Memorials to a stormy past

Courageous illegal immigration is immortalized in stone.

memormet88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
memormet88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
A memorial park dedicated to those who, in the 1930s and 40s were the saviors of illegal immigrants struggling to reach the shores of Palestine, shares a Tel Aviv beachfront site with another remembrance corner. Surprisingly, the second memorial is to the very people whose government dashed the dreams of hundreds of thousands of European Jews fleeing the Nazis' murderous clutches. Glistening in the noon sunshine, a metal plaque in an open garden area, between two high-rise beachfront hotels on Rehov Bogroshov reads: "The London Garden, inaugurated May l942 and dedicated to the City of London as a token of identification of the inhabitants of Tel Aviv with the British Nation, who suffered from severe intensive German bombing at the time of the Blitz during the Second World War." Below the London Garden is an artistically impressive and emotion-sparking memorial park commemorating the 123 ships and their crews who carried out more than 141 hazardous missions smuggling Jewish refugees to Palestine. Around 120,000 Jews were brought here this way, under the very noses of British Mandate soldiers stationed along the coast. Another few thousand refugees and the crews of the ships transporting them were captured by the British at sea and sent to detention camps in Cyprus and Atlit, near Haifa. The Ha'apala Memorial is dedicated to the illegal immigration crews and the vessels that ploughed through the Mediterranean Sea with their emotionally and physically ravaged human cargos. The memorial park incorporates elements of ships, crews and the sea. Two large reconstructed decks, facing in opposite directions, give one the feeling of being at the helm of history, aided by photographs and texts embedded in the ships' outer bows. Here one can read (in English) that in l917, when British foreign minister Lord Balfour declared "His Majesty's government views with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine," there were only 60,000 Jews in Palestine. Twice as many more were brought in through ha'apala (illegal immigration). When the traffic doesn't drown it out, one can hear the gentle lapping of the Mediterranean as waves lick the beach on the other side of Rehov Herbert Samuel, adding natural background music and authenticity to those "on board" in the park. Large metal plaques, shaped like cresting waves, are inscribed (in Hebrew) with the names of all the ships that clandestinely brought refugees to Palestine from l934 until the State of Israel was created in l948. Two other ships are also mentioned. The first attempted to smuggle Jews into Israel 13 years after the state was founded; the second carried arms. Sailing from Morocco clandestinely in l961, the "Egoz" sank at sea with all crew and passengers lost. The gun-smuggling vessel was the "Altalena" of the Etzel underground organization, which attempted to bring arms into the country after the founding of the state. The name "Exodus" stands out. Stopped by the British with 4,500 refugees on board - most of whom ended up being sent back to Germany - the ensuing events propelled Leon Uris to write the novel Exodus, and Hollywood film moguls to turn Paul Newman into one of the most famous non-Israeli Sabras of all time. The funds for the Ha'apala Memorial were donated by British businessman Sir Ronald Cohen and his wife, Lady Sharon Harel Cohen. It is dedicated to the memory of Sir Ronald's father, Michael Cohen, who was born in Cairo in l913 and died in London in the late 1990s. Lady Sharon's father, Yossi Cohen, was the commander of the "Exodus." The initiative behind the innovative and important memorial originally came from a group of Israelis who were personally involved with the illegal immigration campaign. Among them was former Knesset member and founder of the Nitzana youth village on the Egyptian border, Lova Eliav, who commanded one of the ships, and Shmuel Yanai, who commanded Palyam, which became the Israel Navy after the state was founded. A smaller version of the large decks, painted bright yellow with a nearby sandbox, can be found on the lowest tier of the memorial park. The kiddies' play area was well in use the day Metro visited. It is unlikely that the three-year-old captain on the deck gazing out across the road to the calm and glimmering sea comprehended the stormy times of yesteryear.