x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

Biba fashion empire founder learns murder of father was a 'terrible mistake'

Recent revelation by one of the killers' sons is fresh trauma for Barbara Hulanicki, whose father, a Polish consul in Jerusalem, was murdered by Zionist militants in 1948.

Barbara Hulanicki visits her father's grave in Jerusalem cemetery last month - her first visit to the city since he was killed.
Barbara Hulanicki visits her father's grave in Jerusalem cemetery last month - her first visit to the city since he was killed.

The founder of a British fashion empire has told of her pain returning to Jerusalem to learn her father was accidentally murdered by Zionist militants more than 60 years ago.

Barbara Hulanicki was just 12 when she watched four members of the Lehi organisation, also known as the Stern Gang, abducting her father from the family home in Jerusalem. Two days later, he was found with his hands tied and a bullet through his head.

Last month, Ms Hulanicki, who founded the Biba fashion empire during the "swinging sixties" in London, returned to Jerusalem for the first time since her father - the Polish consul Witold Hulanicki, a former Olympic athlete was killed.

At the time, there were various claims Mr Hulanicki, whose body was found alongside Polish journalist Stefan Arnold, had been killed because he was either a spy for the British, the mandated authority in what was then Palestine, or because he was "too friendly with Arabs".

But Yair Stern, the son of Lehi founder Avraham Stern who was killed by the British in 1942, told a seminar last month in Jerusalem to commemorate Mr Hulanicki's life that his killing had been a "terrible mistake".

His daughter, who was able to visit her father's grave for the first time during the trip, has now told the BBC in an radio interview that the disclosure was "very painful ... terrible". She said the mistake was inexplicable as her father had been a friend of Avraham Stern.

Recounting the events of February 12, 1948, she said: "My mother and father adored each other. Then, early one morning, there was a huge banging on the door and my father went and opened it and four men came through.

"They stood in the hallway and I could hear my mother getting panicky. They escorted him out of the house. I didn't know what was going on.

"I heard my mother say: 'He's left his reading glasses - he must have those.' And one of the men turned round to her and said: 'He won't be needing those.'"

Two days later, his body was found. "My mother crumpled," said Ms Hulanicki, who is now 75 but still active as a fashion designer. "We - my mother, my two sisters and me - left for London and never went back. Not until last month."

At the seminar, organised by the Polish embassy and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, a woman approached Ms Hulanicki and her son, named Witold after his the grandfather, and said she had "met the man who put the bullet through your father's head, but I was sworn never to tell who he is".

Ms Hulanicki said: "I told her I wanted to know who he is. But she said: 'No. He's dead.' I just said: 'Good.'"

Of the speech by Yair Stern, she added: "A very important part of his speech was when he said it was all a mistake. I mean, this was very painful. It was terrible. Luckily, I had my son with me to support me.

"But it helped a lot to visit [my father's] grave, and they're going to try and get a street named after him, which is really nice, isn't it?"

Researchers at the Hebrew University have recently said Mr Hulanicki was a victim of Cold War manipulation by Russia. At the time, Mr Hulanicki was a critic of the Russian occupation of Poland after the Second World War.

One of the researchers, Gideon Remez, explained: "Our conclusion is that what happened here was a classic case in which the Soviets either manipulated Lehi into doing their dirty work, possibly by planting evidence, or Lehi was acting to curry favour with the Soviets."

dsapsted@thenational.ae