By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, B’nai B’rith International
This is a year of anniversaries for Israel and the Jewish people. Among them are the 120th, marking the First Zionist Congress; the centenary of the Balfour Declaration; Israel’s 69th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of both the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem.
We are accustomed to round-number anniversaries, or those that end in 5. But Israel’s 69th should not be lost in the shuffle of activity this year. We need to pause and remember the difficult days between the Holocaust, the end of World War II, David Ben-Gurion’s reading of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, and the war that followed against Israel’s invading Arab neighbors.
On V-E (Victory in Europe) Day 1945, European Jewry had been nearly exterminated. Survivors struggled to re-establish their lives where they had lived, or in displaced person camps. Many had lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods. Mandatory Palestine, ruled by the British, was indeed hatikvah, the hope, with its Jewish-majority cities, its self-defense organizations, its farms and factories, its growing cultural vitality.
But getting there was the problem. Notwithstanding the horrendous devastation of Jewish communities and the horrors of the concentration camps—all of which were known to the British authorities, the doors were closed. Instead of being treated as the victims they were, they were prevented from setting foot on their sought-after haven.
Hard-hearted and politically motivated would be charitable terms for what the British did, but much harsher descriptions would be far more apt. Tramp steamers and old cargo ships crammed with survivors bearing concentration camp tattoos on their arms were stopped, some within sight of Israel’s coastal towns and cities and turned away, their passengers were then interned in detention camps on the island of Cyprus, which the British also controlled. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided assistance to the internees, but day-to-day life was difficult.
There were nine such camps. Among the 54,000 Jews who populated them from 1945 to early 1949 were my cousins and my wife’s uncle. The motion picture “Exodus” depicts life on Cyprus, with detainees living in corrugated tin huts and tents, their sole protection from the harsh Mediterranean sun. And there they waited, uncertain and undoubtedly anxious about their future.
Earlier this year, when B’nai B’rith International President Gary P. Saltzman and I participated in the annual Conference of Presidents leadership mission, we spent a day in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. Israel enjoys excellent relations with the island nation, and we heard remarks from its president, Nicos Anastasiades, and other high ranking officials. From the presidential palace, we proceeded to the site of the old British Military Hospital, where one of the most heartwarming ceremonies I have ever witnessed took place.
We learned that, in that hospital, many of the 2,200 babies were born to Holocaust survivors on Cyprus between 1946 and early 1949. A monument to those births, a project initiated by a survivor-detainee, has been erected on the site. Speaking to us that day were the Israeli ambassador to Cyprus, Yael Ravia-Zadok, and the Cypriot defense minister, Christoforos Fokaides.
In his remarks, Fokaides noted “that hope can be found even in dark times. It is for this reason that Cyprus is, as depicted by Yad Vashem, a corner of hope, marking the start of a new beginning.” He said that local residents shared food and clothing with the detainees, and as some of those interned have noted, “the grace exhibited by local Cypriot communities toward them contributed to the start of the restoration of their shattered belief in what is good in humanity.”
During the ceremony, the Cypriot and Israeli flags fluttered in a late winter breeze, blowing under a cloudless sky. Since then, I have thought often about the births of those babies to parents who only months before had experienced the worst possible horror known to mankind. Despite their detention, they would not be denied their future. Nor would their fellow Jews in pre-state Israel, who would declare a sovereign Jewish state a short time later.
In this year, when we celebrate the realization of the Zionist dream, let’s think of all those who made it happen, and flourish, including those detained—and born—in Cyprus, on their way to the Jewish homeland.