‘Where are the Union Jacks?’

Eva Feld, an immigrant to Palestine in 1935, left before the state was declared. On visiting Israel, she talks about those turbulent years.

Eva Field immigrant (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Eva Field immigrant
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
The last time Eva Feld visited Jerusalem – in November 1946 – she sat guarding a crate of hand grenades with her life as her convoy of 10 vehicles, followed by an ambulance, snaked its way up Bab el-Wad, today called Sha’ar Hagai. Beside her sat slightly older teenage girls with their hands stuffed inside their coats with the pockets cut out – their fingers on the trigger of their Sten guns.
“The British checked the boys on board but by law were not allowed to touch the girls. When the convoy left Latrun, we were told to pray for rain, as the Arabs did not attack during storms,” she says.
Those prayers were answered and rain fell.
“We were the first convoy in 11 days to get through, and we were greeted with song and dance,” recalls Feld, today 80, remembering the convoy trip as if the looming War of Independence were yesterday.
Born in Dortmund, Germany, Feld’s father, Dr.Walter Steinberg, presciently understood the threat of Nazism. In 1932, before Hitler even came to power, he came to Palestine looking for a refuge for his family.
They followed him three years later, sailing on the Yugoslav-flagged SS Princessa Olga from Trieste to Haifa, where the family settled at Beit Wolloch on Mount Carmel.
Growing up as a yekke in Haifa, Feld experienced culture shock and the Yishuv’s discrimination against German émigrés.
“My father insisted that we speak Hochdeutsch at home while maintaining exceptional school grades at the Reali School where I attended. The schools instilled in us a patriotism and Zionism second to none,” she recalls.
“The first real shock came with the sinking of the SS Patria on November 25, 1940. The Patria was the litmus test of the 1939 White Paper to prove to the Arab leadership that indeed no more Jewish immigrants would be permitted into Palestine. While the Patria with its 1,800 passengers was being retrofitted to continue its journey to Mauritius, the Hagana smuggled an explosive device on board. But the explosive charge was too powerful for the boat’s weak superstructure: 260 people – nearly all Jewish refugees but also a handful of local Arabs – died in the explosion or drowned,” she recounts.
World Jewry pressured British prime minister Winston Churchill and King George VI to permit the survivors to remain in Palestine – much to the chagrin of the Arabs. They were then sent to the Atlit detainee camp, where many more illegal immigrants were imprisoned.
While Feld’s father wouldn’t allow his daughter to join any of the underground factions, he permitted her to volunteer with the Magen David Adom of Palestine.
Feld still has her MDA identity card from her years working at Atlit, as well as her Palestine ID card and passport.
Notwithstanding Hollywood’s romantic picture of Israel’s struggle for independence as depicted in Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow, life in Palestine in the 1940s was characterized by fear, intimidation and terror.
“The British mined the roads everywhere to forestall the imminent invasion of Rommel’s Afrika Korps from Egypt and the Vichy army coming from Syria and Lebanon,” Feld recalls. “There were mock cannons placed on Mount Carmel that were just oil drums.”
The Hagana, Irgun and Lehi spent as much time fighting each other as fighting the British, she remembers. Suspected collaborators were summarily executed.
“When the Begin boys came to any beach, the people there cleared out within minutes. People were afraid to get caught in the crossfire. Neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors. Friendships broke up. Everybody was in the underground. People disappeared – some arrested by the British and some fleeing abroad,” she says.
“The 18-year-old son of my next-door neighbor, Dr.Arschafsky, was arrested by the British at 2:30 one morning. His father didn’t even know his son was an Irgun fighter.”
A turning point for the worse came with the countrywide curfew of Saturday, June 29, 1946, known as the Black Sabbath.
“It was the cruelest curfew we had ever been through. People were shot for sticking their heads out of the blinds,” Feld remembers.
Learning of family in America who had survived the Holocaust – and fearful of the coming civil war that would engulf Palestine – Feld’s father again began preparations to move his family.
In March 1947, after endless paperwork, the family boarded the SS Russia – formerly a Nazi luxury liner – and sailed from Haifa to New York. On board were wealthy Arab families also fleeing the violence.
Eva and her family settled in Queens, New York, where she met and married Phillip Feld. The couple ultimately moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where they raised their two children. The couple had tickets to visit Israel in 1990, but their flight was canceled because of the First Gulf War.
“Phillip today couldn’t handle this trip physically and emotionally. But I felt I needed to close certain chapters in my life before my time is up,” says Feld.
Here on a 21-day nostalgic visit to the scenes of her childhood, Feld calls her experience “an emotional roller-coaster. Israel is a mature and sophisticated country beyond my wildest dreams. I keep shaking my head in utter amazement. Where are the Union Jacks? I’m only sorry I couldn’t have come sooner and that my husband wasn’t able to experience this amazing country.”