Karen A. Frenkel

On Shipwrecked Migrants and Refugees Then and Now

This is the passport my grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel, got from the Polish Consulate in Tel-Aviv after he left Camp Atlit in mid-August 1944. He almost boarded a ship that was torpedoed and sank in the Black Sea.

Last Tuesday morning I woke up to a horrific story that Reuters ran about 59 refugees whose ship sank off the coast of Italy. Among them were twelve children. Evidently they were Afghan and Iranian refugees, who had for a time lived in Turkey and then had to flee again.

The story of the shipwreck brought me right back to what happened to my grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel, who was a Polish Jew from Lwów, now Lviv, Ukraine. In 1941 the Nazis took the city from the Soviets and began to purge the city of Jews. After four years of persecution, hard labor, and hiding in his attic, my grandfather fled his hometown walking only at night and disguised as a peasant.

During the winter of 1943 – 1944, he crossed the Carpathian Mountains to Budapest, Hungary, (about 580 km or 360 miles). After his half-a-year-long, perilous trek, my grandfather had to turn around and run again because the Nazis had invaded Hungary.

Somehow, Ojzer got to the port of Constanza, Romania. The dock was crowded with 1,000 other Jewish refugees from Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia. Among them were 300 orphans. Ojzer had a ticket for the Mefkura, a small, rickety, wooden Turkish motor schooner bound for Palestine. Everyone was weary. Mossad agents and the Zionist Organization in Romania had done their best to organize the charter, which included two other ships, the Bulbul and the Morina. The vessels had been refitted and yet none had sextants. The condition of the Mefkura was so bad that an insurance company consented to cover it only for war risks, not for sea risks.

Next to Grandfather Ojzer stood a young woman with three children and her sister. The mother was one ticket short. Ojzer, father of three sons, offered her his ticket. Then somehow he wrangled a spot on the Morina, which lead the little flotilla toward the Bosphorus.

At midnight, an unknown vessel fired on Mefkura three times. The last blast split the burning boat in two. Most of the passengers, who were asleep, were trapped in the ship’s hull as she sank. Several dozen jumped overboard without lifejackets while the captain and his crew launched the ship’s only lifeboat and saved themselves. The attacker machine-gunned the frantic passengers as they struggled in the frigid waters of the Black Sea. Five survived and were picked up by the BulBul.

The Morina sailed to Turkey and Ojzer either took a train or walked to Palestine where he arrived on August 14, 1944. He was detained in Camp Atlit, a British-run holding pen near Haifa for illegal refugees.

My grandfather survived the Black Sea crossing by a fluke. He was one of 39,000 Jews to make Aliyah illegally on boats between 1939 and 1944, according to reports on activities presented to the 24th Zionist Congress. The total of those who made Aliyah regardless of means of transportation was 69,000. The mother of three and her children were among the 1,393 who drowned, as reported by Dalia Ofer in her book, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939 – 1944 (1990 Oxford University Press)

Their fates were the same as thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, African, and now Iranian and Afghan refugees who have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. U.N. refugee officials say that on average 120,000 people annually seek to come to Europe this way. They are among the total of 89 million worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and lack access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement.

The Mediterranean Sea has proved the most dangerous crossing; since 2014, 20,000 souls were fatally shipwrecked on voyages from North Africa to Europe. The peak was 3,000 in 2016. Here’s a list of migrant vessel incidents since 2015 on the Mediterranean.

Have we not heard enough stories and gathered enough statistics since WWII about such terrible catastrophes? I hope you will find it in your heart to empathize with the plights of the displaced like my grandfather so long ago, and the most recent ones. Perhaps you can think of a way to help. After all, it is only a matter of luck that you and I are not among them.

 Ways to help: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS

About the Author
Karen A. Frenkel is an award-winning technology journalist, author, and documentary producer. Her documentaries, Minerva’s Machine, on women and computing, and Net.LEARNING, about e-learning, aired on Public Television. Her many articles have appeared in,, Science Magazine,, Communications of the ACM and many other magazines. Ms. Frenkel co-authored with Isaac Asimov Robots: Machines in Man’s Image. She is producing Family Treasures Lost and Found, a documentary feature and web short series, and is writing a companion memoir about her investigative quest to fill gaps in her parents' WWII wartime experiences.
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