Blowing the shofar at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was Yom Kippur 1947. I had recently been released from the detention camp in Cyprus, traveling to Atlit and then freedom to Palestine. I and my shipmate Harold Katz were told to be careful as the British were always looking to catch illegals. To the British all the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust trying to come to Palestine were “illegal.”
We wanted to see Jerusalem, so with our false papers (according to which we were students at Haifa’s Technion) we rode there. Our contact would be Sara Assaf, the daughter of a very prominent rabbi and Supreme Court judge. We received a warm welcome, food and a place to sleep. We awoke on Yom Kippur morning and decided to walk around Jerusalem. After the month in Cyprus behind barbed wire (and having been involved in making a bomb intended to sink the Empire Lifeguard in retaliation for the deportation of the survivors of the Exodus to Europe – more on this below) it seemed just the thing. Harold and I decided to walk to the Western Wall, and by the time we got there, what with all the sightseeing on the way it was time for the “Neila” service. It was crowded – in fact one could not budge.
The singing was loud and clear. Surrounding us were a large number of soldiers. I was sure they were there to protect us.
The singing became stronger and suddenly the word “tekia” was heard, followed by a great blast of the shofar (little did I know it was illegal to blow the shofar, as it disturbed the Muslim residents). The soldiers jumped into the crowd of Jews, looking for the shofar and the shofar blower. They grabbed me. Yes, me, a young man who could not even blow a bugle in the Junior Jewish Veterans of Far Rockaway.
My companion, Harold, was shorter than me but could be belligerent (possibly due to growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and then becoming a US Navy officer) – however neither he nor anything else could save me.
The soldiers took me to a prison outside the Old City walls.
I had earlier been a volunteer sailor on a vessel that was built before WWI. We were some 40 men, all volunteers involved in the rescue of Holocaust survivors. We were to bring them to Palestine. We were caught.
Can you imagine? Months in Cyprus, and now in prison in Palestine. I was hungry, frightened, confused as to what would come next. Of course if I slept it was on the boards called a “seat” or “bed.” It was a sleepless night.
I could only think of all the reasons I would be put on trial. We had alibis as student of the Technion, but knowing who I really was and what we had done I could not get any rest. While it didn’t sink, the Empire Lifeguard had been damaged by the bomb I’d helped prepare.
Our vessel (hardly a ship) manned by American volunteers had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, secretly loaded Holocaust survivors from a beachhead in Italy, crossed the Mediterranean – only to be stopped by the Royal British Navy. We were all interned in Cyprus, a sandy, barren area where we lived in tents and slept on the ground. Believe it or not the Palestine boys of the Palmach (only Jews called themselves Palestinians at that time), who served in the British-led Palestine Brigade in WWII, were leaders in whatever we volunteer American shipmates did. One of our tasks was to prepare a bomb.
A large part of the job was preparing the gelignite explosive for smuggling onto the British prison ship.
First, the gelignite had to be combined with an oily substance and kneaded. Then it had to be concealed for carrying aboard the ship. The volunteers tried hiding it in bars of soap, but this was unsatisfactory. The soap showed the marks of tampering where plugs had been cut from the bar. Shaving cream tubes provided the answer. The shaving cream could be removed and the gelignite inserted, followed by a small portion of shaving cream to conceal the insertion. The explosives were attached inside the hull in Cyprus and would hole the ship later off the Haifa coast.
Harold, I found out later, ran like crazy to Sara and to her father and the Hagana after I was taken by the British at the Wall. After awakening in prison worried and hungry around noon, a basket of fruit arrived. I ate and was happy they knew where I was. The Hagana knew what to do. A lawyer was hired and after a frightening 24 hours I was released on bail.
I was the last Jew to be imprisoned for not blowing a shofar on Yom Kippur at the Western Wall.
The Haaretz newspaper even had a notice in the following day’s paper about it, and my name is there.The writer is the author of The Jews’ Secret Fleet: The Untold Story of North American Volunteers who Smashed the British Blockade