Immigrant detention camp in ruins still tells its stories

Today the illegal immigrant detention camp at Atlit is a quiet, tranquil place. It is located along the seashore about 9 miles south of Haifa.

Between the years 1939 and 1948, when the detention camp was in use, the illegal immigrants were housed in 80, regularly spaced, long rectangular wooden huts, each building being home to about 40 individuals.

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Atlit took on a new role by becoming a transit center for new immigrants.

After a few years the camp stopped functioning, and in the 1970s it was dismantled and slowly fell into ruin. Just one or two of the original buildings are left, making it very difficult to visualize that for a period of 10 years many thousands of Jews, who were attempting to immigrate to Israel, were imprisoned here by the British.

In 1939 the British issued a White Paper, a statement of policy presented to parliament, that stipulated that the government had decided to limit Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the succeeding five years. Between May and September of 1939, 15,000 Jews had already arrived in pre-state Israel, desperate to escape persecution and almost certain death if they remained in Nazi-occupied Europe.

After World War II more than 32,000 European Jewish immigrants sailed to what was then Palestine on old vessels that had been purchased in the United States and steered by mainly American volunteer sailors.

The immigrants were picked up in ports all over the Mediterranean after some of the ships had completed hair-raising voyages across the Atlantic. Many ships had to pass a British naval blockade. When they eventually landed, many of the immigrants were taken to Atlit or sent to an immigrant prison camp in Cyprus, which at the time was also controlled by the British.

Atlit is now a museum dedicated to telling the story of clandestine immigration. Several huts have been preserved, so visitors can see how they looked more than 50 years ago.

Two recent visitors who had been there before — Murray Greenfield and Mickey Kestenbaum — recently met at Atlit.

In 1947, Greenfield, a New Yorker, was a 21-year-old volunteer crew member of the blockade-runner Hatikvah. The ship, almost 50 years old at the time, was a former Canadian-built icebreaker that used to ply the St. Lawrence River and was described by Greenfield as an "old rust bucket."

Greenfield recently told the story of the North American volunteers to a small group of Canadian visitors who also had come to see Atlit:

"There are many stories that illustrate the determination of the volunteer sailors," said Greenfield with a twinkle in his eye. "A British destroyer pulled alongside our ship and hailed the Hatikvah. We heard a voice from the destroyer deliver the standard message to the blockade-runners, 'Your voyage is illegal; your ship is unseaworthy. In the name of humanity, surrender.' The British ship asked the Hatikvah's captain to identify himself, so we brought a boy of about 10 years old to the bridge and instructed him to say in English, 'I am the captain.'"

Eventually, and not surprisingly, the British managed to board the Hatikvah. Following a period of hand-to-hand fighting and tear-gassing, the British subdued the immigrant vessel and towed it into Haifa. Subsequently the immigrants, together with the American crew, were taken to Cyprus. After a period of almost four months of imprisonment in Cyprus most of the Americans were returned to Atlit.

Kestenbaum had a different perspective. As a 23-year-old he was brought to Atlit in 1941 to be questioned by the British authorities concerning his visa. His memory of Atlit 60 ago was very sketchy as, unusually, he was in the camp for only a day before being freed.

Kestenbaum told visitors he left Hungary on Jan. 9 1941, using forged Roman Catholic papers.

"I came with a visa," he said. "It was a Turkish visa that I managed to get on false pretenses. I came overland via Turkey and entered Palestine at Rosh Hanikra and was brought here to Atlit. Two of my friends came down from Jerusalem, as they knew that I been taken to Atlit, and they came to assist in my release. The British didn't keep me here because they accepted the papers I had as genuine."

Kestenbaum's papers included a certificate that allowed him to study in Jerusalem, which he did. At the same time, he joined the Haganah — the pre-state underground army. And in May 1941 Kestenbaum volunteered for a group in the British Army that became the Jewish Brigade. He moved to Toronto in 1965.