74. ‘Reserved for the Jews to Palestine….’

During the period of World War II, the British continued to appease the Arabs but at the same time, adopted a harsh policy towards the Jews. Even though for the Jews in Europe and particularly in Germany it was a question of survival, the laws regarding the Jewish immigration to Palestine were perpetually being made more stringent.

However, without being disheartened, the Jews in Palestine, in their own way found egresses out of these trying times. By some way or the other, they were managing to push into Palestine the Jews, coming without a permit from across the world.

The immigration ‘without a permit’, most of the times took place through seas. Two ocean liners, the ‘SS Milos’ and the ‘SS Pacific’, carrying a total of 1771 Jewish immigrants without a permit was sailing towards Palestine’s Haifa port when it was apprehended by the British navy, and the immigrants onboard were denied entry into Palestine. Then British policy concerning such illegal Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine through sea was to deport them to Mauritius, then a British colony as well. For deporting the immigrants on ‘Milos’ and ‘Pacific’ to Mauritius, another large ocean liner ‘SS Patria’ was docked at the same harbour. As the process to transfer the immigrants from ‘Milos’ and ‘Pacific’ to ‘Patria’ began, another ship ‘SS Atlantic’ having illegal Jewish immigrants onboard and apprehended similarly by the British was forced to dock at Haifa. Immigrants from ‘Atlantic’ too were to be carried to Mauritius on ‘SS Patria’.

These happenings put the members of the ‘Haganah’ self-defence units on edge. Ways and means to stop the deportation of the Jews were being mulled, and it was decided to resort to violence. Explosives were secretly planted on the ‘Patria’ and were blasted. The intention, of course, was not to cause huge damage to the ship but to sabotage it to an extent so as to delay its immediate voyage to Mauritius and terrorize the British to force them to rethink about the deportation policy. However, the reverse happened. The Haganah’s calculations went wrong, and an explosion of intensity much higher than expected took place damaging the Patria to such an extent that it sank in less than 16 minutes. About 250 Jews onboard, died in the incident.

SS Patria sinking in the Haifa port

The happening shocked the British administration, and they brought the Jewish immigrants on all the three ships ashore. However, the immigrants of the ‘Atlantic’ were still to be deported to Mauritius, but those who survived the ‘Patria disaster’ were granted temporary asylum in Palestine. However, the event led to a complete ‘hold’ on Jewish immigration. ‘For how long should the Arabs suffer for the Jewish immigration, those Arabs who for generations have been burying their dead in Palestine’, asked the British hypocritically in support of their decision. However, Jewish leaders like Chaim Weizmann and others countered it by highlighting it to the British that they were conveniently forgetting that the Arabs originally came to the land of Palestine as invaders and forced the Jews out, who were living in the land for a long time, and conquered the territory. They also asserted that Palestine was the only place in the world where the Jews from across the globe, displaced and troubled, could find shelter.

On the one hand, a complete ban was in place on the Jewish immigration, while on the other, the Jewish Agency was diligently continuing to establish numerous new kibbutzim, that too in the desolate parts, for the Jews who managed to reach Palestine by some or the other means. This was done with an intention to expand the Jew-inhabited areas. The time saw various kibbutzim getting famous either for the specific traits of their Jewish settlers or for their businesses – a particular kibbutz would be renowned for agricultural experiments while some other be well-known for plantations of specific varieties of trees, some for fishing while some would gain prominence as a religious centre and so on.

The world war that spread across the continent of Europe was now trying to pull within itself the world outside Europe as well. Especially, when Italy joined the war on the side of Germany, within no time, it brought the war to the doorstep of Palestine. Italian bomber planes bombed the city of Tel Aviv in which 107 Jewish people were killed.

Italy bombed the Haifa refinery of Mandatory Palestine in World War II

Also, there was news about the German forces, which were on a mission to conquer the continent of Africa under the command of General Erwin Rommel, capturing one African country after the other and heading towards the Suez Canal and Palestine. The Germans certainly intended to capture the colonies of the Allied Powers in the Middle East, but at the same time,they were ‘specifically aiming’ at the land of Palestine which was home to the Jews. The Germans wanted to extend the wave of ‘Anti-Semitism’ prevalent in Germany,to the land of Palestine. But fortunately, the plan could not materialize as the forces of the Allied Powers cut off the advance of the Germans and defeated them. This prevented the adversity from befalling the Jews. However, it took the ‘two hundred days of dread’ for the clouds of the looming danger to clear.

German General Erwin Rommel

However, the conditions were to change soon….

It was only when Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, that the freeze over the Jewish immigration was lifted. From 1943 onwards even the restrictive ‘Quota System’ was abolished. Moreover, the British government officially issued instructions to its embassy in Ankara to unconditionally grant entry permit for Palestine to any Jew who reached Turkey.

Taking advantage of this new policy of the British government, a ship ‘SS Milka’ started from Bukovina (a region, today divided between Romania and Ukraine) carrying 240 Jews aboard and was the first to anchor at a Turkish port. From there they were to travel to Palestine by railway. The four bogies of the train that waited at the Haydarpasa station in Istanbul to welcome the Jews pompously displayed banners that read –

‘Reserved for the Jews to Palestine’! (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar