The journey that was: The road to Israel in the early 1950s

"I have always felt that the best way to see a port, especially a port such as the one in Haifa, is to come in from the sea."

Cranes are seen at the port of Haifa 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Cranes are seen at the port of Haifa 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Last month I flew to Israel, leaving JFK International Airport, New York, at 7 p.m. and arriving some 10 hours later at Ben-Gurion Airport. Such a journey was unimaginable in 1952, when the same trip took not 10 hours, but 10 days.
Time clouds the details, but I believe our flight that year from what was then known as Idlewild airport left late at night. We boarded a Flying Tiger Line charter, and darkness enveloped us as our Douglas aircraft took off, the bright lights of Manhattan still glimmering in the distance.
For some this was their first flight. We were about 60 American college students on our way to what was then called the Youth Workshop in Israel, sponsored by Habonim Labor Zionist Youth. It was aptly named “The Best Year of Your Life”; a 10-month program which was the forerunner of most of today’s work/study/travel programs for Americans of all ages. That year, half the group headed to Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee and the other half to Kvutzat Geva, near Afula.
Gander, Newfoundland, was our first stop, as this Canadian airport served as a refueling stop for airliners with transatlantic flights to Scotland and Ireland. In all the years of frequent flying since as a travel writer, I only landed back at Gander twice, both times to refuel.
Next we flew on to Shannon Airport (160 kilometers from Dublin, where in a pitch-black night we stumbled inside for a sumptuous breakfast cooked the Irish way: eggs and all the trimmings.
By the time the sun was up we were in Amsterdam.
Hustled onto airport shuttles to the train station, we got our first taste of old-world Dutch charm: barges plying the waterways, little boats on the canals, cobblestone streets and narrow houses. In the city’s museums we would be transfixed by the works of Dutch masters Van Gogh and Rembrandt.
“All aboard for Paris,” came the loudspeaker announcement. What was to become my love affair with European trains began then, and as I was to hear many times afterwards from Eurorail conductors: “Monsieur, the trains in France are always on time.”
Having read Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Victor Hugo we were primed for the ride. We anticipated the galleries, museums, the Champs-Elysee, the Eiffel Tower, the parks, cafes and bistros.
Seven years had passed since the end of World War II, and already the American GIs who had liberated France, as they had in World War I, were urged to go home by graffiti scrawled on walls reading: “Ridgeway [Gen.
Matthew Ridgway, commander of NATO at the time] Go Home.”
We knew there were Jews in the French capital, and as we practiced our meager Hebrew on the Metro, a man walked up to us and said, “no matter what language you speak in Paris, someone will understand you.”
We learned that about two-thirds of French Jewry had survived, but the community was down to only several hundred thousand. In the next decade the mass immigration of North African Jews would change the landscape of French Jewry from an Ashkenazi community to a Sephardi one. North African Jews arriving in France brought new energy and revived the French Jewish community which today numbers about 600,000.
Long before high-speed trains sped through the French countryside, we boarded a fast-moving SNCF (France’s national state-owned railway) train and arrived in the early morning at the city of Marseilles, to some a tough harbor city of smugglers and thieves, but signifying a new life for many Jews.
Through this ancient harbor in the late 1940s passed thousands of Jews on their way to their homeland in Palestine. Generally, they traveled aboard unseaworthy, ferry-type boats which sailed secretly at night into the beckoning blue Mediterranean to run the British Navy gauntlet. The British and the world called these survivors of the Holocaust “illegals.” In the early 1950s, the ferry boats were still running, but by then they were bringing new immigrants to Israel.
By 1952, the immigration from North Africa to France also had begun; I remember walking in the Place de la Bourse, a large downtown square, where the refugees gathered as they sought jobs.
Today about 70,000 Jews live in Marseilles, many from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and they support over 20 synagogues, day and vocational schools and youth centers.
Marseilles remains one of the largest Jewish communities of France, a city of Sephardi Jews with names like Chiche, Dahan, Zana, Solal, Amsellem and Zemmour.
La Canebiere, Marseilles’s famous high street, was full of sailors and others patronizing cafes. Our group strolled up and down the boulevard, and I bought a beret which stood me in good stead during those winter rains in the Upper Galilee in the shadow of Mount Hermon.
We boarded one of the first ZIM Lines ships, the Negba (its sister ship being the Artza). Bunked with us were olim from North Africa. Sixty years later, here in South Florida, as I drive along Interstate I-95 and pass those huge container trucks with ZIM on them, I recall that small ship plying the great sea, taking us from Marseilles first to Naples, Italy and then Piraeus, Greece and then on to Haifa.
But we didn’t get off the boat in Piraeus either, though I would later dock here on Greek island cruises and partake of sumptuous fish dinners in this port of Athens which has been one of the most important commercial cities of antiquity. Today, there are about 3,000 Jews in Greece.
Finally, the last leg of the journey. I have always felt that the best way to see a port, especially a port such as the one in Haifa, is to come in from the sea. Just a few weeks ago, having stopped at the Dan Carmel Hotel, with its majestic views, newly renovated rooms, inviting gardens and renowned buffets, I recalled the Negba’s arrival in this port years ago.
The first Hebrew word I heard in Israel “savlanut,” (“patience”). As we hastened to disembark, we were prevented from going down the gangplank by a short, uniformed policeman who entreated passengers jostling for position to jump the queue.
To be patient was the wrong advice for yours truly and the several hundred other bored, seasick and weary passengers.
None of us, I am sure, possessed this quality at just that moment (and perhaps for years to come). We are, an American tourist told me recently, “impatient people in an impatient land.”
Looking back on it all todaiy from a historical perspective, those early years of Israel’s existence remain a wonderful time in the annals of the Jewish people. After 2,000 years in the Diaspora, my people had returned to a Zion restored, and that made the journey and destination worth the long-overdue wait.
The writer, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). twitter @bengfrank