“I never thought of settling in Israel, but I had no other place to go to”

Juan Esteban Hernandorena, also known as “Captain Steve,” was born in Spain in 1905 to a Catholic family. When he became  a Captain at the age of twenty two, he had no inkling that his vocation would make his life and destiny another thread in the tapestry of Jewish history and the history of the Jewish state, Israel

During the Spanish Civil War, Captain Steve joined forces with the Republicans against General Franco. Once the War ended, he and his family were forced to leave Spain. They moved to Mexico

 However, his  desire to continue the resistance against the Franco regime along with some of his fellow compatriots brought Captain Steve back to Europe, more precisely to Marseilles. It is there where his destiny first crossed paths with that of the Jewish people

The year was 1946. With World War II just over, many Jewish refugees were looking for ways to get to Eretz Yisrael where the British Mandate blocked their entry. Some succeeded. It was called Aliya Bet (Second Wave of immigration to Eretz Yisrael). Though Aliya Bet, which referred to all documented legal newcomers, started years earlier, the illegal entry of European refugees who escaped Nazi Europe and ran parallel to it was given the same name. Organizers of this undertaking approached Captain Steve and asked him to be in charge of a ship set to bring illegal immigrants to the Land of Israel

The name of the ship was “Pan York.” For fear that the British might be successful in obtaining an embargo and bar the ship’s departure , Captain Steve chose to leave Marseilles promptly and head towards Constanza, Romania, in the Black Sea. A short time after  they left Marseilles, the “Pan York” was joined by a British warship which escorted it all the way to the Straits of the Dardanelles where they finally  parted ways

While in Constanza, Captain Steve instructed his crew to prepare the ship for accommodating 7500 refugees. They added a kitchen, an operating room, toilets and proper ventilation. At the same time, they also prepared the ship for the possibility of having to avert any potential efforts made by the British to board the ship once they enter the territorial water of the Land of Israel

From Constanza, they sailed to Burgas, Bulgaria where they loaded refugees for three days straight. When they left Burgas on December 26, 1947, the ship had 8200 refugees, 700 more than what it was planned to accommodate. As they were getting ready to cross the Straights of the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean Sea, they were approached by two British war ships and one patrol boat. These accompanied them to Famagusta in Cyprus where the British ordered them to remove the passengers who were then transferred to detention camps

Captain Steve  and his staff toiled hard to deceive the British in every possible way. In one case, he was able to relieve some of his Spanish crew members, send them back home and replace them with Jewish refugees who managed to escape the detention camps. In another, they were able to  mislead them, in devious ways, into accepting that they needed more fuel for the ship. Their wish was granted  even though the British were getting suspicious. When the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, the British left the “Pan York” alone believing that it did not have enough fuel and, therefore, would never make it to Haifa safely

When the “Pan York” full of refugees finally reached the territorial water of Israel, still under British control, Captain Steve decided to await further instructions from the Mossad. Though he had received clearance and was told that a place was reserved for them in the port, Captain Steve did all he could to delay the boarding of the British onto the boat. Eventually they did get on board and arrested one of the passengers much to Captain Steve’s protest and remonstration

Several days later, when the British finally left Haifa, the “Pan York” entered the port.  In the following days and months, the ship made many trips to Cyprus to free more refugees where they were held against their will under devastating conditions in detention camps by the British and bring them to Israel

In the early fifties, Captain Steve and his family were granted Israeli citizenship and New Olim status

As always, Israel and the Jewish People remember and reward those that help save Jewish lives

Special thanks to my dear friends, Pilar Hernandorena  and Dr. Paul Brami for their wonderful help

About the Author
Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks is an English teacher and a pro Israel advocate. She lives in Israel and has recently published her first novel, "On A Wing From The Holy Land." www.bat-zion.name