(photo credit: Shira Teger)
There's a weird phenomenon among tourists worldwide: they love to flock to the places that other people sought to escape. Famous examples include Alcatraz Island and Devil's Island.
Locally, Israelis are no different. While Jerusalem offers the Underground Prisoners Museum, the northern coastal city of Atlit features the Ma'apilim Detention Camp, about 20 km. south of Haifa.
The Atlit camp was built by the British in 1938 as a military camp, and in 1939 they began using it to hold illegal immigrants (ma'apilim); it operated in this capacity until 1948. Thousands of detainees passed through the camp and its barracks as they tried to escape persecution in Europe and make their way to the Holy Land.
The detention camp was a particularly harrowing place for Holocaust survivors, as it was surrounded with barbed wire; men and women were separated from each other and, upon arrival, each person was required to shower and disinfect. Still, despite the circumstances and the traumatic memories that Atlit conjured up, the site is represented as one of hope. Most illegal immigrants were released after a few months, and "outsiders" were allowed in to help the new arrivals. For many, this was the first step towards becoming Israeli.
Today, visitors to the camp can walk through the grounds, the remaining barracks (most no longer stand) and the disinfection room. Plus, they can explore a model of the boats the ma'apilim sailed in and can peruse archives and testimonials. A tour usually takes from an hour to an hour and a half, and English materials and signs are present throughout. An audio-visual show tells a famous story about a heroic breakout at Atlit.
After the British left Israel, Atlit served as an absorption camp for new immigrants. The camp at Atlit was abandoned in the 1970s, but reopened in the late '80s as an Israeli heritage site. It serves as a testimony to the struggle people undertook to establish the State of Israel, and it offers educational opportunities, too.
If you're in the area exploring Atlit, another tourist attraction nearby might be worth a stop. After a winding drive up through the green Carmel Mountain, you will find yourself at Beit Oren and Havayat Harochvim. The "Riders' Experience," as it is called, features horseback riding for individuals and groups, a rustic-themed kosher meat restaurant and a large spice store. The spot also organizes jeep trips and has a tent for kicking back.
The spice store (called Carmel Shel Bosem Vetavlin) features all kinds of teas, herbs, oils and dried fruit - as well as an eye-pleasing array of colors and a nose-pleasing array of scents.
The restaurant, called Cat Ballou, is decked out with Wild West-type dÃ©cor. There are horseshoes, cowboy hats and a lot of wood. The grilled meats are great, including chorizos, spring chicken, entrecote steak and a lovely butcher's cut. They're all served on a little grill on your table. But stick with the meat: Dessert isn't Cat Ballou's thing.
Really, who needs dessert? A trip to Atlit and an outdoor adventure nearby will surely leave you with the sweet taste of freedom on your lips!
Atlit detention camp
Phone: (04) 984-1980. Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.;
Friday, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Entrance: NIS 19 per adult, NIS 16 per child. Additional information: On Fridays, guided tours are available each hour on the hour. During the rest of the week, there are no guided tours (unless you arrange a group visit in advance).
Cat Ballou, Carmel Shel Bosem Vetavlin, Havayat Harochvim
Phone: (04) 824-8474. Location: Beit Oren junction. Restaurant is kosher, meat.