On that fateful night of January 10, 1961, 44 Jews were smuggled out of Morocco and put on the illegal immigrant ship Egoz, which set out on a secret passage to the State of Israel. The ship capsized soon after leaving Morocco, killing all 44 passengers and two crew members. Three Spanish crew members were rescued.
Gila Gutman-Azulai, 70 and of Haifa, lost six family members in the tragedy.
“Before the catastrophe, we were eight children and my mother. After that fateful night, only three of us remained alive,” Gutman-Azulai recalls tearfully. “It was many years before I could talk about it.”
Gutman-Azulai had been smuggled out of Morocco at the age of 10, with her sister Fanny, 12. They were helped by the Jewish underground operating in Morocco, in which her oldest brother, David, was active.
The Egoz operation had been organized by the underground network in Morocco in conjunction with Israel’s Mossad. The operation was formulated following Morocco’s decision, after gaining independence from France in 1956, to prohibit Jewish emigration. As a result, in the years 1956 to 1961, all immigration from Morocco to Israel was carried out in secret, mainly through the local Jewish underground.
The Jews were forced to leave their homes in the dead of night and board ships that were headed to various locations in Europe. From there, they would continue their journey to Israel. More than 30,000 Moroccan Jews made their way to Israel in this fashion over this period.
The Egoz is thought to have sunk after it ran aground and capsized. The bodies of 22 victims were eventually recovered; the bodies of the remaining victims were never found. Among those who perished that night was Mossad agent Chaim Tzarfati, who was accompanying the group. Half of the victims were children.
“We heard about the ship that sank before we’d even reached Israel,” recalls Gutman-Azulai, “but we had no idea that our family members were on that voyage. My sister and I were told about the demise of our family only two months later. We were at a boarding school here in Israel when one day our uncle arrived and took us to his home, where he told us the sad news. He said no one had survived the cold water and that our mother, together with five of our siblings, had drowned.
“I burst out crying. At the end of the shiva, when we were brought back to the school, began the phenomenon I call the ‘thunderous silence.’”
What do you mean?
“Everyone at our boarding school had heard what happened to our family, and yet no one spoke with us about it, including our counselor and the principal. We’d just received the worst possible news, and yet no one took an interest in our wellbeing. I soon understood that it was shameful to tell anyone that I’d lost my whole family. I thought it was probably because I was a bad girl.
“For 20 years I hid my loss and didn’t talk about it with anyone. Only after I married and had my own children who kept asking me why they didn’t have grandparents did I begin to investigate my past.
“One day on the radio I heard someone say that he had commanded a ship that had brought Jews to Israel from Morocco. I immediately called the radio station and asked if I could speak with him. That was the beginning of my long journey of uncovering what had happened to my family. I met many people who’d been involved with these secret voyages, including the 12 trips the Egoz had taken before the fateful 13th trip that ended in the drowning of my family members.”
How did your brother David, who was actively involved with the smuggling of Jews out of Morocco, deal with the tragedy?
“David was 19 at the time, and he took the news really hard. Because he’d been active in the underground, and had been involved in convincing Jews to leave on these ships, he felt personally responsible for the drowning of our family members. He lived with this overwhelming feeling of guilt for the rest of his life. Never once did he speak about it.
“Four years ago, just before he passed away, he told me that despite the fact that he had a beautiful family of his own and lots of grandchildren, he still missed our mother terribly. ‘She and our siblings were supposed to be here with us now,’ he told me with tears in his eyes. I will never forget that moment.”
SOLIKA PERETZ lost five family members in the Egoz tragedy.
“We were seven sisters living with our parents in Casablanca,” recalls Peretz, 85, who lives in Migdal Ha’emek. “I moved to Israel with my husband when I was 18, and another three sisters arrived over the next few years. In 1961, my mother, my sister, her husband and their two children decided to make aliyah. With one suitcase for the five of them, they succeeded in avoiding the Moroccan police as they quietly made their way in the middle of the night to the port. Everything was conducted in complete secrecy and their fear of being caught was immense.”
Iris Suissa, whose uncle, along with his entire family, lost their lives on the Egoz, said, “For my grandmother, there’s life before the tragedy, and then everything that’s taken place since.
“I remember so many times when we’d go visit my grandmother. We’d find her sitting on the couch in the living room rocking herself as she watched the candles she’d lit in memory of my uncle who’d died on the Egoz. It was heartrending to see her like that. She’d always talk about her oldest son, saying, ‘I lost my eyes and my soul.’
“I think my father probably bore the brunt of her deep sadness, as she clung to him tightly so as not to lose him, too.”
ISRAEL LAUNCHED dozens of secret missions to Morocco and other countries at the behest of prime ministers Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. The missions were led by Sam Ben Shetreet, who later founded an organization to commemorate the Egoz disaster and the legacy of immigration of North African Jewry to Israel.
The organization also worked to persuade King Hassan II of Morocco to allow the remains of the 22 bodies that were recovered to be brought to Israel for burial in what became known as Operation Ayelet Hashachar. The bodies were buried on Mount Herzl on December 14, 1992.
“We held over 40 meetings with palace officials before we were given permission,” explains Ben Shetreet. “King Hassan II had two conditions: First, that he personally would cover all of the expenses. And second, that I would be in charge of the public relations side of the event, and that I would proclaim to the international media that this was a tribute to the late ‘Man of Peace’ [Yitzhak Rabin] and to all of the Moroccan Jews living in Israel.”
Gutman-Azulai also took part in the efforts to bring the remains to Israel.
“We searched for other families who’d also been affected by the tragedy. Sam [Ben Shetreet] traveled as part of an Israeli delegation to meet with Moroccan officials. We’d try to keep our spirits up as we suffered many setbacks and disappointments. One day I received a call from Yitzhak Rabin’s secretary, who told me that our families’ remains were at that moment on a flight to Israel, and that I needed to quickly gather all the bereaved families so they could come identify the bodies of their loved ones. We found the remains of my mother and four siblings, but not of my sister Yaffa. Three days later, an official state funeral service was held.”
“My mother attended every Knesset discussion about bringing the victims’ remains from Morocco to Israel,” says Solika Peretz’s son David. “When they were finally brought in 1992, relatives were asked to identify their loved ones’ remains by looking at pictures that had been taken of the bodies after they’d been taken from the water. We found my grandmother, my Aunt Miriam and her husband. But none of the children were ever found.
“The ceremony was very powerful. It was really heartening to know that the State of Israel would go to great lengths to bring our loved ones for burial in Israel. It’s made such a big difference for my mother to have a grave to visit. There was finally some joy mixed in with the sorrow.”
How do you commemorate the memory of your loved ones?
“When they announced in 1992 that they would be bringing our family’s remains for burial in Israel, I saw so much pain in my father and grandmother’s eyes,” recalls Iris Suissa. “Unfortunately, none of our relatives were ever found, so we go to visit the tombstone on Mount Herzl that was placed there in memory of all the Egoz victims. But it’s not the same as having a real grave.”
“The day the plane from Al-Hoceima [cemetery, where the bodies were initially buried] landed in Israel, it was heartbreaking to hear my mother-in-law’s sobs,” remembers Esther Edri, Suissa’s mother. “On the one hand, she was happy for the families who would finally be able to bury their loved ones in Israel, but her wound never healed. She would always say to us, ‘They sank down into the depths of the sea, and my heart sank along with them.’”
The recent normalization agreements with Arab countries, including with Morocco, have brought about positive feelings for the bereaved families.
“When my mother heard on TV that Israel would be signing an agreement with Morocco, she called out to all of us to hurry over to watch with her,” Suissa shares. “She is a huge fan of Morocco’s royal family. She knows all of the gossip about the king, his children and grandchildren. It’s so nice to see how happy this news makes her. We’re hoping to make a family heritage trip as soon as it’s possible so we can visit all the places we’ve been hearing about through stories all our lives.”
“I wasn’t surprised at all that relations were restored,” explains Gutman-Azulai. “Relations were already good in 1992. Twelve years ago, I went on a back-to-your-roots trip. When I reached the city where I was born, I broke down crying. The first place I went to see was my childhood home. It was so incredibly exciting.”
“The announcement that Israel would be renewing diplomatic relations with Morocco has made us really want to fly there to learn about our family’s history,” says David Peretz. “We want to reenact and experience for ourselves the journey they made from Casablanca to Al Hoceima. We keep hearing Israelis talk excitedly about traveling to Dubai, but we’d rather go to Morocco.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.