My introduction to Hadassah took place behind barbed wires, surrounded by the
British Army in Palestine. A delegation from Hadassah was visiting Palestine in
1947 and they came to look at the survivors who were ensconced in the Atlit
We were recently released from the Cyprus camp and
brought to Atlit as part of the British project of fooling the world that they
were allowing immigration to the Holy Land. I was one of some 250 North American
volunteers who had served in WWII and then recruited as crewmen for Aliya Bet.
We volunteers actually brought over 50 percent of the survivors to Palestine,
only to be caught and sent to the Cyprus barbed wire-enclosed camps. (Calling
the vessels “ships” is quite an exaggeration, as they were barely
The Royal British Navy was out in force and captured us. Our
ship, the Hatikva, was captured and we were deported to Cyprus together with the
genuine survivors. Over 50,000 persons were actually caught and deported to
Only when the State of Israel was declared did the British allow
the vast majority to come to Palestine. Even at that juncture the British kept
over 10,000 Jews in Cyprus until January l949, claiming that these were all
potential soldiers and they were upholding the embargo (while the Arabs poured
into the country with weapons and manpower).
So here in Atlit, we were
surprised to see a group of nicely dressed women standing outside the barbed
wire. My fellow shipmate shouted out “Shalom” to the women. It turns out that
they were members of Hadassah, including its president, Judith
She noticed someone she knew on our side of the fence and called
out to Harold Katz, “What are you doing behind barbed wire, Harold?” Katz
responded, “Mrs. Epstein, what are you doing on that side?” Upon my return to
the US after my release, I was a novelty and spoke on behalf of UJA and others.
A classmate of mine, Annabelle Bienenfeld, now a Jerusalemite, was active in
Hadassah and she corralled me into speaking to her group.
That was my
introduction to Zionism.
Years later, as executive director of AACI
(Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel), I found myself meeting Rose
Halperin, Charlotte Jacobson and other top Hadassah women. AACI was in need of
money as it was not connected to any group abroad or political group in
The women of Hadassah were ready to go to bat for us at the
Jewish Agency and so we received a small budget. As we became friendlier,
Hadassah and AACI partnered in forming a mortgage fund for new
Quite a number of North Americans fell in the War of
Independence. The first one, Bill Bernstein – a graduate of King’s Point
Maritime Academy, was actually killed by the British attack on the illegal ship
Exodus. I mentioned to the Hadassah women the need for a memorial plaque forest
in the names of the victims. They immediately responded and funds were provided
for a memorial in the Jerusalem Forest.
There, an annual memorial takes
place, with many names of North American victims of war and terror, the number
having been unfortunately added to since the initial
Through all the years of Israel’s existence, Hadassah has
been walking step for step in helping to build the country and recognize its
The writer is an American-born Israeli author and
publisher. He was a founding member of AACI and the founder of Gefen Publishing.