Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor
Written by Ichac Weizman (Wajcman) in 1995
Annex A 1997
Annex B August 2003
Translated from Hebrew by Dikla Weizman née Yeffet
MY LIFE STORY
The ship Caf-Gimel sailed on August 2nd 1946, several days after the ship Catriel Hayafe (beautiful Catriel) and from the same port Miaponto. Most people on the ship were from Poland. The commander of the ship was Israel Aharonov (later Oren) and its escorts were Israel Rozenbaum (later Rotem) and the “Gideoni” Yitzhak Etkin.
According to the original plan we had to transfer the passengers and the teams (except the Italian team) to the deck of Catriel Hayafe in the midst of the sea. Because of engine trouble our boat sailed very slowly with the help of a sail and never met the other ship. All the plans went wrong. There were unexpected problems like lack of food, water, medicines and prolonged treatment of the sick.
As an organized group we had to keep the order, encourage people and help those that needed it. We were the parallel and replacing team of the Italian team. It was not a simple job. Among the passengers were pregnant women and adults that did not stop vomiting. The truth was that we ourselves did not feel well. We were terribly tired and we also knew the truth about the condition of the ship, which was not known to the passengers so that they would not panic.
We were in the midst of the sea. It was more then a week since we left our port of sail. Our progress was very slow. We were instructed to reduce the quotas of food and water. The original schedule went wrong.
As if it was not enough trouble another one was added. The ship started leaning on its side. There was a crack in one of her outer walls and seawater started seeping into one of her stores. The emergency pumps were activated but it was not enough. Only few people on the ship knew about it, even without that the passengers including us were frightened and exhausted.
After a day or two people started understanding that something was happening. The nervousness grew, tension mounted and panic started. It was obvious that we could not hide the fact that seawater was infiltrating the ship for much longer. People started coming to the upper deck in daylight, which was forbidden. We started losing control but it was not a total loss of control. If the passengers knew the real extent of the damage and danger the situation would have been much worse.
Our life depended on the pumping power of the pumps. If, Heaven forbid, the pumps failed who knows what our fate would be. In that desperate situation we had to calm the passengers and even lie and say that the situation was not worrying.
The Italian captain did not succeed to contact the port or the ship Catriel Hayafe. Again the unknown confronted us. Again our life was in danger. It never occurred to us that so soon, a short time after our liberation from the Nazi hell, we would again be in danger of life. Indeed the reasons were different, we took a risk for a cause, the will to come to Eretz Israel and start a new life like the other prisoners that returned to their homelands, but when faced with a very concrete danger of life the questions awoke again: was there any purpose to fight for life when the cost was life?
I had no doubt that I had chosen the right way. Almost since the day I was born I suffered and was humiliated because I was a Jew. It was the first chance (and maybe the last) to take an active part in making the wish to go to Eretz Israel come true. My parents did not understand the need to fight in order to go to Eretz Israel. They had the financial means to do it, without any doubt they could have done it, many Jews from Poland immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1935 – 1938, but they were not aware of the need to leave Poland or did not wish to do it.
I did not lose for a moment the faith and hope that in spite of all the trouble we would succeed to reach our goal. Not all of the almost 800 people on the ship could stand the pressure. Some started behaving in an irrational way, but most of the people behaved wisely. Some showed exceptional behavior and helped us. They organized entertaining games and singings so as to take the passengers mind off the worry and fear that were quite natural.
Fifteen days after we left our port of sail, tired and dirty, hungry and desperate we were standing on the deck openly waiting for a miracle, and like in all fairy tales it happened. Suddenly we heard the noise of an airplane coming nearer. We immediately saw the British insignia. The airplane made several rounds above us and disappeared. We were sure that the British discovered the ship. We did not know whether to be glad or sorry. We knew that our lives had been saved. The British would help us for sure. On the other hand we were not sure if they would let us come into the country. The odds of that were not good.
After several hours a huge ship appeared on the horizon. As it came nearer she, of course, looked bigger. In the end the British warship tied our ship to her. We were towed to the port of Haifa by the British warship. On August 1946 I reached Eretz Israel for the first time but I did not have the privilege of entering it. We stayed in the port of Haifa.
At the port the British soldiers tried to transfer us to the destroyer and we resisted but the British force was much stronger. It was a powerful force armed with clubs and guns. In spite of the fact that we were exhausted, hungry and thirsty we managed to resist the transfer to the deportation ship for hours. Our ship commander was ordered to let the British soldiers board the ship but to resist any attempt to transfer us to the deportation ship. Some of the passengers hid in the stores. Others stood arm-in-arm surrounding the women and not letting the soldiers touch them.
The British soldiers used reasonable force not more than that. They succeeded to overcome us by using tear-gas and water jets. We stood against strong water jets beatings and swearing. Nobody passed to the deportation ship without resistance. Several British soldiers dragged each and every one. Some wanted to jump into the sea and swim to shore but were ordered not to because it was feared that the British planted mines around the ship.
We were transferred to the deportation ship whose name was Empire Highwood. After 24 hours we were again in a camp, a tent camp in Cyprus.
We were in Cyprus in camp 60, which was the first in a long line of camps, just near the seashore. The Italian team and the Eretz Israeli team, the soldiers of the Palmach that escorted us were also transferred with us.
We watched the British guards in their guard towers night after night round the fence. We watched the guards in order to enable the Palmach fighters to dig a tunnel under the fence and to escape through it and get back to Eretz Israel in an undercover way arranged by people outside of the camp. In order to be a member of the watch group we had to take an oath of secrecy and to promise not to tell anything if we were caught.
The oath of allegiance ceremony was performed in a secret impressive way. We were led at night one-by-one to a dark tent; we stood in front of the commander on whose table laid a pistol and a Bible. I put one hand on the pistol and the second on the Bible. The commander whispered and I had to repeat ‘I swear to keep faith and secrecy to the Hagana and be ready to perform any given task with dedication and self-sacrifice’. We were very impressed by the oath of allegiance ceremony. We felt that we were actually taking part in the struggle against the British.
The camp grew bigger because more illegal passengers were caught and deported to Cyprus. Until April 1946 the ships sailed covertly without any cooperation of the Italian Authorities. On April 1946 the Italians stopped a convoy of refugees because of lack of information and so they caused the failure of the sailing of the ship Pizza 2. Because of that the people in charge of the transportation of the refugees decided to try to get in touch with the Italian government and have some sort of arrangement with it.
Mrs. Ada Syreny, who was also called Clare, took that assignment upon herself. She had deep roots in the Italian Society and its culture. She had the appearance of a respected high ranked determined lady and she found ways to reach the highest levels of the Italian Authorities. The Authorities did not openly give political support to the immigration but usually they turned a blind eye and more than once they even helped.
Because of the weak international position of Italy just after the war, the Authorities could not allow the sailing of big ships, with thousands of refugees, but they treated smaller sailings favorably. The Italian government answered formally the British government’s requests to stop the illegal immigration but did not do anything to fight or stop it. So, in intervals of several weeks between one sailing to the next, more ships sailed to Eretz Israel with more refugees.
On August 18th 1946, the ship Amiram succeeded in bringing 187 refugees to Eretz Israel without being caught. It was the first ship that broke through the British blockade on the shores of Eretz Israel that was cast since the beginning of the deportations to Cyprus. That success gave hope to the refugees and their escorts that were still in Italy. But that hope did not come true. Most of the ships were caught and the refugees were deported to Cyprus. We were among the first deportees.
Again we were surrounded by barbed-wire fence and guard towers. Again we were locked under guard, this time under British rule. We were a short distance from Eretz Israel, but the prospect of reaching it was still far away.
It was easy to become depressed and go back to the prisoners’ mentality that we were used to, but the youth guides that were sent from Eretz Israel took care of us. We had a daily schedule of studies, sports, organized commune life and were taught individual self-care.
Already in Cyprus our group started its first steps towards communal life. The name of the group was Ge’ulim meaning in Hebrew “The liberated (or saved)” because we were liberated and saved from the Nazi hell. We established a communal kitchen, clothes storage and put our money in a communal treasury. We had our own institutes: group secretariat, treasurer, store-person and a committee of culture and social activities. The togetherness gave us much confidence and interests. We were exceptional in the camp. Many wanted to join us but we were advised not to take in new people that we did not know very well.
Stubbornly we went on speaking only Hebrew among us and continued to study according to the curriculum. The guides from Eretz Israel informed us about what was going on there. Through them we received letters and books from our friends in Mizra.
The living conditions in Cyprus were not very comfortable but for us, “B.A. graduates of Auschwitz”, the life in Cyprus camp was not a real hardship. We were used to much worse conditions. Comparing the German camps to the British one, the first were hell and the second was paradise. We were not free but we had everything we needed, economic, cultural and social necessities.
The British did not interfere at all in our life. We could do whatever we wanted to fill the free time that we had in abundance. In that case we also had the advantage of being an organized group that had a daily schedule and used all the means available to spend the free time wisely.
Most of the people in the camp were lonely. There were only few families. They did not have friends, no organized group or anything to do. For them the stay in the camp was very distressing and brought back ways of thinking and behavior like in the wartime with the Germans.
I personally, as a prisoner, had the privilege of twice visiting the town of Famagusta, which was not far from the camp. I was in charge of the economic needs of the group so I went once with one of our youth guides from Eretz Israel to do the shopping. She was allowed aloud to take me with her and was responsible to bring me back that was a one-time exception. The second time I arrived at Famagusta because I was wounded. I strained my leg muscle as a result of using too much effort in a football game for which I had not had enough prior training. In the hospital I had a wonderful treatment. In spite of the pain I enjoyed lying in a clean white bed and the running around me of lovely caring nurses. I stayed in the hospital for almost a week. It was a refreshing change in an atmosphere of freedom and warmth. I was not guarded in any way and I was sorry to leave the hospital.
I returned to the camp healthy, after a nice experience, to the less comfortable conditions. We got used to the physical and economical state in the camp but we could not accept the fact that the British locked the gates of Eretz Israel. We were very angry with them, for us they were the ultimate enemy although they treated us relatively fair and considerately.
We also heard that the Jewish community in Eretz Israel (the Yishuv) reacted with rage and protest actions. The British imposed a curfew, especially on Haifa. This is a quote from a newspaper, which we received at that time:
‘Already at night the British army started hunting curfew breakers who wanted to replenish food supplies. They locked up 1500 people in two big plots, one near Shell and the other in Shukery st. In the morning of August 13th 1946, when the intention to deport illegal Jewish passengers became known, thousands broke the curfew and started going towards the port. According to the instructions of the community council work was stopped from 6 A.M. till midnight. Many people gathered in Kiryat-Eliyahu and Hadar Hacarmel. Several groups were with soldiers. In Zvulun st. soldiers shot and killed without any prior warning three protestors: Avigayil Weinbrand 19 years old, Emil Malitz 30 years old and Ze’ev Carmy 14 yeas old. Those were the first victims of the campaign against the deportation to Cyprus. During that day seven more protestors were wounded. Towards evening protest meetings were held in the National Funds Square in Hadar Hacarmel.’
Another quote from a newspaper that we received at that time:
‘The ship was discovered not far from the Haifa shore. When she reached the port she tried to slip away from the Authorities by sabotaging the anchor’s chain, accompanied by very loud singing of the passengers.
The wind pushed the ship towards Kiryat-Hayim, but the Arab policemen that were boarded on the ship noticed it and started yelling. The ship was caught quickly and was chained to the coast cruiser Mauritius that carried 1500 soldiers. The ship commander was ordered to let the soldiers board the ship without resistance but to resist any attempt to transfer the passengers to the deportation ship that was about to go back to Cyprus. Explosives were smuggled aboard the ship in order to damage the deportation ship. The passengers fiercely resisted the transfer to the deportation ship Empire Highwood. First they hid in the stores. The men stood arm-in-arm surrounding the women and stood bare-chested facing the water jets that the British soldiers splashed on them. The soldiers did not use firearms – they overcame the passengers with clubs and tear gas. In order to prevent the passengers from jumping into the sea the soldiers laid depth sea mines around the ship. During the transfer most of the explosives were smuggled on the bodies of the women. The Palmach warriors from the unit of marine sabotage succeeded to sneak into the lower store of the ship and put the explosives there. The explosives indeed exploded but there was not much damage. Still, the sailing of the ship Empire Highwood was detained for four days, and only then were the passengers deported to Cyprus’. End of quote.
We were encouraged by the events in Eretz Israel and by the behavior of the Hebrew community there. We felt that we were an organic part of that community who cared for us and did not forget us. This inspired faith and hope. We knew that we were not alone. We hoped that the struggle would force the British to liberate us soon and we would sail to Eretz Israel.
In the camp we also were not sitting with folded arms. We organized many protest actions.
On New Year Eve’s 1947, we received the good news. Our turn to go to Eretz Israel came at last after four months stay in camp 60 in Cyprus. We were told by the messengers to be prepared to leave in one day, at the most in two days.
We were very skeptic about that massage. We had long experience with false rumors, especially because we saw that the camp was expanded in order to have room for more deportees.
The pressure to let refugees enter Eretz Israel was growing. More ships were coming. The protest actions of the Hebrew community grew stronger. In the camp many protest actions were organized. All that probably forced the British to make some changes in their policy. Parallel to the deportations they decided to enlarge the quota of entrance permits for Holocaust survivors. Probably because we were among the first to be deported to Cyprus we were also among the first to get entrance permits.
Indeed that time it was not a false rumor. A messenger of the Jewish Agency that worked in the camp brought the forms with the names of those that were permitted to go to Eretz Israel.
Our joy was without boundaries. We cried with joy. We hugged, kissed and were like dreamers whose their dreams had come true. We quickly dismantled the tents and our big common store with all its contents and started packing. We packed everything: food, clothes, footgear and books. We knew that the situation in Eretz Israel was difficult and it might be that we would need all those things for the continuance of our communal way of life. Of course each of us also packed hers or his meager personal belongings.
Those were hours of joy and elation. We had a feeling of victory and liberation even more than on our liberation day from the Nazis. Then we did not know where to go. We saw the fate of the Wandering Jew without a place on the earth and without a homeland, but now we had a clear goal. Our will won. The struggle was not in vain; we spent all our time and energy from the day we were liberated from the Nazis for preparing to go to Eretz Israel.
We risked our lives for that happy moment. We knew and understood the risks we undertook when we had decided to go illegally to Eretz Israel. In spite of the risks we did not hesitate even for a moment.
We decided to hold a farewell party. All the people in the camp were invited, including, of course, the guides from Eretz Israel. It was an evening of elation and real joy about at last being liberated from camps and starting a normal free life. Still, we had doubts that the reality in Eretz Israel was not as rosy as we imagined.
We had no illusions. We knew in a general way about what was going on in Eretz Israel and also in the Kibbutzim. We followed the struggle of the Hebrew community against the British and the price in victims, arrests etc. it took. We also knew that it was not just by chance that young people were the first to be liberated. The Hebrew community needed us. The fight against the British and maybe also against the Arab enemy was not finished. Surly we would have to go on fighting in Eretz Israel. It could be that we would have to join the fight without completing our studies.
Our dream was becoming reality with all its components. Practical rational thinking was needed in order to avoid illusions and disappointments. Fortunately we were young but we had long experience with hardships and drastic changes in locations and life conditions. We believed that we could go through the adjustment period in Eretz Israel without too many difficulties and crises.
We had apprehensions about our friend who were already in Kibbutz Mizra. What was the amount of ability and will to go on living together as one training group? The severance, the time that had elapsed, the living condition and the education differences surely caused a mental difference between the two groups. It might be that we would not be able to bridge the gap. We felt that severance was created by the time elapsed since our separation in Italy. Only few of the members of the Mizra group corresponded with us. We had to assume that there would be difficulties. It was clear to most of us that our place was in the Kibbutz. That was the way of life for which we were trained.
We believed with the typical naïveté of youth, especially young people like us, all of us orphans without any relatives in the whole world and for whom nobody was waiting in Eretz Israel, that the group of our friends that came to Eretz Israel before us laid the foundation for our reception in the Kibbutz and becoming a part of the community.
But since then almost two years had passed. Many things changed. The first group was absorbed in Mizra. They studied, worked and had military training with the Palmach. Another youth group joined them whose members were not known to us. The group changed mentally and socially. Their absorption in the Kibbutz was successful and there was mutual satisfaction on both sides – the members of the Kibbutz and the youth group. The members of the group had strong good relations with the young people of the Kibbutz, the daughters and sons of the founders and there were even mixed couples. They adjusted very quickly to the manner of life in the Kibbutz and they were closer to the Eretz Israeli reality than to us. We felt that they kept aloof from us and did not really fight for our reunion. We still demanded to go to Mizra.
Still in Cyprus, a few hours before we left the camp, we were told that Mizra could not take us in without explaining the reasons, so it would be better that we should not entertain illusions and hopes. The maximum that the Hashomer Hatzair could say, but not promise, was that it would try to place us in a Kibbutz near Mizra so that we would be able to meet our friends often and renew our social relations with them.
Personally I was devoted in my heart and soul to the group. I never thought about another way of life except the Kibbutz. In my naïveté and lack of knowledge I thought that it was the only way of life in Eretz Israel. I was very serious about the social activity. For me the group was my home and future. In any group of people there are those that care more and those that care less about communal affairs. There is always a small, devoted, naïve core that takes charge of things.
The majority is usually passive, and is less interested. I was one of the small core of group members that cared, led, decided and organized most of the choices of the group.
In those hours before we left the camp there were voices in the group that said that even if we were allowed to join Mizra we should refuse. We did not need them and we should not grovel. We were very much offended by the indifference that practically showed that the Mizra group was not really interested to be united with us again. On the other hand there were those who said that we should not blame the whole group but just the leaders. We decided not to make any decisions until we met them and thought again according to the new reality in Eretz Israel.
Tense and impatient we sat on our suitcases, or more accurately, on our packages and crates. After a taut nerve wrecking wait, the British lorries at last arrived and took us to the port of Famagusta. At the port waited a ship that was supposed to take us to Eretz Israel.
At the port we started to have many doubts about the sailing destination. Why were we still under heavy British guard? Why we were not allowed to move freely in the port, to visit or do some shopping? We were treated like regular prisoners. We asked, yelled, rebelled but to no avail. ‘Those are the orders which we received’ the soldiers claimed. ‘For us you are prisoners, law breakers and your place is in prison’. When we heard the soldiers’ answers we became angry and depressed. Could it be that we were not going to Eretz Israel? Could it be that we were transferred to another location further from Eretz Israel? We were sure that it was a deception trick of the British.
Our bitter war experiences taught us to be suspicious and doubtful, especially because we had news from Eretz Israel that the Hebrew community was rebelling and the British treated the fighters and demonstrators harshly.
We boarded the ship with mixed feelings. We marched through a guard line of British soldiers that stood along the whole course. We were very quiet, thinking our own thoughts and waiting for the move.
Our guides that escorted us tried to cheer us with singing or conversation but without much success.
One of the guides approached the British officer and asked him to calm us and assure us that we were sailing to Eretz Israel. His request was granted and that was what the officer said:
‘We really treat you harshly because of reasons we have no control of, but a British soldier is a fair person and does not lie. You can be calm and happy.
Only then we relaxed and started dancing and singing in front of the astonished British soldiers. We were so glad and joyful that we did not feel how time passed when suddenly the Mounts of Carmel were revealed with the many lights that seemed to be dancing. It was a wonderful impressive sight.
As we approached the shore the blaze of the lights expanded. The city of Haifa and its neighborhoods could be seen in their entire splendor. We were filled with pride and satisfaction to see a Hebrew city bustling with life.
A dream comes true.
When the ship was maneuvering her entrance into the port, we were standing crowded on the deck, we saw a small motorboat aboard in which were four persons waving their hands welcoming us to Eretz Israel.
The people on the boat asked us, using an amplifier, if there were passengers among us who did not feel well or seriously sick. The expression “seriously sick” was engraved in my mind for a long time, because not everyone, truly, most of the passengers, did not understand its meaning. People asked us what the people on the boat meant. When we heard the question in Hebrew we were really convinced that we were in Eretz Israel. All of us became healthy and nobody complained. The motorboat returned to the port.
Continue - Part V
Last updated December 6th, 2005