In November 1917, the British government published the Balfour Declaration, favoring the establishment of a national Jewish homeland in Palestine. But as the years went by Arab pressure caused the British to change their policy. The number of Jews permitted to enter the country was drastically slashed and, after a certain tiny quota was filled, Jewish immigration to Palestine became illegal. The British even refused entry to refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
Faced with little choice, Jews were forced to slip secretly into the country and by the late 1930s the number of illegal immigrants had reached the thousands. Finally, in 1938, the British attempted to stop these waves of immigration by building a detention camp near the village of Atlit, located south of Haifa. And so it happened that when 40 Iraqi Jewish refugees managed to sneak into Palestine in 1945, they were captured and brought to Atlit.
With no thought for the consequences – certain death for all 40 – the British decided to send these ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) back to Iraq. Jewish leaders in Palestine immediately decided to rescue them — and to empty out the rest of the camp as well.
The operation was slated to take place on October 9, 1945. That night, all seemed quiet at the camp where over 200 babies, children, men and women were being held captive for the “crime” of entering their Jewish homeland without British permission. Silently, stealthily, six Palmachniks (pre-State commandos) who had infiltrated earlier in the guise of Hebrew teachers, cut the barbed-wire fences. After they took out the sentries, a larger Palmach force entered the camp.
Carrying babies and toddlers on their backs, the Palmachniks led the detainees into the darkness of the night. They walked through the fields behind Atlit, and then climbed the slippery cliffs of the Carmel ridge, continuing straight up through rocks and thorns.
The delousing station was terrifying to anyone brought forcibly to Atlit – for people were separated by sex and ordered to undress. The showers were especially traumatic for those who had been recent inmates of the concentration camps.
Thirty of them got lost and tramped all the way to Haifa; the rest made it to Kibbutz Beit Oren and Kibbutz Yagur where they mingled with thousands of Jews from the area who had gathered there to confuse the British. Not one of the escapees was recaptured. The commander of the operation was Nahum Sarig; second in command was former prime minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin.
Once the State of Israel was established in 1948 the camp was used to house new immigrants. In 1973, it was turned into a storage area and eventually became one huge garbage dump. Fourteen years later, with the help of the Jewish National Fund and the Society for the Protection of Nature and its Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites, work was begun on the restoration and reconstruction of the camp.
At its peak, Atlit occupied more than 22 acres of land. Three fences surrounded the camp, which was illuminated at night, and sentries patrolled the grounds. The watchtowers, barbed wire, and three of the 80 original huts have been restored.
Visitors view the delousing station, which was terrifying to anyone brought forcibly to Atlit – for people were separated by sex and ordered to undress. The showers were especially traumatic for those who had been recent inmates of the concentration camps.
Married couples were separated in the camp, but an hour a day was set aside for family visits. During that time, couples would grab a few minutes alone, while other inmates watched the door. The babies who were born as a result were automatically British citizens and could not be tossed out of the country.
One of the huts has been completely refurnished using lifelike mannequins. The clothes, books, dolls and other everyday items were donated by former inmates. Of special interest are the original boards on which people scratched their names and their countries of origin. By doing so, they hoped that friends and family members from whom they had become separated during the Holocaust would learn that they were alive.
On the site stands a bus that brought refugees to the camp. And, most recently, visitors also enter a ship similar in size in appearance to those vessels that transported “illegal” immigrants to Israel. Inside you sail the seas, rock in the storms, hear the British coming.
While horrifying to those detained, and painfully disappointing if you expected to find a new life in the Jewish homeland, Atlit was not a machine of destruction like the Eastern European concentration camps. And because a small quota of Jews was permitted into Palestine, at times an inmate would be released. One detainee escaped by climbing into the hollowed-out space of a friend’s suitcase. When the friend was released, so was he.
The camp is open to visitors (for a fee), but you must call first and reserve if you want to enter the ship and take a tour in English. Phone 972-4-984-1980 for more information.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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