It wasn’t just about fleeing the Shoah — they were escaping a toxic continent

In 1946, over 1,300 European Jews boarded a secret ship to break through the blockade of the Palestine coast. No one had written a book about it, so I did.

September 18, 2020 15:18

One summer’s night in 1946, over 1,300 European Jews waited silently on an Italian beach to board a secret ship, the Josiah Wedgwood. The plan was to try and smash through the Royal Navy blockade of the Palestine coast and leave Europe behind once and for all.

It is a story that was forgotten until I stumbled across a newspaper cutting while updating my Bradt travel guide to Liguria in north-western Italy.

I went to the small workaday port of Vado, nestled between Genoa and San Remo on the Italian Riviera, from which the Wedgwood had sailed. On the beach I met 84-year-old fisherman Domenico Farro, who had seen the ship set sail more than 70 years ago.

“They were like this,” he said sucking his cheeks in and pulling his thumb and fingers down his face, indicating that they were sorrowful looking.

I drove away assuming I could buy a book with one click on Amazon that would tell me who these Holocaust survivors on the beach were, where and what they had come from, how they had survived and what had led them to the Italian Riviera.

No such book existed. To answer my questions, I had to write it. It turned me into a detective as I tracked down the people on the beach and travelled to Lithuania, to Ukraine and to Poland to discover why they abandoned the homes they had lived in for generations and what had happened to them during the war and its immediate aftermath.

The Wedgwood was not the only ship that tried to break through the British blockade of Palestine. In all, 56 such ships sailed from Italy alone.

The story of the Wedgwood eventually led me to the small hilltop Israeli village of Karmei Yosef, where one of the youngest survivors who travelled on the former Canadian corvette, Dani Chanoch, now lives. He sailed to Haifa with his older brother, Uri.

When the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania was liquidated in July 1944, the Chanoch family were deported. In Stutthof in Poland, where there was a concentration camp, the boys’ mother and sister were taken off the train. They were never seen again.

“This is the point our family ended. I did not say goodbye to my mother,” Chanoch told me. “But if you want to survive, if you want to stay alive, there is no time for pain and suffering.”

It is a reason why so many survivors, like Chanoch, did not talk publicly about their experiences until recently, or until they felt like they knew for certain they had really survived, when they retired and their children were grown — when they had lived their life to the full.

The brothers were taken with their father, who did not survive, to the Kaufering sub-camp of Dachau. It was a labour camp and, after a month, Chanoch was among 131 boys considered too young to work and transferred to Auschwitz.

At the age of 11, he was put to work on the ramp emptying the trains of the belongings that the people had been told to leave behind.

At first I think his story illustrates the randomness of survival, but I am soon corrected as I sit in his elegant whitewashed sitting room.

As we eat Lithuanian krantz cake and drink coffee, he relates a shocking tale. Chanoch escaped two selections in 1944 on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“The High Holy Days were the selection season. Once they came in with a stick and, if you were shorter than the stick, that was it,” he says matter-of-factly.

When Chanoch met me outside his house, I had been struck how tall he was, but there is more to his story.

“We tried to hide those who were shorter than the stick. We were all friends and we had solidarity. There is no one who survived without support, without help.” It is a lesson that survivors tell me again and again. Friendship was a key to survival.

Chanoch was eventually reunited with his brother in Italy and the boys were taken to a children’s home in Fiesole, above Florence, where they spent the months before they were selected by the Jewish underground to sail on the Wedgwood.

But the stories that unfold show that it was not simply the Nazis that put an end to Jewish life in Europe.

Rivne (Rowne in Polish) is now a Ukrainian town in a region that was once part of Poland. Here the story of the Shoah is still raw.

When I arrived at the memorial to 23,500 Jews shot by the SS in the Sosenki Forest in 1941, I was greeted by a dead dog lying on a mound of melting snow. It was, perhaps, a reminder that there are some in Rivne who find the memory of the dead a threat.

Yitzak Kaplan was just 16 when he sailed on the Wedgwood. He was born in a village of Babyn, 15km from Rivne — and his sister and her two young children lie in the Sosenki death pits.When the family fled eastwards into the Soviet Union after the German invasion of Russia in 1941, she stayed behind, in the hope her husband who had been called up into the Polish army in 1939 would return home.

We meet in his home in Haifa. High up behind the Baha’i Gardens, it has a splendid view south across the coast towards Atlit, the British detention centre where the people who sailed on the Wedgwood were held after they arrived in Palestine.

Dressed in a smart blue shirt and jeans, Kaplan looks much younger than his 88 years. He is keen to offer me coffee and Polish biscuits as he tells me that he survived the war with his mother and elder sister in the Soviet Union.

After the liberation, the family returned to Babyn. They intended to get on with their lives but they risked being lynched by their neighbours, so they decided to settle in Rivne, where survivors were making a new home.

But as the months passed, and conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and the Red Army wore on, it became clear that it was simply too dangerous for the Kaplan family to stay. The nationalists were murdering Jews and Poles in their bid to ethnically cleanse the area.

Thousands of Jews like the Kaplans left eastern Europe and flooded into the American-occupied zones of Austria and Germany.

It was here that I discovered a story that shocked me and challenged the assumption that many of us hold that the soldiers who liberated the Nazi camps were the heroes.

The survivors who found themselves in the displaced persons camps were treated with disdain. Nothing illustrates this better than the story of the first Yom Kippur after the liberation.

In the Feldafing Displaced Person’s camp, on the eve of Yom Kippur, 5,000 survivors crowded into a makeshift wooden synagogue for Kol Nidre. A number of them would eventually sail on the Wedgwood.

The atmosphere was charged with emotion as they realised that they had no parents to bless them or no children left alive to bless.

The next day, Generals Patton and Eisenhower paid a visit to the camp. Patton had already written in his diary that he regarded displaced people as not human beings “and this applies particularly to the Jews”.

After the visit to Feldafing, Patton wrote in his diary that the congregation in the synagogue was “the greatest stinking bunch of humanity I have ever seen.”

The journey across Europe made me realise that we make far too many assumptions about the Holocaust.

The danger is that if we ignore its complexities, we misunderstand why thousands of desperate survivors came to believe that the only future they could envisage was in Palestine.

‘People on the Beach’ was published on September 10

September 18, 2020 15:18

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive