Personalizing history

Personalizing history

December 18, 2009 09:00
atlit camp 248.88

atlit camp 248.88. (photo credit: Alex Levac )


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'Instead of taking part in the war effort against the Nazis by using the Patria ship as a troop carrier, the British thought it more important to deport about 1,800 Jewish refugees aboard the ship," reflects Dan Shefy, who as a 14-year-old survived the Patria disaster. He was interviewed on November 25, precisely 69 years since the disaster, the week a memorial ceremony was held at the Atlit detention camp site south of Haifa. Shefy left Vienna together with his parents in December 1939. "The gentiles persuaded my parents to leave Austria to escape Hitler," he tells. "We arrived in Bratislava, but the frozen waters of the Danube prevented us from sailing on to the Land of Israel. Finally, in September 1940, we sailed from Tulcea, a Romanian port city, aboard the Pacific." His and two other ships, the Atlantic and the Milos, were intercepted by British forces before entering Haifa port. "A couple of policemen came aboard," recalls Shefy. "A few days later they transferred us by boat to the Patria without explanations. We learned from some Jews that we were being deported to Mauritius." The passengers of the Pacific and Milos, and some from the Atlantic were taken to the Patria. "Conditions aboard the Patria were not that bad. It was crowded, but we didn't suffer. We slept on beds with three levels," he says. Zionist groups in Palestine opposed the deportation. The Hagana planned to foil the plan by planting an explosive which would cause some damage to the ship, preventing its departure. But the force of the explosion, detonated on the morning of November 25, 1940, was miscalculated. Within 15 minutes, the 12,000-ton liner plunged to the bottom of Haifa Bay, killing over 260 people and injuring 172. "I heard the explosion and immediately the boat tilted to the right side," Shefy says. "I tried reaching the deck. All the passageways were blocked with many people trying to reach the deck. My father was sitting on the deck when he heard the explosion. He was about to descend to locate me, but he couldn't because of the crowd. I managed to climb onto the deck." Shefy's mother also survived. Jewish rescue forces came to help. "We descended in boats to a storehouse in the port. Families reunited and many waited long hours until information came in about the fatalities," he recalls. "Only at night we learned who wasn't rescued. The scenes were heartbreaking." At night, the British took the survivors to a detention camp for illegal Jewish immigrants in Atlit, south of Haifa. They were later released and permitted to remain in Israel. "TODAY, THE personal story in the historical narrative is important. The story of the illegal immigrant as representing the period has gained importance," explains Neomi Izhar, director of Bin'tivei Ha'apala, a database on the illegal immigrants and information center which is based at the Atlit site. Founded in 2001, the database has over 19,000 personal cards of ma'apilim (illegal immigrants) and activists involved in the ha'apala, the period of illegal immigration prior to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. "In 1948, a fifth of the Yishuv's population were ma'apilim," says Izhar. "The purpose of the database is to document, preserve and commemorate the ha'apala enterprise. Now is the last chance to gather information and material." It is estimated that 130,000 Jews were ma'apilim. Over 140 overcrowded ships with Jews made their way from European ports to Israel. In the early 1930s, the British issued the White Paper imposing strict immigration quotas on Jews, and terming immigration which exceeded that quota illegal. The Aliya Bet - or ha'apala, as the clandestine immigration was called - occurred in two phases: From 1934 to 1942 it attempted to enable European Jews to escape Nazi persecution; then, from 1945 to 1948, it focused on bringing Holocaust survivors to Israel. "The enterprise was quite extensive," explains Izhar, adding that it encompassed all of the borders of pre-state Palestine. "The ma'apilim arrived along the coast from Gaza to Rosh Hanikra. Detention camps were located in Sarafand (Tzrifin), Atlit, the Shemen Coast and Mizra." Atlit, constructed in 1938 as a military camp, went through multiple transformations thereafter. From 1938 until the State of Israel was founded, it functioned as a detention camp, with over 40,000 Jews passing through it its gates. After 1948, it served as an absorption camp for waves of mass aliya. In the wars of 1956 and 1967, thousands of POWs from Arab armies were held there. In the 1970s it was dismantled, and in 1987, after being reconstructed by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, it was declared a national site by the president. "Among the visitors are students of all ages, soldiers, youth from abroad and pensioners," says Zehavit Rotenberg, the site's director. "Many of the visitors connect to the episodes that are related here. The database is an important part of the site." "We recently had a young man who told us about his father who came with his brother in September or October, 1945, on one of three illegal boats," relates Izhar. "We couldn't find such boats in those months, but then we extended the time slot to November, and indeed we found in the database two boys who came with their grandmother." The database is an educational tool for students, soldiers and family members. Izhar explains: "Until now mainly ha'apala activists were documented - those involved with acquisitions, the ships and commanders. But now is the time for the personal narrative representing an era. "After 60 years, the facts aren't the issue, but rather the spirit of the era, the social history, the personal significance of those choosing to come to Eretz Israel as ma'apilim," she says. Currently, the database is only available at Atlit, and is not online. Izhar and her staff have access to other archival material from sites like Yad Vashem, the Lohamei Hagetaot Museum, Beit Jabotinsky, the Ha'apala Museum in Haifa and more. "All of these places deal with the Jewish world in its final hour, before the destruction," Izhar says. "We all deal with commemoration and with turning the actions of people into an educational device, thus passing on the story of the Holocaust and revival of the Jewish people." In order to build up the database, each former ma'apil (illegal immigrant) is requested to complete an extensive questionnaire which includes personal details, a description of their preparation for the ha'apala, details of the ship, the detention camp, milestones during detention (marriage or birth) and what the ma'apilim did after the State of Israel was founded. Documents, photographs, newspaper clippings, memoirs and items of interest are also appreciated. "It is especially important to have records of <>ma'apilim who have passed away," notes Izhar. Ha'apala activists from the many movements involved are requested to fill out a different questionnaire. The database, housed in a barrack, is an important part of the tour, which also includes visiting an original barrack used at the time as a men's living quarters, and which now displays authentic items. Visitors are also shown a large barrack where the Jews were sprayed with DDT and disinfected in showers - a traumatic experience for Holocaust survivors - as well as watchtowers, which were constructed around the original ones. The long promenade which served as the meeting place of men and women - who lived in separate sections of the camp - can also been seen. Elsewhere at the center, visitors can watch a movie about the break-in to the camp in October 1945, led by Palmah commander Nahum Sarig and his deputy Yitzhak Rabin, in which 208 ma'apilim were released. The operation demonstrated resistance by the Yishuv in its struggle for the right to immigrate, especially after the end of World War II. "Plans for the future include dedicating a ship to become a visitors center," says Rotenberg. "Beyond preserving the site, the story behind it is important. We hope to increase the collection of testimonies and items about the era." A woman whose parents were on the Exodus recently gave the Atlit center knitting needles which her father made for her mother from the barbed wire with which the British surrounded the deck of the ship in Haifa to prevent escape. The plight of the Exodus in 1947 became the symbol of the cruelty of the British policy. The ship sailed from the port of Sete, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947, with over 4,500 immigrants, including more than 600 children. British destroyers trailed the ship and finally boarded it as it approached Haifa. A struggle ensued trying to prevent the British from overtaking the ship. Itzhak Pressburger of Jerusalem, in Hungary during the Holocaust, was 13 years old at the time. After two and a half years in Germany following the war, he boarded the ship in France with his two sisters, one a twin. "We traveled for a week and reached Haifa. I was with the other children down below. It was like a cage. We were aware of the men fighting the British above on the deck," he recalls. "When I went up with the other Hungarians, we saw Haifa from far. We were told by others that we're not going to enter, but be sent to Cyprus." Disembarking from the Exodus, Pressburger boarded the Ocean Vigour, one of three deportation ships. "We then realized that instead of going northwest towards Cyprus, the ship was headed west towards France," he says. Arriving at Port-de-Bouc on August 2, the would-be-immigrants remained in the ship for almost a month during a heatwave. They refused to disembark despite the shortage of food, crowding and abominable sanitary conditions. The French government did not cooperate with the British and did not force passengers off the boat. Members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) toured the ship in Haifa Bay after the battle, and journalists who witnessed the dramatic struggle penned what they saw. The coverage made the world realize the determination of the Jews and their need for a homeland, and swung public opinion against British policy. Reflecting on the difficult conditions of the voyage, Pressburger says: "We went through such difficult situations and constant fear during the Holocaust, fear of whether we'd be alive the next day, that the Exodus experience seemed more like an adventure to me as a child." But the ordeal still continued for Pressburger. Of all places to send the Jews, the Exodus was rerouted by the British to Hamburg, Germany. "We were then taken by a train with barred windows to a camp. Germans were laughing along the way. It was traumatic." He recalls the excitement surrounding the live broadcast of the crucial November 29, 1947 UN vote for the partition of Palestine. "We were in the camp listening from two transistors. There was a cry of joy from the camp." Pressburger came to the country a month before the State of Israel's independence in May 1948. He was among the crowds on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where independence was declared. "This was the first time I saw, as a young boy, Jewish soldiers in uniform with ammunition. It was for me as if I was in the times of the Messiah!" The ha'apala also extended along land crossings with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, with one example being the Teheran Children. The Teheran Children, 800 Polish Jewish kids who managed to escape Nazi Poland in 1942, found temporary refuge in orphanages in the Soviet Union. From there they were evacuated to Teheran, Iran. As a result of negotiations between the Jewish Agency and the British administration, the children eventually received certificates permitting their immigration to Israel. They traveled through India and were taken by a British warship from India to Port Fuad, in the Suez Canal. They were then transferred in trucks to Kantara, and from there by train to Atlit on February 18, 1943. The Teheran Children were the first survivors to arrive following the outbreak of World War II. They remained at Atlit for about two weeks to recuperate from their arduous journey and to undergo medical examinations. There officials learned the identity of each child and determined their future placement. In 1946, when Atlit became too crowded, the ma'apilim were sent to Cyprus. It was there that Moshe Malkiel of Jerusalem married his wife, Chana. A survivor of Auschwitz and other camps, the 17-year-old Malkiel embarked on the illegal immigrant ship, Knesset Israel, which left in the autumn of 1946. "We passed through hidden ports where the ship would stock up on water and food," he tells. "As we neared Haifa, the British discovered us. After the concentration camps, this wasn't so scary. We fought them by throwing cans. They finally deported us to Cyprus on four ships. In Cyprus there were schools. I was the secretary of the court." Chana and Moshe tied the knot in Cyprus due to her parents' encouragement. "Chana knew English and translated between the Hebrew-speaking officials and the British officers. She had a tough time translating mikve as a 'ritual bath.' Eventually a kosher mikve was built on Cyprus." A mikve was also built at Atlit for the waves of immigrants going through its gates. It is in the large barrack of the disinfection showers. Another ship which reached Cyprus was the Rafiah. In November 1946, it carried 800 Holocaust survivors from Romania. It sought shelter during stormy weather near the rocky Syrna island, close to Greece. While maneuvering its way in the deep-water harbor, the vessel was swept to the rocks and quickly sank. Most of the people survived, but among the eight bodies were children. The British sent a rescue ship, the HMS Chevron, which usually hunted illegal immigrant ships. They rescued the survivors, and transported them eastward - to Cyprus. "We felt cheated when this happened. We were supposed to reach Eretz Israel," says Rafi Tadmor of Kibbutz Daliya, who was 12 at the time. He was part of a group of Aliyat Hanoar children - children who chose to immigrate together. "We fought disembarking in Cyprus, but the British used gas bombs so we had to get off there," he continues. "I was in Cyprus for nearly two months. The news of this ship's plight made a scandal around the world, including in Britain. The British were accused of finishing off what Hitler started. At this point they allowed us to go to Eretz Israel." Tadmor now lectures at Atlit to visitors from abroad and in schools about the ha'apala. Atlit Detention Camp site is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. On Fridays and holiday eves, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Telephone: (04) 984-1980. Call in advance to reserve tour. Bin'tivei Ha'apala Illegal immigrant database: (04) 954-2218. To request a form by email, contact:

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