The “Aliyah Bet” seamen operated ships that ferried Holocaust survivors from the displaced persons camps of Europe to then-Palestine shortly after World War II.
Aliyah Bet was the name given to the operation run by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that transported the refugees to the future state of Israel. Of the fewer than 250 volunteers from North America, most had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine or U.S. Navy during the war. The majority were Jewish and American.
As many as 120 vessels—purchased and refurbished in secrecy—were used in the operation. In order to make their way to Palestine, they had to run the British blockade. It has been estimated that approximately half of them were intercepted, and the captured refugees were sent to internment camps on Cyprus, Germany and Palestine.
Marvin “Bucky” Bacaner, a native of Chicago, served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II and was recruited to be an Aliyah Bet seaman. Bacanar was interviewed by writer Bruce H. Wolk for B’nai B’rith Magazine.
BBM: Where did your love of the sea originate?
Marvin Bacaner: I was initially trained to be a marine engineering officer at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, on Long Island, New York.
BBM: And your love of Israel?
MB: I grew up in the Habonim movement (a youth Zionist movement), and, from the age of 10, I was a passionate Zionist.
BBM: How did you first come to learn about the need for Aliyah Bet seamen?
MB: After the war was over I was a professional seaman and I was still sailing. I had signed on as chief engineer on a ship heading to Antwerp, Belgium. One day while I was on shore leave. I saw a British captain who was wearing kilts. He wore a Star of David arm patch. I asked the officer, “Why do have a Star of David?” He said he was a member of the Jewish Brigade (a unit of the British army that included many Jews from Palestine). I told him I had been a Zionist all my life and never heard of the Jewish Brigade. He invited me to come back to the barracks with him, and a few of us sat around a table drinking coffee. … They were looking for volunteers to bring Jewish Holocaust survivors to embarkation ports in Italy and France and then take them through the British blockade to Palestine.
When we got back to the States a letter was waiting for me at home from my Zionist youth leader. I called him, and he said, “Bucky, don’t sign onto to a new ship. Come and talk to me first.” The Jewish Agency had just bought two Canadian corvettes (anti-submarine ships that escorted convoys across the Atlantic to protect them from German submarines).
The Haganah was originally smuggling Jews to Palestine in small, often dangerous boats using [paid] crews because big boats were difficult to obtain.
BBM: As an Aliyah Bet marine engineer, what was your role?
MB: We towed the [decommissioned Canadian] ships down from Canada to City Island for rehabilitation. We needed to overhaul all the machinery. I was in charge of supervising the re-conditioning, recruiting personnel and then training the ship’s engineering crew. It was kept very secret. We couldn’t talk about it.
BBM: How did you go about recruiting seamen to work under you?
MB: I went to Hashomer Hatzair (a socialist-Zionist youth movement) and Habonim, where volunteers were training for kibbutz life. I recruited the Hashomer Hatzair volunteers from their Hightstown, N.J., farm, and we also recruited from the Cream Ridge, N.J., Habonim camp. We assembled the crew for the two ships on City Island [in New York].
BBM: You talked of working in secret. How do you keep a ship secret?
MB: As part of the refurbishing process, among other things, we cut off the guns and the torpedo tubes, so that the ships didn’t look like [military vessels].” We were registered under Panamanian registry, and we got licenses from Panama as sailors.
BBM: What was your journey like?
MB: Both ships sailed together to Europe, and then my ship went to Gibraltar. One ship set sail for Sète, France, which was a fishing village where we rescued Jews who were in the displaced person camps. My ship went to Savona, Italy, where we loaded up Holocaust survivors. The name of my ship was the Josiah Wedgwood. We set sail for Palestine, but if we got caught, we carried no papers and our instructions were to disappear into the refugees we took on board.
On June 27, 1946, the British Royal Navy intercepted the Josiah Wedgwood as it reached Haifa. (Wedgwood, for whom Wedgwood china is named, was an 18th century English potter and abolitionist.) Bacaner, his crewmates and 1,257 passengers were taken to an internment camp in Atlit, in what was then still Palestine. They would be slowly released into the population.
After independence, the ship that Bacaner refurbished would become part of the Israeli Navy and was renamed the Hashomer (“The Watchmen”). In 1998, Bacaner was present at a 50th anniversary event for the Aliyah Bet/Machal volunteers. Following the ceremony, an elderly woman and her two daughters approached Bacaner and tearfully thanked him. “I remember you,” said the older woman, a Holocaust survivor whom he had helped transport from the camps to Israel. He realized that everything he had gone through had been well worth the effort.
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