In view of the ostentation of purpose exhibited, my asking whether I should bring my comrades one by one evoked merely a friendly laugh and the invitation to come in a bunch for it would make no difference.
So I brought them all over together and our whole intricate web of security seemed to have dissolved from disuse.
We expressed a wish to be off to Palestine immediately or at least as soon as was possible. A boat was due to leave in about a week’s time and we were promised a passage on it. Meanwhile, the contact told us, we could sojourn at the hotels where we were staying and make the most of our days in Milan until summoned. Our expenses would be paid. There was a camp where people were kept in transit but it would be much more comfortable at the hotels. In our idealism we refused the proffered luxury and also the offer of money. We asked to be sent to the camp so that we could meet the others, live with them and get to know them. It was against our principles to accept preferential treatment.
Our Spartan desires were not gainsaid and we were instructed to gather at the offices the following afternoon with all our luggage. A char-a-banc would take us to a refugee transit camp.
There was a mixed collection of passengers on the char-a-banc the following day when it wended its way through the busy streets of Milan, without attracting the least bit of attention, although some of us found it difficult to believe that to the outside world this seemed simply another mundane trip.
A warm reception awaited us at the camp which had once been a beautiful villa set in spacious grounds. Another party with their baggage boarded the vehicle as soon as we had debussed. They were on route to a port and a boat. For a moment, in our wilder hopes, we had thought that perhaps we would be taken directly to the port, but we were not to be so fortunate.
There were touching scenes of farewell and countless expressions of envy for the young men and women who occupied the places we had vacated. After their departure there was a moment for rest and an opportunity to pause and survey the surroundings. There were about one hundred inmates all told. Five were South African friends who overwhelmed us in their impetuosity to garner recent news and wheedle South African cigarettes. They had dark forebodings, as comparative “old-timers” at an institution always have for newcomers. They had been waiting several weeks and were weary of the delay. A similar fate was forecast for us. Our spirits fell. They laughed when we said that we had been promised that we would only be there a week. It happened that they were correct. We stayed at the camp for more than three weeks and they remained with us.
Those were very interesting, it not very comfortable or pleasant weeks. I saw, in miniature, the problems that I was to see in Israel later. The Nazi policy and its aftermath had left its mark and had produced characteristics, both good and bad. Here was a psychologist’s paradise where it would be inhuman to be merely scientific in ones behaviour and observations for one had to make compensations and try to understand. Those youngsters, our own age, had had no youth in any true sense of the term. They had aged too quickly with no opportunity to acquire many of the refinements of civilisation. Their memories were one-sided and warped. They had no happy past but they hoped to build a happy future in Palestine. They knew that they would have to struggle and fight and perhaps even die. One could not but forgive their failings although these sometimes annoyed and inconvenienced.
Those in our camp had been especially selected as the more idealistic and pioneering of the [Displaced persons] D.P’s of Jewish faith who wanted to go to Palestine. They had a priority passage for they wished to go into the army or to pioneer collective settlements on socialist principles.
Despite the unhappiness of their past they were not morose and dejected but lively and witty and gay and bubbling with practical jokes.
Coming mainly from Poland, Hungary and Romania, they looked up to the South Africans with respect and even gratitude. Not that they humbled themselves or regarded themselves as inferior. It was more a question of appreciation for the generous succour South African Jewry had given them and Palestine over a long period of years and because we had volunteered to come to Palestine to assist in the struggle. They themselves and given up little, they said. Europe held nothing for them. They had left no comfortable life and luxury.
In the English-speaking countries things were different, however, they said. They appreciated our giving up our professions and our homes and our automobiles and coming thousands of miles to risk our lives in upholding a cause in which we believed. At times they seemed somewhat awed by the knowledge that we had had a much higher standard of living than that to which they had been accustomed during the war years.
For this reason perhaps they raised no complaint at the fact that the first group of South Africans had their own kitchen, where they prepared their own food and the food for the Palestinian staff who dined with them. A protest was soon heard, however, from a most unexpected quarter. While the first group of South Africans saw nothing amiss in this arrangement our group did. We thought it wrong for us to have a separate kitchen and consequently, as it turned out, better food. Were we not all going to the same country and for the same cause? Discussions took place on the subject and at times waxed bitter and heated. Matters came to a head when the Danes arrived. They were nine and had come from Copenhagen.
Without exaggeration I can say that they were some of the finest fellows I have ever met in my life. In the months to come I came to know them very well and appreciated them all the more. The new bone of contention was where would the Danes eat? No aspersions could be cast on their habits, manners and culture which were of the highest. As no further accommodation was available in the little mess for any more people, the Danes could not eat with us, although they were keen to do so. The alternative was for them to eat with the mass of the D.P’s. If they ate with the D.P’s why should we eat separately? The idealists carried the day. It was decided that except for the staff all should eat together.
It must be admitted that in the future the idealist had moments when they questioned their idealism and the others said: “We told you so.” The new arrangement was a come-down, not only in the quality of the food but even more so in the manner in which it was prepared and served and in the lack of cleanliness.
The hygienic conceptions of the D.P’s were rudimentary. The first batch of South Africans had been amongst the first group of people to move into the villa and they had had to shoulder the burden of making the place habitable, for until they came others had been satisfied with very primitive spring-cleaning. The latter had little appreciation of the purpose of the flush lavatories and water-closets and did not bother about them at all one they were blocked. Instead of cleaning them they ignored them and preferred to use vacant plots of ground outside. So the South Africans cleaned them.
On our initiative the Palestinian staff gave the D.P’s lectures on hygiene and related topics which helped a little.
The Palestine staff, young and friendly, were fine people and we got on well with most of them. One or two, however, were vain, conceited, domineering and boastful. These we had little time for and soon came into conflict with them. There was one in particular, by the name of Amos, who believed in treating everyone like a naughty school-child and was continually shouting, blustering and threatening. His tactics did not work with us and we quite openly gave him our opinion of them. He apologised and said that he was thinking in terms of and acting in that fashion for the sake of the refugees and that it was not meant for us. We took up the cudgels on their behalf although it was difficult to know where to draw the line. Obviously a certain camp discipline was necessary and we obeyed such necessary measure although we were under no obligation to do so and often found them irksome.
At capricious regulations we rebelled, however. Amos laid down a rule that when the table were lad for meals and the food had been served no one was commence to eating until he had given his permission. He would bellow “Good Appetite!” as a signal and then strut away. Once he tried to force someone, who had eaten without his permission, to leave the table. The fellow, a bulking, clumsy individual refused.
Amos tried to remove him by force and we intervened. Afterwards we sent a delegation to him and criticised his policy. He replied that the people were accustomed to strict Gestapo-like discipline from the concentration camps and that his policy and demeanour were justified. We advanced views to the contrary. Anything savouring of the camps and the gruesome experiences of the past was out of place here. The refugees should be made to forget and be taught to be free. They should be treated as individuals who could think for themselves. To a small degree the victory was ours. Amos repented and reformed as far as it was in his nature to do so.
Another contentious point was that of obtaining permission to leave the camp. Many of us wanted to see a bit of Italy while waiting. Generally, and almost invariably, our requests for leave were refused. There was nothing to do to stop us walking out, of course, but we were reluctant to be absent in case a boat should leave at a few hours notice. We had no definite news about ships and shipping.
Amongst themselves the Danes and South Africans observed a voluntary, self-imposed discipline and rarely absented themselves from the camp. Meanwhile, in the nature of an honour and as a sign of trust, we were asked to undertake the duty of guarding the camp gates during the day or so as to prevent unauthorised persons from entering and the refugees from leaving without a pass. Every effort was made to keep the refugees inside and because of this we bore our restrictions with good grace. Most of the refugees had no money or else very little. None was given them so that if they went outside to a town the less strong-willed were in the habit of taking sundry articles from the camp’s equipment, such as blankets, and selling them on the black market to raise funds. The leaders of the camp were perturbed lest they be caught and the police make investigations which might lead to the camp. The obvious solution was to provide the refugees with an allowance when they went out on pass, but either there was not sufficient money available or else this expedient was not considered. Nor were we overflowing with money and many of us had none at all. There was a fruit and nut vendor who came to peddle his wares daily and by purchases one was able to augment the meagre diet. Often it was better to buy nothing at all, if there were many in the vicinity who had no money and one could not afford to buy for them too, although whenever the latter course was possible most of us distributed our purchases amongst the others.
I found the meals an ordeal and I’m not fussy about food. One had to eat for one could obtain sustenance no place else. With regular monotony the diet consist of bread-rolls, oily soup in unclean receptacles and big, massive helping of potatoes and onions, which the refugees devoured in large quantities but to which we could never accustom ourselves. Most unappetising was the greasy and unhygienic way the food was served.
To return to the gate. We also had to keep people out for security reasons. It was difficult to know who was “persona grata” and who was not. In case of doubt one had to summon Amos and he was often a devil of a time in coming. Meanwhile the visitor fussed and fumed. Once Amos was not annoyed with me because I let a husband in to see his wife whom he had not set eyes upon for some time. Apparently Amos had a grudge against him.
Later Amos became very friendly and came and sat at the gate and chatted. Unfortunately we had no common language. He knew no English and we knew little Yiddish or Hebrew. He generally talked about revolvers. There are a surprisingly large variety of makes and calibres and Amos was eager to air his knowledge of these lethal weapons.
Language was a big problem at this camp. The staff spoke a very good English on the whole but the refugees knew no English at all. Yiddish was their medium. Some of us knew Yiddish but many didn’t. Not knowing Yiddish well I spoke Italian to such refugees as knew the language.
The Danes each spoke several languages including English so here there was no problem. The big problem was the Hungarian group who knew neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. Fortunately one of their number knew both these languages and acted as an interpreter. It was awkward being in the presence of one’s own people, inspired by the same ideals and yet being unable to converse with them. They might as well have come from another planet. There was a barrier. Yet several months later, when we met in Israel, we could converse for we had learnt Hebrew.
The South Africans shared rooms with the Danes with whom we were on very friendly terms and in each of our rooms we had a wireless-set. Every night we tuned in to news broadcasts in a variety of languages and had “open house.” There were regular sessions to cater for the demand for a variety of languages, which continued until a late hour. It seemed like a cross between the League of Nations and the tower of Babel. Having little else to do we spent many hours daily listening to the wireless, particularly to the U.N.O. debates on Palestine from Lake Success. We compared the B.B.C. News and that of the American Forces Radio, delighting in the discrepancies between the two. A morse expert in our midst also made unsuccessful attempts to receive the Haganah transmitting station in Palestine.
We grew somewhat tired, bored and impatient at the delay. We were eager to be in Palestine. The taciturn staff gave us no definite information. We hardly saw them. Try as we might we found out nothing. Those of us who knew a little Hebrew never revealed the fact as we hoped that the staff would talk openly in front of us in Hebrew, not expecting us to understand. In this manner information might have been obtained. All to no avail. The days passed lazily and tediously. We gleaned information about the backgrounds of one another; we taught the Roumanians South African songs and dances and learnt theirs in turn. They were very lively and one had to be on one’s guard continually for they were always up to god-natured mischief.
Training was limited to learning drill in Hebrew and to lessons in the stave or big stick, to which the Arabs sometimes have recourse. Football was a regular pastime and the more conscientious spent several hours daily learning Hebrew.
We suffered from a dearth of suitable feminine company. Girls there were, but almost all of them were married, despite their youth, to boys not much older than themselves. Early marriage seems to have been the rule for since the couples intended to go to agricultural co-operatives, where they would both be provided for, there were no economic obstacles to matrimony. The South Africans and Danes often had discussions amongst themselves as to whether the girls in the camp appealed to them and the verdict was generally in the negative.
Perhaps the fact that they were married and the lack of a common language never enabled us to really understand them, but we found them so different from the young women of our countries of origin. They were completely lacking in femininity. They used no make-up and were hefty and thick in build. Their legs and calves were massive and several of them wore boots. In their mannerisms too they were masculine and aggressive.
The accommodation question was not satisfactory at the camp. Most of the inhabitants were billeted in three or four large rooms where men and woman, married and single, all lived with little or no privacy.
Our hopes of being in Palestine by May 15th, when the Jewish State was due to be proclaimed, were fast receding when the situation took a new turn. We were prepared for our departure and given instructions. We were issued with new identities and often with new names and data which had to be memorised and we had to mark our baggage accordingly. Our trip had been planned down to the most minute detail.
Early in May we once more boarded a char-a-banc, this time for a lengthier trip to an Italian port. A trailer had been attached and with this load the going was slow, occupying the better part of a day.
Our group boarded the ship, in a party, with the greatest of ease. Some “tourists” from countries of Eastern Europe had come aboard. It was a pleasant little Italian vessel, clean and neat and the food proved to be wholesome and well prepared.
At the camp we had been warned to be cautious and to play our part correctly, not talk English and so forth. That was a difficult demand for we had to struggle to converse in Yiddish. But apparently even this was unnecessary according to the Haganah agent at the port. Everyone knew who we were and did not seem to care. We continued the pretence for a day or two, however, mainly with the waiters with whom we had regular contact. It was awkward. They spoke German to us and we made no reply or else spoke in Italian. Despite the inscrutable look common to waiters we were sure that they knew everything so we began to speak English and felt more at ease.
The ships departure was delayed for a day by some mechanical fault and, on advice, we stayed below as for as possible. Most of the passengers were “attached” to our scheme so we had quite a jolly little company for there were others also en route to Israel, who had not been in the camp.
Thanks to the elements the voyage was pleasant. There was a woman on board who claimed to have something to do with the Haganah. She was forever telling us about Palestine and what a wonderful country it was. She was quite a good dice player and we played this game for amusement but not for money.
A minor uproar was caused on board when we were informed that we were expected to pay a few shillings for deck-chairs, It was a catastrophe for people in our financial standing. Still we managed to hire a few chairs.
One day we were steaming along pleasantly when an Italian destroyer loomed over the horizon and gave chase. It was a menacing situation for she came for us with all her guns manned and forced us to stop. A boarding party came to the ship. Our captain was quite co-operative, but the sailors on the destroyer still manned their guns while all our passengers stood by the rails and awaited developments. Nothing spectacular happened. It seemed as if they were merely looking for arms. Finding none and checking that the ship’s papers were in order the boarding party returned to the destroyer. There was another abortive scare. It had been announced that we would call at Alexandria, Egypt. Not a pleasant thought for those of us who had been in Cairo recently. We were warned to keep below deck all the time and to make no transactions with Egyptian hawkers who might come on board, lest they accuse us of some trumped up charge and call in authority. The fact that Italian law applies on an Italian ship was some consolation. Apparently the Egyptians could not force us to leave the boat. These conjectures were never put to the test, however. The boat did not call at Alexandria. Rumour said that the Egyptians had warned the captain not to stop there.
The burning question then was Tel Aviv of Haifa? Both are ports, but it would be easier to get ashore, without closer investigation, at Tel Aviv, the all Jewish city where the port and immigration officials were Jewish, than at Haifa where the majority of such officials were British. The difficulty was that Tel Aviv port facilities were comparatively poor and passengers had to go ashore in lighters. Even this depended on the roughness, or rather calmness, of the sea. If the waves were even somewhat unruly the passengers would have to land at Haifa. One could only wait and see.
On the night of Sunday, May 9th, we neared the shores of Palestine. I shall never forget that night. The sea was calm and the air was stirred only by a faint, cooling breeze. The sky was a starry palace. It was quiet ane peaceful when some of us gathered on deck and with a portable radio searched the ether for verbal contact with Palestine. The woman who played dice was the mentor. At last. Out of the darkness and the stars came a voice in Hebrew. It was “Kol Yisrael,” the “Voice Of Israel,” calling from the troubled land. There were reports of clashes and casualties.
And then something followed that deeply impressed me. The football results. And a sports talk. If a nation facing its destiny and preparing for a struggle had time for football and sport all was well.
We retired, most of us to get no sleep and were up early the next morning for a first glimpse of the shores of the holy land.