Born into detention

Thousands of Jewish babies were born in British internment camps after the Holocaust.

Cypus DP camps (photo credit: JDC Photo Archives)
Cypus DP camps
(photo credit: JDC Photo Archives)
Israeli grandfather Yossi Gluzman, who retired a few years ago from a successful career as a senior executive in the academic, governmental and private sectors, was the first Jewish baby born in internment camps in Cyprus for “illegal” Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1946 and 1949.
In accordance with the White Paper of 1939, issued by the British government, Jewish immigration to Palestine was limited, and the British caught many who had fled Nazi Europe and deported them to Cyprus, where they lived under British military rule.
“From August 1946 to February 1949, the deportees lived behind barbed wire in 12 camps in Cyprus,” notes Yitzhak Teutsch, director of the Jerusalem Archives at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “During this period, 53,000 Jews passed through the camps, 2,200 children were born and 150 Jews died there. Eighty percent of the deportees were between the ages of 13 and 35; nearly all of them were survivors of the Nazi death camps.”
Gluzman’s parents hailed from Poland and survived the Holocaust by hiding near the Russian border. His father was the only survivor of his immediate family. According to Gluzman, his grandfather, a rabbi, had faith that God would help the Jews and stayed put; his grandmother, however, insisted that at least one child be given the opportunity to escape, and thus her firstborn son left and traveled toward Russia. En route he met his future wife’s family; it was the first Jewish family he encountered, and he stayed with them and fell in love.
Gluzman’s maternal grandparents, as well as two aunts and two uncles, all survived and eventually moved to Israel.
At the end of the war, his parents were among the first to join the illegal aliya, he tells The Jerusalem Post; his mother hid the fact that she was pregnant so she would be permitted aboard. In August 1946, they were sent on a ship from Israel to Cyprus with a group of ma’apilim (illegal immigrants).
They were also among the first to build the refugee camps near Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus, he says.
Meanwhile, he continues, “on October 12, my mother had to give birth and was taken with the British army to Nicosia without any medical escorts – just with my father and two soldiers, so she wouldn’t escape. On the way, she gave birth. I was born on October 12, 1946.”
The conditions were unsanitary and therefore unsuitable for infants.
“The British immediately called for a nurse and a rabbi from Jerusalem. I was the first child born there. My parents were given a special permit to leave the camps and arrived on December 3 in Israel.”
His father found work as a laborer at Israel Shipyards, one of the largest privately owned shipbuilding facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean, and eventually became one of its senior executives.
Indeed, it was Gluzman’s arrival in this world that spared his family from spending the next few years as refugees. It was only afterward that suitable accommodations for newborns became available.
He recalls his parents’ conversations about their brief time in Cyprus, explaining that although they were living as prisoners, they didn’t suffer from lack of basic necessities, such as food. The British were very “correct,” he comments; his parents told him that the Jews had “access to supplies and services. I don’t remember hearing anything too negative from my parents, but they were there for only a few months.”
He credits Cypriot businessman Prodromos Papavasiliou – a great friend of the Jews whom those incarcerated in Cyprus knew simply as “Papa” – with invaluable support during that difficult period. It is now well-known and documented that in addition to numerous other acts in support of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, Papavasiliou helped 52,384 Jewish refugees held on the island of Cyprus between 1946 and 1949.
ALTHOUGH THE detention camps that the British set up there for the “illegal” Jewish immigrants to Palestine and the babies who were born there is not one of the more well-known aspects of the post-Holocaust period, it is nevertheless “a very dramatic story in Jewish history,” Teutsch notes.
Over the past couple of years, he has been involved in a project to collect the original records of Jewish births in Cyprus during that period. To date, he has collected documentation relating to approximately 1,700 births from sources in Israel, the United Kingdom and Germany.
His major sources are the Jerusalem Archives of the JDC, the University of Southampton and the National Library of Israel. Other sources include the State Archives and the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, the Atlit Archives (near Haifa, where the British were operating another internment camp for so-called illegal immigrants), and the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany.
He plans to visit the National Archives in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, and is working on locating the descendants of Rabbi Abraham Yellin, who served there as the mohel (one who performs circumcisions).
It was a missing list that sparked Teutsch’s interest. Having been involved in a project to catalogue material on five collections – Geneva, Cyprus, Istanbul, Stockholm and Jerusalem – he discovered in the spring of 2010 that a file was missing from the Cyprus Collection.
“It was probably misplaced or misfiled,” he surmises. He set out to recover it, not guessing that it would take more than two years of investigative work.
“We have scores of documents from the British Military Hospital in Nicosia listing babies [who were] born in their yearly reports. I thought it would be a simple matter to find the names. It didn’t work that way,” he says.
“I haven’t been successful in finding original documentation for the births in the early period (August 1946 to mid- 1947),” he adds. “My theory is that nobody expected the camps to be in operation for so long – 30 months! – and consequently the early documentation wasn’t saved.”
Cypriot-born Israelis frequently approach the JDC in search of their birth records.
Gluzman recounts that several years ago, Cypriot Ambassador to Israel Euripides L. Evriviades (Ivri, for short) organized a reunion for those who were born in Cyprus.
“I had done some work in Cyprus on behalf of the European Union about 18 years ago as director-general of the Haifa Municipality, and I was asked to arrange seminars in Nicosia on [the subject of] local democracy,” he recalls. “He [Ivri] was very excited when I arrived [in Nicosia] and [he] saw that I was born there. There were some pieces in the local papers, and I was introduced to the president and other dignitaries. I didn’t have a sense of history at the time, but I enjoyed it. My parents lived there in refugee camps, and I went back as an honored guest.”
Teutsch lauds the efforts of Morris Laub, then-JDC administrator in Cyprus, who dealt not only with the British, but also with “Jewish bureaucracy and the inmates who were extremely unhappy to have to be in Cyprus under these horrific conditions....I’m just in awe of the man.”
Laub recorded his memoirs on this chapter in his life in his book Last Barrier to Freedom, in which he states: “One of the matters that went on between [Sir Godfrey Collins] and me for months was my request for the building of a special house to take care of the many infants that needed attention. Two thousand infants were born in Cyprus, nearly all of them delivered at the BMH [British Military Hospital] and then brought back to camp to be with their mothers. Our nurses and the special infant nurses, metapelot, as the Hebrew has it, insisted that a tent or a Nissen hut did not provide a good environment for infants and that an infant’s home had to be built. I asked for a sketch of such a home, and I got it. It turned out to be quite a building, 100 feet by 40, with many windows, special cribs, special tables, the necessary closets for supplies, tables for medical examination – in sum, a rather expensive building.”
He recounts that he brought the matter to Collins’s attention, but for some time received only the response, “I’ll inquire.”
“Eventually, after some months of almost daily pressing, a positive response came and the house was built,” he writes. “It was so well done that our nurses said there was nothing like it even in Palestine.”
Only last week, Teutsch came across an article that appeared in The Palestine Post on August 18, 1948. Written by prominent journalist Ruth Gruber, the piece, titled “Infants in Cyprus Camps,” includes the following passage: “It is a startling sight as you walk down the unshaded dirt streets of the camps between Nissen huts and tents and see young women holding infants in their arms. When I asked one how she could raise a baby in one of these tents or huts, where two or three families live together without any privacy, she told me: ‘Under Hitler when a woman was found to be pregnant, she was burnt. We must have children. That’s the way Israel survives.’”