‘Illegal’ detention camp tells inglorious story

Sheila Wilensky was in Israel in January with the American Jewish Press Association.

The Galina, a replica of a typical refugee ship, at The Atlit ‘Illegal’ Immigrant Detention Camp in Israel (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)
The Galina, a replica of a typical refugee ship, at The Atlit ‘Illegal’ Immigrant Detention Camp in Israel (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Prior to Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948, Jews from around the world tried to settle there. But it wasn’t easy. Coming from Arizona, where we constantly hear about “illegals,” it was new history for me to learn about The Atlit “Illegal” Immigrant Detention Camp on the northern coast of Israel, 12 miles south of Haifa.

The Balfour Mandate — establishing Palestine as a British protectorate —began in 1917. Meanwhile, clandestine immigration to Palestine was taking place, in an attempt to bypass the quota of Jews allowed.

British authorities originally built Atlit as a military camp in 1917 and established it as a detention camp in the late 1930s. By 1943, it had grown to include hundreds of wooden barracks, Yael, our Atlit tour guide, told AJPA members in January.

Those embarking for Palestine were often young, 16 or 17, and had no profession or money, she said. “By 1934, New Yorkers organized illegal immigration, mostly young people, but by 1939 [European] families trying to escape the Nazis” made their way. After World War II, some of the Jews released from Nazi concentration camps had two weeks to leave; they often had no other option but to head for British-occupied Palestine.

From 1945 to 1948, more than 75,000 people attempted to immigrate to Palestine illegally, said Yael. “They may have gone back home to Poland and discovered the magnitude of the destruction. They went to France, to Italy and boarded ships.” Their passage was mostly paid for by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine, founded in 1920.

Imagine surviving the Holocaust, followed by a tenuous freedom with no place to go, only to become “boat people” seeking a safe harbor. Boat passages were tense; boats were often intercepted and boarded by the British. Take the disastrous voyage of the Struma, a Greek boat sailing from Romania to Palestine in 1941 under a false Panamanian flag. The 769 Jewish passengers had paid an exorbitant price for the privilege to sail on a rickety old ship. They were stranded in Istanbul for 10 weeks when the British government refused them visas to Palestine as illegal immigrants from Romania, an Axis country. The local Turkish Jewish community helped feed the passengers during the 70 days they remained in port, before the Struma was towed into the open sea and then sunk by a Russian submarine on Feb. 24, 1942.

Or imagine the plight of “illegal” immigrants who were taken to Atlit. They first had to remove their clothes in a disinfection building. “They were sprayed with DDT and directed to showers,” said Yael. “How traumatic that must have been, even for those people who understood it was the British not the Germans. And after all they went through they found themselves prisoners again.”

More than 120,000 “illegal” immigrants, who formed approximately one-fifth of the population when the Jewish state was declared, reached Israel by air, sea and land before 1948. Some 3,000 immigrants and activists perished on the way or in the struggles with the British. Many were put in detention camps on Cyprus until Israel’s statehood in 1948. After statehood, Atlit served as an absorption center for Jews who came to Israel from around the world.

In 1987, the Atlit camp became a national heritage site, which now houses a database of more than 25,000 testimonies. The Galina, a replica of a typical ship that may have carried up to 800 passengers, sits on the grounds of the Atlit camp. The camp’s story, previously unknown to me, brings to mind the uncompromising bravery of millions of immigrants — my own ancestors and yours — throughout history.

The AJPA trip was sponsored by the Israel Ministry of tourism.