Tania Shalom Michaelian
Writer, story-teller, educator

Whispers of Exodus: Survivors’ Tales Unveil Clandestine Immigration Saga

Survivors of Buchenwald making their way to the Land of Israel on the "Mataroa"
Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Survivors of Buchenwald on their way to the Land of Israel

How testimonies preserved in the Atlit Detention Camp Information Center tell the incredible story of the Ingathering of the Exiles and a Return to Zion through the voices of survivors.

Survivors of Buchenwald making their way to the Land of Israel on the “Mataroa”  Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The clandestine immigration (ha’apalah) saga is story of a people desperate to reach the shores of Israel to finally live their lives as safe, free Jews. These immigrants (ma’apilim) fled genocide, only to be captured once more and incarcerated in detention camps. It’s also a story of the heroism of those who worked tirelessly to realize the biblical prophecy of the Ingathering of the Exiles, and of those who dared to dream about a Return to Zion. Most importantly, it’s the dramatic and emotional story about a homecoming after 2,000 years in exile.

“The people of Israel have waited 2000 years for this redemption. You have been blessed by the Lord to be the generation of redemption and the Return to Zion,” (grandfather of Meir Eyal, ma’apil on the ship “Yehuda HaLevi”)

In the years surrounding WWII, the ruling British tried to severely limit the number of Jews entering Palestine. Despite this White Paper, thousands of clandestine immigrants attempted to make it to the shores of the Land of Israel. When their ships were captured, they were incarcerated at the Atlit Detention Camp, and similar camps in Cyprus and Mauritius.

Atlit Detention Camp tells the story of these heroic journeys of clandestine immigration that took place by land, air and sea. It offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the ma’apilim while in the camp. It also strives to document, preserve and tell the stories of these brave Jews for generations to come. The stories of nearly 140,000 ma’apilim are recorded in the Atlit Detention Camp Information Camp.

These are their voices.

The Palmach; Pikiwiki

The Journeys

“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.Ichac Weizman, Holocaust survivor and ma’apil on “Catriel Hayafe” (1946).

From Rumania and Greece, from Italy and Iran – Jews from around the world sought to leave behind their hellish pasts of persecution and pogroms, of concentration camps and crematoriums and heed the ancient call to return to their homeland.

“They told us: Throw two suitcases into the sea and remain only with a small bag with a change of clothing.” They had to fit another 600 people onto the ship and there was no room for our things. We threw everything into the water. The sea was filled with floating suitcases. But I didn’t care – all I cared about was finally reaching Eretz Yisrael,” Tova Berger, immigrant on “Haim Arlozorov”.

Boarding the “Feda” in Italy, 1946 Wikipedia

At multiple ports, they packed onto sea vessels and began the terrifying journey towards the Land of Israel. The Jews knew that they were still in mortal danger, but for these people who had lost practically everything, there was no other choice and no turning back.

“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. The reasons were different… we took a risk for a cause, the will to come to Eretz Yisrael,” Ichac Weizman, Holocaust survivor and ma’apil.

Some ma’apilim speak of their desperation and the brutal conditions on board – the overcrowding, lack of air, food and water and always the threat of being caught.

“Medinat HaYehudim” ship, 1947. Wikipedia

“On the fourth day, the water became rough, and people started to vomit. Hana’ke also became sick. On the same day, a baby was born on board, and the mother died. She was our first victim sacrificed to the British; her death is on their conscience,” Yosef Goldberg, immigrant on the Exodus.

Others speak of hope and comradeship.

The clandestine immigration ship “Lo Tafchidunu”, 1947 Credit: Palyam website

Still others speak of their hopes despite among the difficult conditions.

“My sleeping bench was next to the wall of the ship engine. Oh, how I got tossed around! But we didn’t turn it into a tragedy. We laughed. We threw up and laughed,” Genia Lerner, ma’apil.

These voices of hope and determination are heard loud and clear. Brotherhoods were formed, love stories were woven. Heroic men and women from Eretz Yisrael accompanying the ma’apilim on the ships, whispered magical stories about their land and taught them songs about the bright moon over the Kinneret. Out of these dreams and songs, a nation grew.

“The team on the ship is remarkable. All of them Jews. The captain is just 22 years old. I have never met such people. People who have left their homes to come and help other Jews find their way to Eretz Yisrael,” Hana Goldberg, immigrant on the “Exodus

Members of the Palyam (the Palmach’s marine arm) helping immigrants disembark a ship. Credit: Palyam website

Fear of the British Navy

“We left the port in Milan and boarded a fishing boat. We slept on shelves that were once used to stack boxes of fish. This was the boat that was to take us to Eretz Yisrael! We weren’t allowed up on deck in case we were discovered and were told that the English were looking to capture refugees. They only allowed us up one at a time to breathe a little bit of fresh air,” Hannah Meyerson, clandestine immigrant on the ship, “Mishmar Ha’emek”

The British captured most of the sea-vessels as they entered the waters of Mandate Palestine, with the intention of stopping this clandestine immigration at all costs. Many times, they used brute force to achieve their objectives.

“At 3 am, the English started to attack us like true murderers. 4,500 people – women, children, old people, Jews with white beards, women with children nursing at their breasts. They attacked us with warships – exhausted people who’d been in Auschwitz, Majdanek, Siberia – people who had been through seven layers of hell,” Yosef Goldberg, Exodus.

Survivors from “Medinat HaYehudim” being transferred to Cyprus from Haifa Port, after being caught by the British. 1947. Wikipedia

One can only imagine the despair and heartbreak of these immigrants, who had already lost so much in their lifetime and had risked so much to reach the Promised Land, only to be turned away at its gates.

“That was the moment that broke us all. It was Shabbat Eve. We had finally arrived. And where were they taking us? To a concentration camp! The whole crowd burst out crying. Some started to sing Hatikvah,” Avraham Barak, immigrant from Italy.

Atlit Detention Camp: Behind Barbed Wires in Eretz Yisrael

“On August 1946, I reached Eretz Israel for the first time, but I did not have the privilege of entering it,” Ichac Weizman, ma’apil.

After the horrors of the Holocaust, who would have dared to believe that Jews would find themselves once more behind barbed wires; and even more tragically, on the very soil of Eretz Yisrael?!

“Again, we were surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers. Again, we were locked under guard, this time under British rule. We were a short distance from Eretz Yisrael, but the prospect of reaching it was still far away, ” Ichac Weizman, immigrant on Catriel Hayafe, 1946

Original barbed wire fence at Atlit Detention Camp. Credit: SPIHS

“We’re standing on the soil of our homeland, but in fact we have no homeland. We look over the fence to towards the Carmel Mountains, the fields of the Sharon, at night we can hear the sea….” Member of Shomer Hatzair youth group from Bulgaria

Visitors to Atlit Detention Camp get to see the camp through the eyes of the detainees, from the original disinfection room, to the reconstructed residential barracks housing clothes, books, toys, and everyday items donated by former inmates. They can walk down the ‘promenade’ – a strip of dirt separating the barracks which served as the only meeting point for couples.

Preserved sleep barracks at Atlit Detention Camp. Credit: SPIHS

“We’ve been separated from the men. We, the women, are being housed in Barrack 52. Every evening at 6 pm, there’s a roll call. Everyone has to be present while the English guards check. If you’re not present, they presume that you’ve escaped. If you’re caught, you’re sent to prison,” Yona Bogorov, Atlit detainee.

Despite the tough conditions in the camps, efforts were made to create some sort of structure in their daily lives, whether learning Hebrew, playing sports, taking part in cultural activities, or working the land.

Children playing at the Atlit Detention Camp. Credit: Palmach Museum

But there were also voices of anger towards the British, who refused to allow the Jews to finally begin their lives.

“We are idle the whole day, shifting between barbed wire fences and surrounded by so many people. At 5 pm, they lock us up in our huts and we pass the time playing childish games. We feel the days pass, with no purpose at all,” Atlit detainee, 1940.

Women drying clothes on the fences at Atlit Detention Camp. Credit: Palmach Museum

But for the most, the detainees were determined that when they were finally set free, they’d be able to walk out of the camps with their heads held high and become part of their new homeland.

“Our joy was without boundaries. We cried with joy. We hugged, kissed and were like dreamers whose dream had come true,” ma’apil on being set free from Atlit.

Telling the Stories to Future Generations

“If a nation doesn’t know its past, its present is uncertain and its future is unclear,” Yigal Alon, commander of the Palmach and general in the IDF.

The Atlit Archives are a true national treasure. They contain the names and details of nearly 140,000 clandestine immigrants, with hundreds of personal interviews and testimonials, photographs and video recordings. The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites has made it its mission to keep adding to this database as long as there are stories to tell.

“It was as if a covenant had been signed between the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and the ma’apilim. The same fate for one and all. We are all Jews of Israel. There is no difference between us, and nothing will separate us. We saw the might of this tiny land against the great British Empire. The dedication of its citizens to break open the locks and to bring the rest of the Jews home… these people who had tied their fate to ours…” Yitzchak Sarid, ma’apil.

We need to keep the stories of Atlit Detention Camp alive. Stories of heroism and Zionism, hopelessness, and hope, of brotherhood and covenants. Stories of groups, individuals and families, who all made up the intriguing and emotional tapestry of clandestine immigration.

It is our national duty.

Children in Atlit. Credit: SPIHS

Atlit Detention Camp in Numbers

140 voyages carried people to Israel’s shores.

3,000 people lost their lives en route.

150 maapilim carried to safety in three dramatic flight operations.

140,000 names and testimonies documented in the Atlit Archives.

The Atlit Detention Camp is operated by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), the umbrella group for over 200 Israeli heritage sites across the country – from the Negev to Galilee and everything in between. Its sites represent important places, events and people that played a pivotal role in our pathway to independence as a state. Nine of these heritage sites, including the Atlit Detention Camp and the Ayalon Institute Underground Bullet Factory, are directly operated by SPIHS.

Some 3.3 million people visit Israel heritage sites each year, from school children and soldiers, to local and international travelers. SPIHS runs annual festivals, education days, musical and theatrical performances, seminars, youth movement meetups and cultural events, telling the story of our rich heritage in an educational, immersive and entertaining way to children and adults alike.


About the Author
Grew up in South Africa. Found a home in Israel. Mom to three adult sabras. Writer on topics that inspire me - history, Israel and social justice. English tutor.
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