In Search of a Safe Haven: Jewish Aliyah after World War II

November 16, 2018

by: Abigail Gilbert, BFP Staff Writer

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Jewish refugees at the Cyprus camps

In the wake of the Holocaust, surviving Jews were faced with the harsh reality that life could never go back to the way it was before the tragedy. Sadly, the atrocities committed against the Jewish people did not end when the concentration camps were liberated, and anti-Semitism was still alive and well in post-war Europe. Many survivors lost their entire families in the Holocaust, and Jews who survived the gas chambers returned home to face the threat of anti-Semitic pogroms.

The Jewish people had nothing but distrust and decay waiting for them in their former cities, towns and villages. Jewish property confiscated by non-Jewish neighbors during the war was often not returned. Surviving Jews were eyewitnesses to the atrocities committed against their people, and their return threatened many who would have preferred their actions during the war to remain undiscovered.

In an interview done in Hebrew at the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutzot, Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Antonia Rosenbaum said she was in a camp for two weeks following their liberation from the Nazis. There the Americans cared for them and helped them regain strength and health. “We were so busy with ourselves that we didn’t think about anything else. It was as if it was all a dream. Then one day an American officer came and said: ‘We very much want to continue to help you but we cannot… (Y)ou’ll all have to go home.’ The moment that he said ‘home’ it was as though everything came crashing in on me. What is home? Where is home? Where do I have a home? Who will I go home to?”

Jewish refugees at the Cyprus camps

For those who could not return home, there were few options. Many ended up in Displaced Persons (DP) camps across Europe. Special US Presidential Envoy Earl G. Harrison said of the DP camps in the American zone in Germany, “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” Others tried to immigrate to other countries, but, as Elly Dlin, former director of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, explained in a lecture published by the Jewish Agency for Israel: “As individuals they had lost their loved ones. As a group they had lost their faith in Europe. And after the Holocaust, Jews were still unwanted. No country rushed to amend its restrictive immigration laws to allow them in.”

For many survivors, the lesson of the Holocaust was that it was too dangerous for the Jewish people to continue to be homeless and powerless, driven from town to town in search of safety. As a result, Jews across Europe began fleeing to Mandatory Palestine —then under the control of the British Mandate—during and immediately following the war. Britain responded to the influx by closing the door to the Promised Land, further tightening restrictions so that a mere 10,000 immigrants would be allowed in every year (this quota was later raised slightly to 1,500 per month).

The Beriha (Escape) Organization, made up of Zionist youth and Jewish partisans trying to help more than 200,000 Jews escape Europe, looked to Palestine for refuge. Many Holocaust survivors who had never identified as Zionist felt a new responsibility as the last remnant of European Jewry, and they sought a place where they wouldn’t be subject to persecution.

With such large numbers in desperate need of resettlement, the Haganah (Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine during the time of the British Mandate) organized a mass illegal immigration under the name Aliyah Bet. Nine thousand Jews, including 1,350 Syrian Jews, were able to escape into Palestine via land, but the majority came by sea. During this time, 66 illegal immigration ships carrying 70,000 immigrants were organized, but only a few managed to penetrate the British blockade and bring their passengers ashore.

The British were getting bad press for their mishandling of the Jewish refugee issue. In September 1945, the British Cabinet rejected American president Harry S. Truman’s proposal that 100,000 Jewish refugees be admitted to Palestine. The British stopped vessels at sea and interned captured immigrants in camps in Cyprus. Many Jews were forced to stay in the camps until the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. When the Cyprus camps were full, the British sent the Jews back to Germany. It was a grave error.

The Haganah ship Exodus with “illegal” immigrants on board at Haifa port

Most famously, the plight of the 4,500 immigrants aboard the Exodus ship gained public attention when the Jewish refugees, many recently freed from Nazi concentration camps, were sent back into detention camps on German soil. The disturbing images of Jewish people once again behind barbed wire so soon after the horror of the Holocaust provoked an international outcry.

The Jewish state formed in 1948, immediately followed by the War of Independence due to several factors. These include, but are not limited to, the Jewish ancestral claim, the claim of self-determination, the necessity of a safe haven and others. It was not, as often claimed, simply the result of the Holocaust. Still, the masses of Jews fleeing persecution demanded an international answer, and the “illegal” immigration of Aliyah Bet served to draw the attention of the international community to the plight of a bruised and battered people seeking a return to their biblical homeland. Despite the atrocities they’d experienced, the Jewish people remained resilient and hopeful that the little strip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean would one day become the safe harbor for which they longed.

Photo Credit: gpophoto.gov.il

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