children gifted Muriel and Louis for their silver (25th) anniversary with a maiden three-week tour of Israel.
A month after their return, at the family Passover Seder, Louis and Muriel revealed a secret: they were moving to Israel. Goldman already had a job offer from the Air Force. They were departing immediately.
At the airport, Goldman recognized a familiar face. The unnamed rabbi who had long-ago blessed him and predicted he wouldn’t return home alone was there to wish them well.
Strangers came to visit when they were in ulpan in Jerusalem. Could they meet Goldman alone in a café?
He began working in “military industries.” He was officially a tester of metal fatigue.
When Israel fought the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Louis was called up even though he was 60. The country’s recovery from disaster was partly attributed to its newly established computer system.
A year later, Frederick William Winterbotham, a top-ranking officer in M16, broke the oath and published Ultra Secret, revealing Enigma project details. Muriel, who loves history, saw it in a bookshop and gave it to her husband as a birthday present. When he finished reading, he nodded, and said succinctly, “Yes, that’s how it was where I worked.”
In 1986, Louis and Muriel were visiting family in London and got tickets for the West End play Breaking the Code. Louis told Muriel he was impressed at how authentic the setting was.
That’s all he ever said. Those who worked at Bletchley Park pledged silence until death.
Louis Goldman died on March 12, 1998.
TWO YEARS ago, Muriel Buchman Goldman, then 94, was persuaded by daughter Rika Deutsch to tell her World War II story at a Holocaust Day parlor meeting in Alon Shvut, where she lives near Rika’s family. She talked about living through the Blitz, serving as a fire spotter and being married to an intelligence officer.
Subsequently, Deutsch and her siblings in Colorado and Maryland decided to retrieve the missing parts of the story. Letters to the US military, governmental and veteran’s organization received vague responses at best.
So they visited Selfridge’s and Bletchley Park. Since the 2014 movie The Imitation Game, the park with its secret work huts has become a popular tourist site. The guide lingered over his explanation to Muriel of the delicate wiring of cryptography machines, which required great expertise. Rika’s husband, architect Zalman Deutsch, was keen to see the Bletchley mansion. And there they saw it:
Eastcote. 6812 Signals Security Detachment. Bombe operator in American bay.
Commemorated on the Codebreakers Wall
In 1992,when Rika and Zalman’s oldest son David, was getting his beret in an elite IDF unit on Masada, an announcement was made that the ceremony would be delayed because they were waiting for an important person. No, not General Yom Tov Samia, who arrived just before the older man who walked the Snake Path despite having Parkinson’s.
The soldiers saluted this veteran who had helped win World War II.
It was a nice touch, says Savta Muriel, that Sabba Louis got to see his oldest grandson named the outstanding soldier on Masada.
There’s more of the story. Muriel will tell you if she’s not reading one of her seven books each week, completing 500-piece jigsaw puzzles, or writing out birthday cards to her 34 great-grandchildren. She’s a great raconteur, knows all the details – never vague.