A son documents his mother’s experiences on the Aliyah Bet ship

The story of the Katina is one that has seldom been told before.

THE 'KATAINA.' (photo credit: Israel Navy Veterans Association)
(photo credit: Israel Navy Veterans Association)

Until two years ago, Oded Tira, the former president of the Manufacturers’ Association and chief artillery officer, did not know that his mother, Dina Torres, was hiding a heroic story from her past. 

“One day a couple years ago, my mother and I began talking about her past and I asked her to tell me some of her experiences of arriving in Israel on Aliyah Bet – the code name given to illegal immigration to Israel during the Mandate Period. She’d never really told me any details; I guess she had been suppressing these memories for most of her life,” Tira explains. 

Torres had survived the voyage on the ship Katina, a coal ship that had been converted by the Beitar Youth Movement at the end of 1938 so that it could transport immigrants illegally to Palestine, which was still under British control. Jews hoping to make their way to the Holy Land alighted the ship in Constantza, Romania, which had been equipped with enough food and equipment for what was supposed to be a 10-day voyage. The difficult trip ended up lasting three-and-a-half months, during which the passengers suffered almost inhumane conditions. 

During this time, the Aliyah Bet commanders who’d been assigned to the ship, were dealing with an increasingly difficult situation, including a number of deaths of passengers and organizational infighting. And when the passengers finally made it onto land, they became a tool in the power struggle between Beitar and the Hagannah. 

Following this conversation with his mother, Tira, who serves on the board of the Jabotinsky Institute, started doing some research at the organization’s archive, where he found a few documents with details of the Katina’s voyage. This piqued his interest, and so next, Tira approached Yossi Ahimeir, the chair of the Jabotinsky Institute, who put him in touch with the daughters of Dr. Zelik Paol, who had been the commander of the ship. 

 CAPTAIN PAOL aboard the ship, 1939. (credit: Courtesy Paol Family) CAPTAIN PAOL aboard the ship, 1939. (credit: Courtesy Paol Family)

Tira set up a meeting between these women and his mother, following which Torres began slowly opening up about this painful story she had kept locked away all these years. “The documents connected to the voyage of the Katina really didn’t offer much information about the trip. Only after hearing my mother speak about her experiences did I realize how incredible this story really was,” Tira explains. 

Tira began writing down all the information he was learning about the Katina voyage, and at some point, he realized he had enough material to consolidate into a book, Sefinat Hatalot (The Ship of Suffering) which was recently published in Hebrew by Matar. It is a fictionalized account based on the Katina voyage that includes an impossible love story and also espionage. 

In the book, Tira calls the ship Katisos, and he also changed the names of the main characters. Tira’s wife Zaza (Shlomit), who died five months ago, was the one who originally suggested that he write his mother’s story in the form of a book. 

“My mother was born in the Czech Republic, and she and my father began making plans to immigrate to the Land of Israel in 1938,” adds Tira. “They were both ardent Zionists, and my father was a Revisionist and a strong supporter of Jabotinsky, who was predicting that war would soon break out. 

“Therefore, he was actively encouraging his supporters to leave Europe before it was too late and immigrate to Palestine. My mother described how she’d gone from living a life of privilege – in her youth she’d enjoyed playing tennis and mountain climbing – to suddenly finding herself on a ship in the middle of the ocean and fighting to stay alive.”

The ship was originally built to hold 50 sailors, and yet 750 refugees had been stuffed inside of it. “There was very little food, the sanitation was nonexistent and we had nowhere to sleep,” explains Tira. “Moreover, soon after the ship set sail, water began seeping into the ship as a result of the storms. 

“Another time, when a water tank shattered, the passengers were forced to wash themselves and brush their teeth with the salty sea water. There were multiple cases of dysentery and meningitis, and unfortunately many people died during the voyage. In short, my parents and all the others suffered greatly during this difficult journey, which took place under inhumane conditions.”

IN THE book, a number of incidents that took place during the voyage are described in detail, including one that occurred in February 1939. The Katina had tried to get close to the coast near Herzliya, but was then redirected to Cyprus since there were numerous British forces guarding the beaches. 

After languishing in the sea for a number of weeks, another immigrant ship, Jifo B, which had also been on its way to the Land of Israel, was dispatched to bring medicine and food to the Katina. Unfortunately, the Jifo B ran aground and sank, so its 500 passengers joined the 750 passengers already on the Katina. 

“The Jifo B passengers, who’d been traveling on a boat large enough to accommodate everyone, were astounded at the conditions of Katina,” adds Tira. 

Another story told in the book involves a woman who was caught cheating with one of the sailors by her husband, who then beat her up pretty badly. The captain, who was referred to as Dr. Sol, decided to take the husband off the ship and put on a boat, provoking considerable criticism.

“These are the types of tricky matters that Dr. Paol, the commander of the ship, had to contend with on a daily basis. There were times he had to make decisions that were unpopular,” adds Tira.

How did the passengers react to Dr. Paol’s decisions?

“I think most of them realized that it was a uniquely complex situation, and were grateful for his strong leadership abilities. In the book, I describe an interaction between the captain of the ship and Dr. Paol that takes place after all the passengers have disembarked. 

“They are sitting together on the deck, relaxing for a moment after  completing this challenging journey. It’s clear that they have developed a very tight relationship as a result of the complicated days they experienced together and their good teamwork.”

Two years ago, to mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Katina on Israel’s shores, some of the descendants of the immigrants who had traveled on the Katina decided to organize a meeting with other descendants of Katina passengers, including Tira, the commander’s daughters, and Eran Segal, the grandson of Moshe Segal, who is famous for blowing the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur at the Western Wall, defying the law of the British Mandate.

Was writing your book a therapeutic experience for you?

“Perhaps,” Tira says, with a serious look on his face. “The main reason I wrote the book was for historical justice. I think it’s important that people know about this harrowing journey; that they learn about the traumas people experienced as they tried so hard to reach the Land of the Jewish people. 

“My mother listened to an audio version of the book, which was a very emotional experience for her. She had a hard time listening to a few of the sections, though, since they brought back memories of difficult times. So, I guess, part of the reason I wrote it was for my mother, too.”

Why do you think no one has ever written about the story of the Katina before?

“I don’t really know, but I do have a theory. I think it didn’t fit in with the national ethos, the mainstream way of thinking, since in the early state years, the Left controlled the establishment. Since the Katina was a Beitar ship, it was convenient to leave it out of the history books. 

“When my father finally arrived in Israel, he right away joined the Hagannah, since the only way he would find work was by becoming a Mapainik. In other words, squashing the Katina story could have been a political decision. 

“Incidentally, there were Hashomer Hatza’ir members on the ship, which demonstrates that outside of Israel, the various Zionist organizations were more accepting of each other than their counterparts inside Israel were. The Katina, which was a Beitar ship, had no problem allowing Hashomer Hatza’ir supporters to join the voyage.”

Many stories have been told over the years about Aliyah Bet immigrant ships trying to reach the shores of pre-state Israel. Do you think that someone was trying to intentionally bury the story of the Katina?

“I certainly contemplated this theory while I was writing the book. I kept comparing this story to the Exodus story, for example, which was memorialized in an award-winning film starring Paul Newman. Let’s just say that the Hagannah and the Center-Left leadership in Israel those days were extremely successful in their PR efforts. They had greater support from the community, as well as greater resources.”

Since the book was published, Tira has been inundated by phone calls from descendants of Katina passengers. “Not long ago,” relays Tira with a sad smile, “after giving an interview on the radio, I received a call from a woman who said her parents had traveled on the Katina, but had refused to share any details about their experiences. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, Aliyah Bet immigrants who’d made their way to Israel went to great lengths to hide their immigrant status. Being called a ‘refugee’ was one of the most stinging comments a person could receive in those days. Today, we view them as heroes, but that was not the case back in the day. I remember seeing how humiliated my parents felt when people spoke about them in a disparaging manner.”

Who do you hope will read your book?

“Well, firstly, I hope that all the children and grandchildren of the brave souls who successfully found their way to Israel in absolutely harrowing conditions will read the book. Each ship has its own complicated story. 

“My hope is that young people will read the book, so that they can appreciate what their elders went through to reach the Land of Israel. I don’t think many children today know much about these experiences, and I’m afraid that this part of Jewish history will get erased from the public consciousness. 

“Young people today are used to having everything handed to them on a silver platter, and are not aware of the hardships their forebears went through to build the modern State of Israel. They need to learn about this. 

“Nowadays, everything is fast and messages are short. That’s why I wrote the book as a historical novel, and not just a compilation of dry facts.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.