The Story of the S/S Patria
By Eva Feld
When a stone is thrown into the water there is a ripple until all the ripples finally reach the shore where they dissipate and die. The Holocaust also had a ripple effect - this is just one ripple. For whatever reason it is a lost ripple, which is forgotten and as far as I know never reached its shore for closure.
World War Two ravaged Europe and the Holocaust was starting to give new dimensions to atrocities and in its wake a brand new meaning to its Webster definition. The S/S (steam ship) Patria was moored in the Harbor of Haifa, Palestine, now Israel. On board were approximately 1500 passengers awaiting planned deportation - at least that was the plan the Mandate government of Palestine, which was the British Empire, had in mind for people on board that ship.
In 1940 we lived in relative safety in Palestine. The most immediate enemy was how to make ration books last to the end of the month. An egg was a precious gift and the taste of bread was akin to eating chewy latex balloon skins. People found innovative means to make children's shoes last longer than they were intended. Life was bearable under the circumstances and everyone hoped and prayed that the war would not come to our shores. School children were told to write very small on the spongy paper so as to conserve paper. We did have regular air raid drills but that part of the war did not catch up with us until a half year later.
We lived in Haifa on Mt. Carmel, a very beautiful place. We were surrounded with views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Mountains of the Galilee and half way up the mountain Carmel was the beautiful but yet unfinished garden of the Ba'hai.
November 25, 1940 I was ten and a half. The day dawned to be a beautiful sunny one with an azure blue sky. I was coming home from school for lunch and my mother was crying hysterically. She pulled all of our clothing off the hangers, tore bedding from the closet and threw it all into large boxes.
"Mother! What are you doing?" I asked.
"You can get new," she screamed and the tears devastated her face. At the age of ten life is colored with rose buds.
The dull boom and the blaring sirens that vibrated throughout the city that morning are a memory and fifty years later are still not forgotten. I was schoolgirl and recall our class asking the teachers if they had heard a boom and sirens. They assured us that it was not an air raid and there was no need to rush to the bomb shelters. They all agreed that it was more important to pay attention to them than to the noises of the world outside.
The dull boom was an explosion that sank the S/S Patria in the Harbor of Haifa by Jews albeit to save Jews from the fate of deportation or worse, the crematoriums. The story of the Patria did not end in the Harbor of Haifa; not quite a thousand strong swim strokes for safety - nor did it start there.
On June 10, 1940, Italy joined forces with the Axis and the Mediterranean Sea became a focus of the battles. Submarines sailed under its waters seeking victims. In Palestine the Jewish Committees understood only too well that the thought of initiating transports of refugees to the safety of Palestine would be a treacherous and tremendous undertaking.
Despite the odds against arriving in safety in Palestine, two thousand men women and children boarded two ships, the Milus and the Pacific in the Harbor of Tulsa in Romania. They sailed through the Black Sea and entered the Mediterranean where the British fleet discovered them. The British Navy captured them and hauled the two vessels to the Harbor of Haifa.
From the start British censorship forbade any publicity about these ships. It rapidly became evident that these huddled masses would not be brought to the absorption center in Atlit, Palestine.
The Jewish press became alarmed to the fate that was in store for these people and published their plight before their arrival. The press was duly punished because of this infraction.
Rumors were widespread that the intent was to deport these people to a desolate island somewhere in the Indian Ocean. When the Milus and the Pacific arrived in Haifa, their passengers were transferred to yet another ship, which the British intercepted earlier, called the S/S Patria. The Patria was under repairs in the Harbor. The Patria had approximately 1500 people on board. The name of the Patria was changed to "Moledet" which in Hebrew means, "Homeland." The name was carefully picked to symbolize that these people were being forcefully removed from the only country that could become their homeland.
The British government avowed that these refugees were nothing more than Gestapos in disguise, and could pose a serious breach of security at a time of war. They could organize to become an effective enemy behind the lines and endanger the general war effort.
The Jewish Agency alarmed at the British arrogance proposed that the authenticity of these refugees could be easily established with a thorough inquiry by an appointed board from the British and the Haifa Office of Immigration.
The sheer number of the people who were refused entry tested the effectiveness of the White Paper, which was published in 1939. The paper set strict immigration quotas of Jewish immigrants into Palestine. Therefore the British stood fast on their decision not to permit the refugees to enter the country.
To cover up the intent of these people's fate, the British, under the guise of preventing possible escape, placed more than two thousand policemen and soldiers on the decks of the Patria. The official explanation for the severe security was to protect the passengers from harm. The facts became clear that the refugees were to be deported to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
The two ships, the Milus and the Pacific were too small and not sea-worthy. The Patria had an iron superstructure and the displacement was listed at 12,000 tons, therefore much more suitable for the long journey to Mauritius.
The Jewish Committee and the Jewish Officials wore out every avenue possible to block the deportation. When all the pleadings and resources were exhausted it was decided to physically damage the ship. Something had to be done to delay the departure and prolong the repairs. The decision to damage the vessel would buy more time to convince the authorities to let the people stay.
According to the testimony of Monya Mardor, "There was never any intent to cause the ship to sink. The British would have used this against the Jewish population and show it as an act of sabotage against the war effort." Monya Mardor who was involved in the matter under the most secretive of circumstances added that the primary objective was to avoid casualties. It was in the highest interest of the Haganah (The Jewish Defense force at that time) to fight the sanctions of the White Paper.
The preparations to develop an explosive device started. The object was to make it look like a little barrel filled with explosives. However the original device was not used due to an assortment of problems. Monya Mador continues, "theoretically the device would have been small enough for two harbor employees from the naval detachment of the HaPoel to slip into the harbor under the cover of night and swim to the ship and drag the device behind them. They would have attached it to the aft. To activate the bomb they would have to ignite a fuse then climb on the quay and swim in the open seas back to the area of Bat Galim (an area in the Haifa bay).
The two mariners received orders to stand by. They entered the harbor area with false documents and waited until nightfall. From the end section of the harbor they were to slip into the water and swim under water as much as possible. To float the device to the ship they would have to haul it with a boat. Such an operation would have been impossible to execute."
There were several other ideas on the table but none of them would have worked in a satisfactory manner.
Another idea was for the Ogen security people to bring the device into the area. Since they were working in the area with boats the device could have been brought to the ship. But again there too were too many problems. For example, the device would have cause much more damage than was necessary. The bomb could not have been made operational until it reached its target and who would be there to accomplish the task?
According to the memoirs of Davidka Namaeri: The next three days were spent on discussion of how to bring the mechanism on board the ship. He said: "The coal was brought to the ship on barges. The load was emptied into the ship. It would be possible to slip the device into the coal load. I requested to be put on the coal loading team. We all agreed that this method would be extremely dangerous. The bomb could explode at the time when the coal got dumped into the ship. We concluded that the only way we could possibly bring the device on board is for one of our people to board the ship. The objective was to meet with the Committee Chairman of the passengers, to train them how to light the fuse and how to execute the operation if we should succeed in transferring the bomb to them. Transferring the device to one of the refugees at the time of the coal dumping did not seem easy or even feasible.
The police and the military surrounded the ship. They watched every movement and stopped people at random. The refugees threw letters on to the coal barge. These notes were addressed to relatives or acquaintances. The police confiscated the letters and destroyed them. There seemed no way one could bring a device on board or to activate it without being discovered.
The process of causing damage had to be examined from the beginning. Monya Mardor volunteered to enter the harbor area with the assistance of Hertzel Shchori, the Operations Manager of the Public Works Division of the Harbor together with the help of two construction workers who were involved with the construction of bomb shelters. One was an Arab the other a Jew.
The ship was being prepared for the long voyage. To that end they had to retrofit the baking oven. Hertzel Shchori hurriedly sent a message to a new assistant worker whose name was Monya Mardor. The workers were transferring to the ship bricks and sacks of sand under the watchful eyes of the military and police. From the deck these supplies were transferred to the bakery again under the careful watch of the military and police. Once the material was on board the actual retrofitting began. A construction worker named Leibel initiated contact with a representative of the passengers who in turn informed the head of the passenger Committee on board that help was on the way.
Hans Vanfel promenaded on the deck in the delightful company of a young lady and he happened to come to the area of the bakery. Under the pretense of a very loud conversation with the young lady contact was made with Monya Mardor. Together they agreed that there is a possibility of causing damages to the ship and briefly discussed as to where such a mine should be placed.
It was agreed that the mine should be placed in the smallest possible container. They prepared a bomb filled with explosives and placed it in a small cloth bag. Also inside that small bag were chords and fuses to be attached to a fuse box. There was an alarm clock and whatever else was needed to make the mine operational. The device was very small in measurements and it all fitted into a leather bag not unlike all the other leather bags in which the workers brought their lunches.
All this took place on the 20th of November 1940.
On a Kol Yerushalayim, (radio station) broadcast, the Mandate government made an official announcement on behalf of the High Commissioner, McMillan. He stated that the intention of the of Mandate Government is to send the refugees to a detention camp in one of the British colonies where they would stay until the end of the war. It was emphasized that even after the war they could not come to Palestine because the country is firmly restricted to a Jewish immigration quota. Priority would be given to future immigrants.
The passengers became anxious and depressed. They wanted to mount a hunger strike. Repeated appeals by the Jewish population to postpone the deportation were refused by the High Commissioner. He declared that there is no basis for the Jewish population in Palestine to concern themselves with Jews who wish to immigrate from outside the country. He further declared that if peaceful behavior is not maintained that he will activate the highest form of military marshal law.
On the morning of November 21 1940 Monya Mardor put the bomb into his leather sack between his lunch and the thermos. Thus he passed the policemen without being stopped. He then was able to put the bag with the bomb into the sand pile right under the watchful eyes of the police. At the end of the workday Monya Mardor returned to the City and his group and reported as to the whereabouts of the bomb. Everyone waited for the explosion but nothing happened. In the morning he returned to the ship and the head of the refugee committee Hans Vanfel said that he tried to place the mine and work the fuses but the device did not work. A further conference with the engineers ensued and it was decided to prepare a new fusing system that will once again be brought in by Monya Mardor.
On November 24th a third refugee ship, The Atlantic, was brought into the Harbor of Haifa. Reportedly it had 1400 displacement tones and carried more than 1700 refugees. It became common knowledge that the Patria would be ready to sail within very few days.
It seemed that the British were unstoppable with their scheme. There was no one left to approach and make them change their minds.
On the morning of November 25th at 09:00 in the morning Hans Vanfel managed to light the fuse with the help of a little sulfur found in a matchbox. The explosion was heard throughout the city as it blew out the sheets of the superstructure and created a hole of six square meters. The waters gushed in with a terrible force and within fifteen minutes the ship turned on its side and sank.
Witness Berl Raphtor: "That morning, I came to the harbor as I do every day. I went to my office of Solel Boneh, I stood there with David HaCohen and looked around to see what was going on. Then at nine o'clock we heard a strong explosion. We watched helplessly as the Patria leaned on its side and sank. We immediately ran to the edge of the water to participate in the rescue operations.
Of the rescue operation itself Monya Mardor tells, "All the ships blew their whistles and every siren in the city sounded the alarm. Boats of every shape and every form appeared and began to approach the sinking ship. Arab, Jews every Harbor workers, policemen, British soldiers, everyone lent a hand and was busy with the rescue operations.
People were sitting on top of the rapidly sinking superstructure and on any part of the ship that was still peaking out waiting to be rescued. The workers tried to open the iron sheets with blowtorches to rescue those who were trapped inside. The portholes were too small for anyone to pass through. In the meantime the Harbor was sealed and a large army steamed into it and neighboring areas were filled with armed personnel.
David Nemaeri, "Many refugees swam toward the storehouses and many hundreds were rescued by boats. The people were put into sheds that were next to the storehouses. A few of them even managed to avoid the turmoil of the event and disappeared into the city.
Dozens of men and women who were too shocked by the event were brought to the hospital." The British estimated that 267 passengers of the Patria were missing. One hundred sixty seven bodies were found among them a British policeman who tried to open a brig in which there were some prisoners. Neither the Jewish Agency nor the Haganah could establish how many people succeeded to escape the Harbor and slip into the city or and how many were actual victims of the tragedy.
Davidka estimated that over 180 people died as a direct result of the operation among them Hans Vanfel, the man who ignited the mine.
From the book, "The History of the Haganah" it is assumed that over 200 refugees died.
The tragedy of the Patria brought the Jewish population to its breaking point.
Davidka comments: "There was no way we could have known in advance the terrible suffering and the pain that was about to be inflicted and the terrible price we would have to pay for the experiment to change the mind of His Royal Majesty."
Monya Mardor: "Those were nerve wrecking and soul searching days. Every day brought additional bodies from the wreck of the Patria. It increased the awesome deed that led to the torturous event. It was a terrible loss."
Monya Mardor was guilt ridden and struggled with his conscious. He continued to work in the Harbor in order to remove suspicion from himself. In the evenings he went to his Haganah attorney Choter Yeshi to be clear as to who will carry the final blame for the tragedy. The Haganah also put up an investigative body to find out why such a relatively small amount of explosives could create such a huge hole in a large ship. That the entire ship would sink within fifteen minutes was incomprehensible. It came to the conclusion that the superstructure was in extremely poor condition and that it was unable to withstand the pressure.
As for the justification that caused the damage to be inflicted in the first place the Haganah blamed the government of the Mandate. They announced that victims of the Pataria were the sole responsibility of the Mandate and the British Empire.
The survivors of the Patria were brought to the detention camp of Atlith. Also the refugees of the Atlantic were detained there.
However the fear of further deportation was far from over.
The High Commissioner received a delegation from the Jewish Agency and declared that the government had not change its mind on the deportation - that the survivors will be summarily deported to Mauritius and that there was nothing anyone could do to change his mind.
The British government hurried the preparations for the expulsion. For that purpose they had to secure a vessel seaworthy for the long journey. At the command of the British Navy were two Dutch ships that had just arrived at the Harbor of Haifa.
In the meantime the storm of Public Opinion swept the Members of Parliament and they pleaded for sanity to prevail. Influential groups in the United States began to send urgent messages of support and let their voices be heard.
On December 5th, the British Government in charge of Palestine declared that they would not deport the survivors of the Patria nor The Atlantic in the light of "Special dispensations of mercy on the grounds of the horrors they had just experienced board the S/S Patria."
There was not a single home in the entire City of Haifa that was not affected by the disaster. Furnishing of every type, clothing of every description was donated to the survivors. Children were left orphaned and parents lost their children.
Some of the children wound up in an orphange on Mt. Camel. It was never called an orphanage it was called "Mosad" in Hebrew, Establishment.
The dead are buried in Zichron Yaakov not far from Haifa. Some are buried in unmarked graves.
Eventually some of the surviving children found new parents. That trauma is an entirely different story. Sooner or later many became our school friends and that act alone healed some awful wounds.
The Patria was a very large snow-white ship. The British left the salvage as a living memorial in the Harbor. If you have pictures of the Harbor of Haifa taken between 1940 and l947 you will see the "hole" which was her mooring site. In 1948 it was Israel that brought up the salvage and disposed of it.
The story of the Patria and its heroes vanished into the ripples of the greater holocaust.
Main source of the material was obtained from Eshel Zadok, Haifa Israel
Many other NAMES and ORGANIZATIONS WERE PURPOSELY LEFT OUT but will be supplied upon request..
from the August 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine