Lost babies of Cyprus go in search of their past

By Hadas Haimov, November 30, 2012
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Newborn babies in one of the Cyprus camps

Newborn babies in one of the Cyprus camps

More than 2,000 Jewish babies were born in internment camps in Cyprus between 1946 and 1949. The British government had sent their parents to the camps for trying to enter Israel illegally. Those babies are now in their 60s and seeking to uncover the missing parts of their childhood.

In a White Paper of 1939, the British government declared that future Jewish immigration to Palestine would be limited. After the war, the remnants of European Jewry risked their lives trying to find ways to enter the country.

Some came by land, others by sea, but those who were caught were sent to one of 12 internment camps in Cyprus. Over 50,000 Jews were kept there, most European Holocaust survivors, but others came directly from the Balkans and other East European countries.

Living conditions in the camps were poor and the inhabitants slept in rickety tents or tin sheds. The British army was not prepared for the large number of interns and there were severe food shortages. Since medical facilities were inadequate, many died.

After learning about the conditions in the camps, Jews from Mandate Palestine were allowed in to help the prisoners. They built schools, taught Hebrew and crafts, and some showed the younger people how to use a weapon.

During the four years the camps were operating, 2,200 babies were born, most of whom have no official record of their birth today.

Now has birth certificate: Bat-Aliya “Tally” Barash

Now has birth certificate: Bat-Aliya “Tally” Barash

Two years ago, archivists at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint) started looking for files registering the babies who were born in the Cyprus camps. Eventually, a Southampton University librarian told the Joint about a birth register written by one of the camp rabbis.

Other information was found in the National Israeli Archives, such as reports by the British police. Some lists had full names and even the numbers that had been tattooed onto the arms of the survivors by the Nazis.

Bat-Aliya “Tally”Barash, 64, who now lives in Golders Green, was applying for pension benefits from the UK when she first encountered the issue of her missing birth certificate. “I contacted the Ministry of Interior in Cyprus but was told they had no records of babies born in the internment camps.”

It was the first time in years she had thought about her birthplace. “When I was a young girl living in Rehovot, I did not ask my parents anything about this. I wanted to be like everybody else, I considered myself an Israeli, not an immigrant.”

Ms Barash’s parents were Romanian Jews who boarded one of the 40 ships that were caught by the British army and sent to Cyprus. “My father was an enthusiastic Zionist. He risked his life trying to make aliyah.” Her mother became pregnant in the internment camp, where they spent 18 months, and her father decided to name her Bat-Aliya, meaning the daughter of aliyah, or immigration to Israel.

After almost giving up, Ms Barash was told by a friend about the Joint’s archives. Now she has an official document from a Cyprus hospital with her mother’s name, her birth date and the name of the camp she was born in.

Dina Kol, 84, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who now lives on Kibbutz Afikim, was sent, along with her husband, to Cyprus in 1946. “People who survived the war lost their entire family and so they were eager to have children and start a new family,” she said.

Mrs Kol was 19 and pregnant with her first child when her ship was caught. When she was eight months’ pregnant, the British army moved her and 700 other pregnant women to the Atlit camp in Israel. “The conditions were the same, there were wire fences and armed guards, but we were finally in Israel and that was all that mattered.”

As an internee, she was not given any papers when her first child was born “My daughter, Hanna, doesn’t have a birth certificate. I have a document signed by the local rabbi, but that’s it.”

Yitzhak Teutsch, director of the Joint’s Jerusalem Archives, says this part of the Jewish story has been neglected. “The period between the Holocaust and the birth of Israel is an overlooked chapter in our history. These two events were so significant that the middle part is sometimes forgotten.”

    Last updated: 8:45am, November 30 2012