LILIESLEAF 50th: THE ESCAPE - The Great Escape from Marshall Square - 11 August 1963

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The 50th anniversary of the "Great Escape" from Marshall Square

This Sunday marked the 50th Anniversary of the “Great Escape” from Marshall Square, one of the most successful jailbreaks in South African history.  Four comrades: Arthur Goldreich, Abdulhay Jassat, Mosie Moolla and Harold Wolpe broke out of Johannesburg’s Marshall Square police station. 

A compelling story that gave encouragement and provided a much needed moral boost to a liberation movement that had just suffered a crippling and severe blow following the raid on Liliesleaf.

On the morning of 11 August 1963 at about 2am, four men found themselves unwillingly compelled to part ways. Having just escaped from Marshall Square police station in central Johannesburg they were aware that it was just a matter of time before a massive manhunt for them would be launched.

Segregated according to their racial classification, the men started to communicate when sympathetic warders looked the other way. A plan for an escape was hatched. At first the detainees tried to saw through the prison bars using 20 hacksaw blades concealed in food brought by Ann Marie Wolpe but this proved to be ineffective and the plan was discarded.

One day Johannes Greeff, a friendly and naïve 18-year-old police warden was assigned to the front desk. Slowly and deliberately the detainees cultivated a friendship with Greeff.

Greef was progressively bribed with shoes for small favors, followed by a suit when he faced an assault charge and repairs to his car after he had an accident.

When an aunt of Wolpe passed away he was allowed to go to the funeral with a security police escort. It was here that Harold was informed money had been made available to bribe Greeff.  One evening Moola and Jassat invited Greeff into Moola’s cell and asked Greeff to take the oath of secrecy and got him to agree to a bribe of 2,000 pounds to assist them escape.

Despite the real possibility of Greeff betraying them and the apprehension that the detainees felt about placing their fate in a policeman’s hand, they immediately began to put the plan into action. The escape was planned for a Friday night, with the plan for Greef to be hit over the head and lose his keys to disguise his involvement, but it was delayed several times.

Finally on the night of the escape, at the appointed time, the detainees anxiously watched midnight pass without any sighting of Greeff. With a mounting sense of desperation and alarm the detainees could do nothing but wait. At 2am Greeff informed the detainees that a trio of drunks who had been brought into the charge office which had delayed him. He then let the detainees out of the gates of the exercise yard into the car park.

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Nicholas Wolpe is the CEO of Liliesleaf and a driving force behind the restoration and current status of this iconic historical landmark in the liberation struggle.  His father was Harold Wolpe, a lawyer, sociologist and dedicated anti-apartheid activist who escaped from prison in 1963 and spent the next 28 years in exile.  Nicholas Wolpe met many of the icons of South African history and particularly of the liberation struggle.  He is an enthusiastic researcher and the writer of this blog, commemorating three extraordinary 50 year anniversaries.

Liliesleaf, a national heritage site, commemorates a strategic and seminal point in South Africa’s liberation struggle history and is a beacon on the global landscape of human memory. The many fascinating stories and events that helped shape our democratic nation are brought to life through dynamic and interactive exhibits that takes the visitor on an inspiring journey of discovery.

Liliesleaf will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial on 26 November 2013.