Miriam Nekrycz – Deportation to Cyprus

In the Aschau camp, the groups of young refugees were always looking forward to going somewhere: either to Eretz Israel or to other countries outside Europe where they still had relatives. Going to Eretz Israel was difficult – one had to enroll in the Aliah, but the British would release just a limited amount of permits. The other alternative was the “Aliah B,” that is, a clandestine immigration, which was very risly since the British would intercept small illegal vessels and send the maapilim (illegal immigrants) to the Island of Cyprus. Children were hardly ever allowed to go to Eretz Israel this way.

Exodus ship. (Oil painting).
The Exodus Ship, 1947. (Oil painting).

After Miriam had learned about her uncles, she wanted to go to Eretz Israel as soon as possible. So she went to the office of Mr. Naum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, in Munich, and enrolled in the Aliah B along with the other young refugees of her group.

When the day of departure finally arrived, they took a train to France and travelled to Marseille, spending some time in a house in front of the sea. As their monitors had stayed back in the camp, they joined the “Bnei Akiva” group, which gathered every day to sing praises and pray to the Almighty and observe the Shabbat. Miriam had not been raised orthodox, the observance of the Jewish religious rituals felt like something natural to her. She decided she would fast twice a week so that her friend Tereza would recover and could one day arrive safely in Eretz Israel too.

Two months passed and their turn to embark did not come. They moved to another house in the mountains still in the vicinity of Marseille. Purim came, and still no sign of going abroad. But the much awaited day came on the eve of the Pessach and they were given a pack of matzot and a bottle to be filled with water during the trip. They were told, however, that the bottles could be used as a means of defense against the British, if that were necessary…

They went down the mountain at night; each one carrying their pack of matzot and the bottle. As it was the day before Pessach, their departure from Europe felt like departing from Egypt. Much like their forefathers, they were leaving a land of suffering behind, and heading towards liberty in Eretz Israel through crooked paths. It happened like in Psalm 126: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like those who dream.” They gave no thought to the difficulties still awaiting them.

The ship was old and fragile, with little space to accommodate so many people. As they went aboard, the other maapilim had already taken the available bunk beds on the three decks. Some of Miriam’s friends had to go to the bottom of the ship. It was so crowded that climbing into into her bed was like entering a shelf. It was very hot and it did not smell good. But none of them complained. They were going to Eretz Israel!

The ships used in the Aliah B had been acquired illegally, with great sacrifice; many of them were old and damaged, having been fixed in a hurry and adapted to accommodate a larger number of people than its actual capacity. The crew was composed of adventurers, many of them making a lot of money from each trip. But there were also those who did the job for idealism, presenting themselves voluntarily to collaborate with the cause.

Their ship had been christened the Theodor Herzl and carried more than 5,000 people. For those in the bottom deck the circumstances were especially difficult,  for the segan to bounce strongly as soon as it left the port.  Many of the passengers became sick. They had to go up to breathe fresh air in turns; because of safety reasons, not all of them could go up at the same time.

Miriam would not take the food distributed on the ship because it was during Pessach and the food was not kosher enough. Besides, she was sick all the time, without enough strength to get up from the bed. One of her friends would bring her milk and help her climb the slippery steps so could take a breathe of fresh air.

Mariam was sustained by the thought that perhaps the British jets would not spot their ship during the day. It was safer during the night, so they could gather on deck, taking all the available space, like birds on a tree. The sea was calm all the while, contrarily to what they expected as they approached  Crete.

One day planes flew over their ship and they received orders to go  below. Since only remained crew remained on the deck and the ship was camouflaged, they thought they had not been discovered, for the planes did not come back. In the evening; however,  two, British destroyers came by, hitting their little ship and damaging it purposefully. Because the impact was strong, all maapilim ran onto the top deck.

The British officials shouted through loud speakers that they should remain calm and follow their orders. But somebody began to sing the Hativka, and all the others joined in as they praised their homeland and protested those who hindered them from reaching it. When the hymn was over, in a gesture of indignation, a rain of bottles was thrown against the enemy ship. The British immediately shot back, killing three people and wounding many others.

The British came on board, arrested the crew and told everyone to go back to their places. When Miriam went back below, the bottom deck was flooded. As the ship  bounced,  waves leaked inside, and it seemed like it was going to sink. As the level of water rose, the British allowed them to go back to the top deck.

Their ship was towed to the port of Haifa, but they did not have permission to land. As Mariam looked  at the lights of Haifa, she could see a crowd of Jews demonstrating, shouting slogans and singing. But despite the great frustration of not being allowed to stand on the sacred soil, nothing was as painful as seeing the three dead maapilim being carried  off the ship. For Miriam, it was  like shedding new tears under a new oppressor.  The next day they were transferred to a prison-ship that was built like a cage, so that they could not jump into the sea.

From April 1945 to January 1948, fifty-eight of sixty-three Aliah B ships were intercepted by the British navy.

It was April 1947, and there were more than ten thousand maapilin detained in Cyprus, waiting for the British permits. When their group arrived, some of the immigrants who had been in concentration camps panicked as they saw the fences, guards and towers of the Cyprus camp.

The conditions in Cyprus were hard, but still her group of friends observed the Sabbath, studied Hebrew, read the Torah, and helped cook their kosher food. The camp received books from Jewish organizations and sometimes a Zionist came to visit and bring them news about Eretz Israel.

Although they did not have magazines, newspapers, or radios, they quickly learned about the odyssey of the ship Exodus. Coincidently, it was the 9th of Av, the same date when the two temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  That night, in the Barrack 65 of the Cyprus camp, the youth lightened torches, sat down on the floor, and repeated the prayers of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, swearing that they would never forget Jerusalem.

After the incident with the ship Exodus, the British issued five hundred permits for the Cyprus camp inmates under fifteen years of age. Miriam and the others who had been chosen for the trip received from the representative of the Jewish Agency a seedling of sabra, so that they would replant it in Eretz Israel.


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