On the eve of World War II and the Holocaust, Jews were growing increasingly desperate to flee Europe. Virtually no country was willing to absorb Jewish refugees.
In 1924, the US Congress had passed severe immigration quotas against those considered racially and ethnically “undesirable,” a category which included Jews.
In 1938, delegates from 32 countries met in Évian, France to discuss the fate of German and Austrian Jews. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to take Jewish refugees, though, despite promises to absorb 100,000 Jews, in the end, only ~700 Jews made it there.
The British passed what is known as the 1939 White Paper, essentially putting the final nail on the coffin of Jewish refugee immigration to Palestine.
Among numerous restrictions on Palestine’s Jewish population, the White Paper also limited Jewish immigration to up to 75,000 people within a period of five years (remember: Europe was on the brink of war and Jews, not just in Germany but elsewhere in Europe, were desperate to escape). The White Paper stated that any further immigration would be subject to the approval of the Arabs.
The Jewish Agency for Palestine issued a statement saying that the British were denying Jews their rights in the “darkest hour of Jewish history.”
Aliyah Bet is the code name for the wave of Jewish illegal immigration and illegal rescue missions to Mandatory Palestine between 1920-1948, and particularly after 1939, after the British passed the 1939 White Paper. “Bet” is the Hebrew equivalent of the letter B. The previous waves of Jewish immigration were known as Aliyah Aleph, “aleph” being the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
Aliyah Bet happened in two phases: phase one (1934-1942/1944) and phase two (1945-1948). For the sake of this post, I’ll be focusing specifically on stage one.
The rescue missions were carried out by a network of Zionist organizations. Some 62 missions were carried out between 1937-1944, the majority of them unsuccessful and often ending with catastrophic results. In 1938, the Haganah (the precursor to the Israeli Defense Forces) established Mossad L’Aliyah Bet (“Organization for Illegal Immigration”) to facilitate these rescue missions. It received funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and operated independently from the Jewish Agency, though the Jewish Agency had been involved in its creation.
Sometimes, the Jewish refugees were deported back to Europe; other times, the refugees were caught before even leaving Europe and were deported to death and concentration camps or murdered in other ways.
For instance, in November of 1939, over 1000 Jewish refugees from Vienna attempted to sail down the Danube but were caught when they crossed the Romanian-Yugoslavian border. They were left stranded in Yugoslavia until 1941, when the Nazis killed 915 of them, 800 of them shot by the Nazi soldiers in a farmer’s field. The rest, who were women and children, were deported to Sajmiste concentration camp, where they died due to hunger and disease or were gassed to death.
In December of 1940, a group of 327 Jewish refugees from Bulgaria were shipwrecked near Istanbul. 223 Jews — including 66 children — died; 125 survivors were deported back to Bulgaria.
When Jewish refugees did miraculously make it to Palestine, the British authorities were quick to arrest them. Some examples:
In July 1939, a ship carrying 378 Jewish refugees was intercepted by the British. They were taken into Haifa and arrested.
In December of 1939, a ship carrying some 1,130 Jewish refugees from Romania was intercepted by the British in the Mediterranean and forced to the Haifa port. The passengers resisted, afraid that the British would deport them back to Europe. The British arrested them and kept them in a detention camp for a month.
In October of 1940, the British navy intercepted two ships off the coast of Haifa carrying 1,770 Jewish refugees. The British authorities began transferring them to another ship for deportation. The following month, another 1,634 refugees aboard another ship were intercepted. Immediately the British began transferring them aboard a French liner for deportation. However, the Haganah had planted a bomb on the French liner to prevent it from sailing. The bomb detonated and the liner sank, killing 260 people and wounding another 172. Finally, the British permitted the survivors to stay in Palestine on humanitarian grounds.
Beyond deportation and arrests, many of the attempts also ended catastrophically. Shipwrecks occurred due to the precarious conditions and lack of appropriate resources. The most infamous of these disasters was the Struma disaster, which I will elaborate on in the following slide.
In September of 1942, a small ship sailed from Romania to Palestine, carrying 21 passengers. It didn’t make it far, wrecked in the Bosphorus Strait along northwestern Turkey.
In August of 1944, three ships sailed from Constanta, Romania, carrying some 1000 Jewish refugees among them. That same night, a Soviet submarine sunk one of the ships and machine-gunned the survivors into the water. Out of the ~300 people aboard, only one crew member and 5 refugees survived.
In December of 1941, ~780 Jewish refugees sailed from Constanta, Romania aboard a ship called the Struma. The conditions aboard the Struma were abysmal: there was no adequate sanitation and the quarters were unsafe and overcrowded.
On December 16, the ship reached Istanbul, Turkey. Upon arrival, the passengers were informed that, not only would they not be granted visas into Palestine, but they would also not be permitted to disembark in Turkey.
In limbo, the refugees remained aboard off the coast of Turkey for over two whole months. The situation deteriorated quickly, with shortages getting increasingly worse, and the passengers were only able to survive due to contributions from the Jewish community in Turkey.
The Turkish authorities refused to disembark the passengers if the British could not guarantee them visas, despite the pleas of the Turkish Jewish community and Jewish organizations worldwide, which suggested that the refugees be placed in a temporary camp financed by Jewish organizations until their immigration situation was finalized. The Turkish authorities refused the offer and only disembarked nine passengers.
On February 23, the Turks towed the ship out to sea without water, food, or fuel, despite the passengers’ opposition. The next day, the Struma was sunk by a Soviet submarine. All of the refugees and crew members died, except for 19-year-old David Stoliar, the sole survivor.
As the war wore on, the Zionist organizations increasingly lost contact with their counterparts in Europe. That, coupled with the dangers of maritime travel during war, as well as the near-impossibility of obtaining ships, completely halted all Aliyah Bet operations between 1942-1944.
However, when the Zionist organizers in Palestine became aware of the Final Solution in 1944, they once again resumed operations, though they were largely unsuccessful.
The rescue missions utilized two different routes: (1) by sea, from ports in Southern or Eastern Europe, particularly Balkan countries, as well as from North Africa, and (2) by land, through Turkey. Ships coming from the Balkan countries would dock in Turkey to await British immigration papers, as during the war, the British sometimes allowed the refugees through for humanitarian reasons.
Some 70,000 Jews, aboard 62 or 66 vessels (sources differ), attempted to reach Palestine via ship during World War II. Only ~15,000 made it safely, as most were unable to penetrate the British blockade. Five ships sunk, resulting in nearly 1,600 casualties.
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