Grapevine: Honoring the past by celebrating in the present

The Atlit detention camp has been turned into a museum and educational center.

navy ship sunset 88 (photo credit: )
navy ship sunset 88
(photo credit: )
THE PRECURSOR of the IDF Naval Commando Unit was Palyam, a Hebrew acronym for plugot hayam (sea companies), the special unit formed by the Hagana in 1943. Many of the Palyam people were involved in bringing illegal immigrants to Eretz Israel before, during and after the Holocaust. The British Mandate authorities had put severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and showed little sympathy for Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing persecution in Arab countries. Overcrowded ships were intercepted by the British, and passengers and crew were incarcerated in a detention camp for illegal immigrants in Atlit. The Atlit detention camp has been turned into a museum and educational center by the Council for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. What was missing until this week was a boat of the type that had carried the illegal immigrants. After several years of searching, Council members and Palyam veterans Natan Arad and Yossi Katz found what they were looking for in Latvia: the Galina - a boat that most resembled illegal immigrant boats. This week, the boat arrived at the Hadera port. Up until the day before the reception for the Galina, the scores of people involved in the project were not sure that it would get here. There had been so many impediments along the way that nothing could be taken for granted. Acquiring the boat was a five-year enterprise, which succeeded - said MK Ephraim Sneh - because the small group of Palyam veterans displayed the same stubbornness, dogged determination and sense of purpose as when they had withstood the might of the British Empire and continued bringing in shiploads of illegal immigrants. Sneh, on the last day before the elections, suspended his campaign activities to come to Hadera to see the ship. Sneh's father, the late Moshe Sneh, was a Hagana commander and one of the key organizers of illegal immigration. The museum at Atlit has been named in his memory. The ship will be transported from Hadera to Atlit this week and will be transformed into a living museum, said Council director-general Yossi Feldman. Ex-Palyamnik and Atlit Museum chairman Samek Yanai, though an octogenarian, proved that he is still fit by climbing, together with Atlit Museum director Zahavit Rutenberg, a rope ladder onto the ship to hoist the Israeli flag. While this was going on, people on the shore, who included former illegal immigrants and white-haired Palyam veterans, stood to sing Hatikva. Feldman noted the presence of Shmuel Tankus, 91, one of the first commanders in the Israel Navy. All the Palyam people in attendance had been under his command. The period of illegal immigration, said Feldman, was one of the most important in the nation's history on the road to independence and statehood. The boat project is a joint effort of the Council, the Israel Electric Corporation, the Jewish National Fund-USA and Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal. "This is the first time that an illegal immigrant ship has received such an enthusiastic welcome," quipped Council president Shlomo Hillel, who spoke of its significance in preserving the memory of the struggle to bring immigrants to Eretz Israel in the battle for independence. While JNF-USA, with the encouragement and participation of its president, Ron Lauder, donated the most money for the ship, the first contribution came via Keren Hayesod, which secured it from one of its most generous donors, Australian billionaire Frank Lowy, the second richest man in Australia. Czech-born Lowy, who ranks 174 in the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest 500, had good reason to support the project. One of 750 passengers who left France in 1946 on board the illegal immigrant ship Yagur, Lowy was among the first illegal immigrants to be caught by the British after the war and deported to the detention camp in Cyprus. Lowy attracted a lot of attention when he purchased his own luxury yacht, the Ilona, for Aust. $110 million. Keren Hayesod director-general Greg Masel, speaking at the welcome reception for the Galina, raised a laugh when he said that although Keren Hayesod enjoys getting the credit, "we always like to get the cash." When Lowy came to Israel eight months ago after collecting his new boat (which is much bigger than the one that had been overcrowded with 750 passengers), he sailed into the Herzliya marina. As he weighed anchor, he hoisted the Israeli flag, just as a barge passed by. The people on board the barge saluted the flag, and Lowy, who 60 years earlier had been turned back by the British, wept like a baby.