The Human Spirit: Forget thee not, Cyprus

Margalit Fried: "I suddenly knew I had to go to Cyprus."

MARGALIT FRIED holds a denizen of the Baby House. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MARGALIT FRIED holds a denizen of the Baby House.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Margalit Fried says the message felt like a knock on her head. “If I were still religious, I’d say it was a summons from God,” she says. “I suddenly knew I had to go to Cyprus.”
Slim and elegant in a tailored blouse, pants and heeled pumps, Fried is speaking from the stage of Yad Izhak Ben Tzvi, Jerusalem’s eminent historical research center. She is the final speaker in a day devoted to the Cyprus detention camps. Every seat of the large auditorium is filled, some sit on the steps. Among the more than 300 history buffs are members of the Legacy of the Cyprus Camp Detainees Organization. Different from most organizations of Jewish immigrants who came from the same towns in Europe – these men and women share the experience of family members being imprisoned on an island a mere 472 kilometers from the shores of Israel.
When her epiphany struck, Fried was an exhausted new nurse in need of vacation. Instead, she flew to Cyprus where 2,200 babies were being born to post-Holocaust Jewish detainees. The year was 1947. Fried was 21.
I do the math. Amazingly, she is 92.
The organizers from the Detainees organization hope that the event will help perpetuate the fading memory of the Cyprus internment camps. Zionists like me read Leon Uris’s influential historical novel Exodus, with its vivid description of Cyprus. The popular 1960 eponymous movie, directed by Otto Preminger, scripted by Dalton Trumbo, starring Paul Newman as the dashing Israeli Ari Ben Canaan, impacted not only us, but world understanding and sympathy for Israel, just as the original images of British soldiers putting Holocaust survivors behind barbed wire concretized the need for a Jewish state.
From August 1946 to May 1948, British warships captured more than 52,000 Jews who sailed without permission to Israel. To discourage Holocaust survivors from trying again, they were confined in a prisoner-of-war camp, living in leaky tents and stifling tin huts, surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers. They lived with no electric lighting, limited water, and despicable sanitary conditions. Like the fictional Ben Canaan, Fried came to Cyprus from Israel, before it was a state.
Although the decision struck her like a thunderbolt, Fried’s background prepared her to tolerate such deprivation. One of five siblings, her mother fled Germany with the children when her father was arrested. He died in the torture camp in Saarbrücken. With the help of Henrietta Szold, Fried and her siblings escaped one by one to Israel through Youth Aliyah. Margalit spent her childhood at the Ahava Youth Village near Haifa, where the artistic girl was often asked to make handicrafts – wall hangings, embroidery and letter holders – used as village Hanukkah presents. After studying nursing, she worked in the maternity ward of Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Nurses were also sent to care for babies at home, and with her talents and intuition, Fried took care of two very sick infants herself.
Arriving in Cyprus, Fried dropped her bag in her tent and hurried to the baby house. “At Hadassah, everything was sterile. Here 60 babies and their parents were in such a small room and it was dark. I ran back to my tent. It took me a while to pull myself together and to remember my mission. That interval meant that when I arrived back to the Baby House, I was just in time to overhear a conversation by a nurse and doctor who were in an office near the entrance. They were sure a newborn was dying and wanted to call an ambulance so the baby would die in the ambulance and not in the camp, which might cause a riot. I saw the very young and frightened couple and the sick baby. I boldly offered to take care of him, and the doctor had no choice but to agree. The parents were from Hungary and didn’t speak Yiddish. Through the many volunteer translators I asked the young couple to entrust their son to my care. There wasn’t a minute to waste.
“At first they refused, but they gave in. There were no bottles. I could see he was dehydrated. I took him into a storeroom and with a teaspoon, I fed him drops of water. For two days and nights I gave him water. I washed him. I found him a carton for a baby bed. Three days later, he stopped throwing up. The baby house was noisy, but when people came near that room they whispered. Everyone knew something holy was going on. Two weeks later, I returned that baby to his mother. Another couple slipped a baby into my arms.”
Several months later, Nurse Fried was asked to sail with the 500 babies and their parents in the famous “Babies’ Ship” to Israel.
Parents carried babies in tin washtubs, together with their meager possessions. They handed their babies to Fried in the transport truck before climbing in themselves. At the port, they transferred to a dinghy, and again moved to a ship at sea.
“I had to go up and down the rope ladder to carry the babies up. Looking back, it didn’t occur to me that I might fall. Sixteen hours later, we landed in Haifa. It was the November 29, 1948 – the day the UN General Assembly voted to allow us to establish a state. Riots broke out, so I never got to go back to Cyprus. Soon we were at war and I became an Israeli army nurse.”
After the War of Independence, Fried worked for many years in public health nursing, married and brought up her two children. She never forgot Cyprus.
And what happened to that first baby she saved? Fried shrugs. She doesn’t even know his name.
Clearly something is afoot. The crowd stirs restlessly. Among the organizers of the event is a former Intel computer expert, Amir Rogel, whose parents were both interned in Cyprus. Rogel’s father, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, was the camp forger, providing papers for Palmah fighters who escaped through the tunnels to join forces in the War of Independence. Rogel inherited his intuition. Instead of pen and paper, he used his computer, developed an algorithm and created a Python code, an advanced programming language, which was designed to search for the mysterious baby. At last, he found a probable name: Meir Weiss. There were 30 persons named Meir Weiss listed in the Israeli phone book. Eliminating 29 was a long process.
A week before the event, he found the man. Meir Weiss, now 71, is a father of three and the retired baker of Herzliya’s “Conditoria Weiss,” famous for its cheesecake, frosted rum cakes, and its Hanukkah donuts.
The odyssey that began seven decades ago with a divine voice in her ear came to a happy ending this year on the eve of November 29, when Meir Weiss wrapped petite nurse Margalit in his stocky baker’s arms. He, and the rest of us, wept like a baby that an audacious young nurse had once brought him back to life.
Hanukkah sameah!
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.