Ship of refugees adrift at sea recalls harrowing WWII tale

The crew had abandoned the refugees and they drifted now, at the mercy of the Mediterranean.  The winter gales buffeted the sides of the dilapidated ship. 

It was November 1940, not December 2014 (when three ships carrying “migrants” — mostly refugees from the Syrian war — were deserted by their crews off the coast of Italy and rescued at the 11th hour).

My mother had awoken before dawn that November day. She couldn’t fall back asleep. The stench of people who had sweated, vomited and doubled over with diarrhea was suffocating. No wonder: More than 1,500 refugees had crowded onto the Atlantic, a cargo ship retrofitted to ferry Jews escaping Nazi Germany.

Three such ships had left Tulcea, Romania, crammed with refugees fleeing Danzig, Prague and Vienna. By now the ships had lost sight of each other and each plowed alone through the walloping waves. Altogether, they carried more than 3,500 refugees, desperately hoping to somehow enter Palestine, where the British Mandate allowed only 5,000 Jewish immigrants annually.  Most of them, my mother included, had no entry certificates, but when they left Europe in October 1940, there was no longer any doubt the perilous voyage was preferable to staying put.

The acrid smell singed my mother’s nostrils. At bedtime, when she sank, exhausted, onto the thin (and smelly) mattress on her narrow bunk, she could ignore it. But now, with a peaceful silence somehow augmented by rolling snores and the rumble of the turbines, the odor was a wall tightening around her.

She rose and pulled on a sweater. Down in the cavernous hold it was hot, but up on the deck it would surely be chilly. At least there won’t be a line for the toilets, she thought, and corrected herself, as she did daily — the so-called toilets. They were nothing more than a long plank with holes, cantilevered over the boat’s side. Flimsy fabric marked individual stalls, providing minimal privacy.

“What a relief,” she sighed as she got up from her squat and climbed down. 

A strange noise broke the soothing sound of waves lapping against the Atlantic: grating, scratching. As if someone were dragging a heavy load across the deck. Then a loud plop: something fell into the water. 

Passengers dismantle the deck of the Atlantic in November 1940 to feed the wood to the ship’s engines. photo/courtesy anina korati

She circled the front of the boat, tiptoeing as if she were a thief. A small group of people, pressed against the railing, were trying to decipher the meaning of the sounds. Now they heard muffled voices. They gasped as they saw a large sack fly overboard. A big plop. Then several smaller ones: plip, plip, plip.

The sailors were throwing coal overboard, some hurling sacks, some tossing shovelfuls. Before anyone could comprehend what they were seeing and decide what to do, they were startled by two much louder plops. Two lifeboats had splashed into the water, crowded with sailors, who immediately began rowing away as fast as they could.

“Wake up! Everyone, wake up!” someone shouted. People who had been sleeping on the deck jumped to their feet and rushed to the railing.

“The Greek sailors … they threw the coal overboard.”

“And escaped!”

Everyone peered at the sea. The lifeboats, seeming no bigger than toys now, were slipping away; the sailors’ silhouettes outlined by the first light of dawn. Later that day the passengers pieced together an explanation: Overnight, the sailors had learned from radio transmissions that Italy had declared war on Greece. Afraid they’d be seized by the enemy while illegally transporting refugees, the Greek sailors escaped, hoping to reach their homeland.

Now the passengers were at the mercy of the sea. They dismantled and burned everything made of wood: bunks, stairs, decking and wall paneling, tables and chairs, even a piano, and fed it to the engines. After five days there was nothing left to burn. They drifted.

Two days after their food and water had run out, they spotted land. Soon a small boat headed toward them. At first they were not sure what flag it was flying. Dark predictions circulated: Italian, German. Then they could see it: the Union Jack. Some people were so relieved they began to sing “God Save the King.” However, after the British apprehended the refugees near Cyprus and towed them to Haifa, the British announced that they would be deported to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.

My mother remained in Mauritius until August 1945.  After the war, His Majesty acknowledged the injustice of the years of imprisonment and allowed my mother and the approximately 1,200 others who had survived the internment to enter Palestine.

Growing up, I had heard this story about the Atlantic’s journey many times. It was part of a barely imaginable world at war, with dire turns of fate and cruel realities. I never expected to hear such a story again — certainly not nearly 75 years later.

Rachel Biale is a Berkeley resident who writes J.’s “Parenting for the Perplexed” column.  She describes the story of the Atlantic’s voyage in her recently completed historical novel “Lost and Found.”


Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.