A permanent bond between Israel and Cyprus

If one man can change the world, that can be said of Prodromos Christou Papavassiliou, a Greek Cypriot.

Eight hundred young French men and women participate in a reenactment of the illegal immigration of Jews from Cyprus to Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eight hundred young French men and women participate in a reenactment of the illegal immigration of Jews from Cyprus to Israel.
Barring the possible outbreak of war on Israel’s northern border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Cyprus on May 8 for the fourth trilateral summit between Israel, Cyprus and Greece that will take place in Nicosia.
Relations between Israel and Cyprus have never been stronger, says Cyprus Ambassador Thessalia Salina Shambos.
Israel’s relations with Cyprus, though currently poised on a natural gas pipeline, are based on far greater humanitarian and security considerations that extend back beyond the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or the gaining of independence by Cyprus in 1960.
Both countries suffered under British rule.
If one man can change the world, that can be said of Prodromos Christou Papavassiliou, a Greek Cypriot.
Papavassiliou brought cheer and comfort to Holocaust survivors whom the British turned back from the Promised Land and incarcerated in barbed wire detention camps in Cyprus. From 1878 to 1960, Cyprus went from being a British protectorate, to a militarily occupied island to a British colony.
Papavassiliou, generally known as Papa, fought with the British Army during World War Two and met and befriended several Jewish soldiers from Palestine. After the war, he returned to his village near Famagusta. One day in 1946, he was approached by Charles Passman of the Joint Distribution Committee, who told him the British were about to set up detention camps in Cyprus for people they regarded as illegal immigrants.
Papa could not believe this. It was inconceivable to him that the British – who had liberated the death camps and forced labor camps – were placing traumatized Jews whom they had rescued into other camps. There, the conditions might have been slightly better, but the inmates were nonetheless denied freedom.
When Passman asked for his help, Papa, who was disillusioned with Winston Churchill, whom he had mistakenly thought would grant independence to the Cypriots, unhesitatingly agreed. But that was not the only reason, said a number of speakers who had gathered on the Bat Galim seafront in Haifa on Monday just before twilight to inaugurate the recently established Papa Square.
The large crowd included sailors who had manned the ships carrying illegal immigrants; people who had been children on those ships; people born in or conceived in Cyprus between 1946 and 1949; members of the Haifa municipality; former Israel ambassadors who had served in Cyprus; representatives of shipping companies; Cypriot politicians and officials; members of the Israel-Cyprus Friendship Association; and three generations of the Papavassiliou family. Papa died at the age of 87 in December 2006.
But throughout the years, he maintained close contact with Israel, initially after the establishment of the state as a representative of Israel’s ZIM shipping company, in clandestine intelligence operations, and in the opening of economic relations.
He was a frequent visitor to Haifa, maintaining a relationship with the families that he had helped when they were in the detention camps. He had facilitated the escape of some 1,600 prisoners, and even personally brought some of them under cover of darkness to Haifa Port. Today, Haifa and Limassol in Cyprus are twin cities, and residents of each are on an almost regular commute, the distance being only 200 nautical miles.
ALTHOUGH NOT a speaker at the dedication ceremony, New Yorkborn Murray Greenfield, 90, was present. He was one of the sailors in the secret fleet that took Holocaust survivors out of Europe. He later spent time with them in Cyprus and has remained in constant touch with their children, regarding them as part of his extended family. They swarmed around him at the dedication ceremony and insisted that he accompany them to a special dinner they were having in Papa’s memory.
All in all there was a lot of hugging and kissing, and in some cases there were people who had not seen each other since their initial arrival in Haifa. They still remembered things about each other from Cyprus and from the ship that finally brought them home.
Moderator Bracha Sela, who told the story of the detention camps between official speakers and musical interludes, did so with conviction, because her mother was an internee in one of the 12 detention camps in Cyprus.
Sela spoke with feeling, almost as if she had been there, of the unbearable summer heat, and the freezing cold of winter, and of how Papa had put himself at the disposal of all the people in the camps. There were other Cypriots who also put themselves out to make life easier for the people who had been forced to live on their island, but no one could equal the kindnesses of Papa.
People at the dedication ceremony who didn’t necessarily remember or know each other kept asking the same question: “Which camp were you in?” Altogether, there were between 52,000 and 53,000 Holocaust survivors in Cyprus, including 8,000 children, 2,200 of whom were actually born there.
Papa had close relations with the JDC, the Hagana and the Jewish Agency and kept them informed of developments.
Prof. Yossi Ben Artzi of the University of Haifa Israel Studies Department headed the committee charged with finding a suitable site for a monument to Papa. He said that in view of the frequency with which Papa had come to Israel by boat, it was important to find a place by the sea. Bearing in mind the role that Papa played in the establishment of the state, the location also had to be close to the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museums and to the National Museum, he said. Because Papa, a practicing Christian, had done so much for Jews, it was also essential to find a site symbolizing Haifa’s demographic pluralism.
Once such a site was determined, the square was specially built where the Carmel Forest meets the sea, with the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Monastery above, in a section of Bat Galim inhabited by Jews, Christians and Muslims. There are three separate sections in the square explaining in Hebrew, English and Arabic who Papa was.
THE BRITISH were not particularly well-disposed to the Cypriots and treated them badly. Papa became a trade union activist in the hope of improving conditions for workers.
Later he became a member of the city council, eventually becoming mayor of Famagusta. After independence, life was not easy, but he persevered. Then came the Turkish military invasion of 1974, when Israel sent a boat to bring him and his family to Limassol on the Greek Cypriot side of the island. But his heart was always in the section that had been taken over by the Turks.
When the singing duo Daniella and David asked Papa’s son Christakis what song his father would have liked them to sing, he said “Ammochostos – this is the Greek word for Famagusta, and I would like you to use it at this ceremony.”
Esther Rotem, of the Association of Children of the Refugees, was born in Camp Number 64 (even though there were 12 camps) and arrived in Haifa on November 29, 1947. This was after Golda Meir visited Cyprus and badgered the British Army authorities to issue migration certificates. “Because of Papa, many of us are here today,” said Rotem.
The association, which currently has a membership of 1,600, is documenting everything and anything related to the internment in Cyprus, so as to leave a legacy for future generations. When they first arrived, Rotem’s parents actually evaded the British, but were caught in Kibbutz Nitzanim and sent to Nicosia where Rotem was born.
“How different things might have been without the compassion of Papa and other Cypriots,” she said.
“They simply gave us unconditional love.”
A number of the internees died in Cyprus, and after the establishment of the state, their remains were brought to Haifa for proper Jewish burial. A memorial service is held for them each year.
Nicos Nicoilaides, the mayor of Limossol, said that although there was an excellent relationship between his city and Haifa, Papa Square had elevated that relationship to a perpetual bond.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said that nearly all of Europe had turned a blind eye to the slaughter of six million Jews. Three countries and one man had been different, he said, and all had been honored in and by Haifa. The three countries were Denmark, Bulgaria and the Philippines, and the one man was Papa.
Ambassador Shambos referred to Papa as “nothing short of extraordinary.”
He felt in his heart that the Jewish people could not be behind barbed wires, she said, because Papa believed the Jewish people deserved a place of honor, of liberty and of sovereignty. Shambos added that Papa had been passionate about justice “and could not and did not accept the defamation of the Jews who had just come out of the Holocaust horrors.”
Christakis Papavassiliou was so overcome by emotion that he could barely speak, and his voice kept choking with tears.
During their incarceration, the refugees had been visited by Israeli entertainers, most notably Shoshana Damari, whose song Habayita (“Homeward”) had been their theme song. It was sung by Daniela and David as the sun set over the Mediterranean. The crowd joined in with such yearning in their voices, it seemed as if time stood still and everyone was back in Cyprus.