The human spirit: Exodus via Cyprus

When the train stopped, on impulse, one of their group began to declaim in Aramaic the prayer ‘Yekum purkan min shamaya’ (‘may deliverance arise from heaven’).

Nechama Friedman as a baby and today (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nechama Friedman as a baby and today
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Many could have gone elsewhere after the Holocaust, but the survivors who were interned in Cyprus would only settle for Israel,” says Nechama Friedman. “The Cyprus camps were supposed to discourage Jews from trying to get to Israel, but they didn’t.”
An articulate lawyer, Friedman was born in Cyprus. We’re looking at related documents in her Jerusalem living room. She was recently invited to Cyprus at the initiative of the Cyprus-Israel Friendship league to mark the 70th anniversary of the internment (1946 to 1949).
Friedman’s parents Moshe and Tova (Guta) Weissler were newlyweds when Jews were forced into the ghetto in Czestochowa, a city in the south of Poland, two days before Passover in 1941.
Forced into slave labor in Nazi war industries, Moshe was made foreman of bicycle production. The job gave him access to Poles and he arranged a hiding place for 13 family members. One at a time, they escaped to a storeroom under a village cowshed. The woman who owned the cowshed had already turned in two Jewish families. But a Polish army deserter who lived with the woman assured the Weisslers that he had convinced her not to turn them in. Their successful protector turned out to be a Jew himself. After the war, he married Friedman’s aunt.
They lived beneath cows for three and a half years.
“When their landlady said the war was over, they sent out an ‘Aryan-looking’ cousin, like the dove on Noah’s ark, to confirm it,” says Friedman.
They came out of hiding to learn that the rest of their family members were murdered in Treblinka. With other survivors, they began the trek to pre-state Israel. Having no official homeland to be repatriated to, at one border crossing they pretended to be Greek. The suspicious border guard said a Greek group was arriving on the next train. They could prove their identity by speaking Greek. They were terrified. When the train stopped, on impulse, one of their group began to declaim in Aramaic the prayer ‘Yekum purkan min shamaya’ (‘may deliverance arise from heaven’). The supposed ‘Greek’ answered with the continuation of the prayer, “Hina v’hisda v’rahamai.’”
They crossed from one country to another, finally reaching Marseilles a year and a half later. Together with 794 others, they crowded onto a fishing boat, renamed “The Unknown Immigrant” for an illegal like them who’d been killed by the British. Tova was pregnant. They rolled from side to side, but they crossed their sea and sang as they saw the Jaffa coast.
The RAF detected them. The same British who had liberated survivors in Bergen-Belsen closed in. The survivors resisted. The sailor overcame them with force and hoses. They were dragged to Haifa and shipped to Cyprus.
“My mother always spoke of the bittersweet joy of seeing the Carmel, knowing they were being deported,” says Friedman.
The detention camps were appalling: crowded tents and tin-roofed barracks with limited water and rampant disease. Still, the Jews opened schools, learned to sing new Hebrew songs, and engaged in art. Among their projects, they crafted paper tombstones for their grave-less dead. They organized into groups according to political affiliations. For Passover in 1947, tables were set outdoors for many versions of the Seder.
From a Judaica auction site on the Internet there is a Haggada published in Cyprus in 1947 by Hakibbutz Hameuhad. A text in Yiddish is included, titled “Yetziat Europa,” referring to the Holocaust and to aliya; following it appears an illustration of the Cyprus internment camp. Further on appear a poem and text in Yiddish titled “Galut Kafrisin” and a Hebrew text which was probably written in Israel to encourage the refugees in the camps: “….if ships carrying Jewish refugees are wandering – let them come to their homeland and be with us….”
Fifty-two thousand Jews passed through the Cyprus camps. Two thousand two hundred children were born.
“My pregnant mother was sent two hours by jeep from the camp to the hospital with only a British soldier,” said Friedman. “No family. No common language. My father finally heard that they’d had a boy and arrived with nine other men and a mohel for the circumcision, only to meet me, his daughter.”
The babies, however, wouldn’t survive the coming winter, physicians reported to Golda Meir, head of the Jewish Agency political desk. Mrs. Meyerson, as the British called her, like Moses, negotiated their release.
“For my parents, leaving Europe was their Exodus,” says Friedman. “They chose the hazardous journey and the wars of survival that would follow.
“We didn’t have many relatives but my parents kept in touch with the ‘aunties and uncles’ from Cyprus, who became our extended family. My parents couldn’t speak about the Holocaust, but they did tell my younger sister and me about Cyprus, where despite the difficulties, hope was reborn. A cousin from Jerusalem helped them and they found a small room in Tel Aviv where we lived for eight years. Eventually, they got on their feet financially by opening a bicycle shop.”
And the journey of the babies? They sailed in tin washing tubs, accompanied by their parents and the many orphans, whom Golda had demanded, too. Imagine the reception when the boat of Jewish babies docked! There was also another reason to celebrate. It was November 29, 1947, the very day the UN General Assembly voted to allow the Jews to establish a state. ■
Barbara Sofer is a Jerusalem writer. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her column are her own.