Life in Mandate Palestine


Life in Mandate Palestine


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Suddenly There Was War

By Eva Feld

1946 involved all of us in the war of Independence for Palestine-Israel in one way or another that meant legally or illegally covert or overt whichever way worked.

We were no longer friends because we disbursed each into our own direction. It was a strange situation best described as seditious. It sometimes became down and out dirty and often malicious mischief and rumor mongering was not unusual. Mistrust influenced the friendliest of conversations. We were all fighting for the same cause but under different flags and slogans. Sometimes it was unclear if we were fighting for the same end objective.

I was involved with the Magen David Adom and duties had become serious enough to say that there were life and death situations. In other words, suddenly there was war.

A request was made (at that time orders were issued in the form of rigid requests) to work in the Atlith detention camp. It felt as though I had received a promotion. Little did I know what I was getting into.

Atlith is an area just outside the City of Haifa where the British constructed a large detention camp for the refugees that were taken off the illegal ships. Atlith is located not far from the seashore but inland enough to grow beautiful tall Cedar of the Lebanon trees. The camp was divided into two areas. The general population consisted of men, women, children and a nursery who were housed in army barracks. Various services sent in Hebrew teachers, social workers, kindergarten teachers and gardeners to help make the place more humane. The other area was the infirmary-hospital. On its ground grew some shrubbery that made the grounds a little friendlier, but not by much. The entire camp looked forbidding.

Visitors from the outside were heavily monitored and viewed as the enemy.

High fences and sharp accordion barbed wire surrounded the entire camp. The British sentries demanded identification, although once they recognized the face they became a little more sympathetic. Spot searches were often and thorough. We were warned not to bring anything into the camp. Only the identity card and then hide it carefully. Certainly nothing was to be taken out such as a letter or a post card. If caught, punishment was exacting and irreversible. Lawbreakers were not permitted back into the camp. An important agency such as the Magen David Adom could lose its franchise to render vital services to the detainees.

Working conditions were primitive. The patients were also housed in wooden bare bone army barracks. The Emergency and Delivery Room were one and the same. It was painted white to dignify its important singular standing. The mess hall and kitchen did the best it could under the circumstances. One certainly did not make it a habit of looking up into the rafters because the mice were ready to snap up food that was not guarded or covered. One was better off not to look too close at anything moving or standing still for dread of seeing something that was best left unseen.

Between the barracks was a lot of sand and rocks that was kept under control with pebbles.

Shift hours were always twelve. The daytime shift started at six in the morning and ended at six at night. The work was backbreaking.

Some patients were ambulatory and could go to the mess hall for their meals and take care of their personal hygiene. Patients who could not wash themselves had to be washed and the wooden barrack floors did not take kindly to any spilled soapy water. The few who were bed bound had to be served in bed. It was impossible to roll a food cart on the rocks and pebbles. Each tray had to be hand carried from the kitchen to the patients - up narrow steps, down narrow steps over the shifting pebbles, being careful of the rocks and up narrow steps until each patient was fed. Then everything had to be carried back and of course the clean up had to be meticulous so as to not give a mouse the take out for the day. There was little or no shade and everything took place under the boiling sun.

The more serious cases, especially those requiring surgery were taken to Hadasah hospitals either in Haifa or Jerusalem and then the patient was returned to the camp hospital for follow-up care. There were physicians from the Jewish Community and the British sent in government doctors. The patients received excellent care. If there were physicians among the refugee population they were more than willing to be called into service. They got a private room and the food was by far better in the hospital than what was served to the general population.

Daytime duties did not agree with me; so when the opportunity came to get on the night shift I grabbed it.

Nighttime duties started when dinner trays had to be collected. The patients had to be prepared for bed. Headcount was mandatory for accounting and policing purposes. How many became ambulatory and who could be returned to the general population - all that had to be reported to the camp's accounting offices as well as to the British authorities.

The nights were always cool - even in the heat of the summer. Sea breezes made the nights comfortable. Except in the winter, then they were out and out freezing. The night staff became instantaneous close friends. We often chatted for hours into the wee hours of the morning. Most of us were responsible for preliminary breakfast duties and our work started at 4:30 in the morning and that was the time the doctors went to sleep.

Then there were the babies.

At first I was only permitted to go into the nursery with a fully registered nurse. After I proved my abilities the responsibilities quickly increased. When there were only five or six babies I became the charge person.

Sister Rachel, a Jewish nurse who was trained in a British hospital was the primary supervisor and Major Domo of the facility. All the British trained nurses were called, "Sister" and they expected to be addressed that way.

It was Erev Simchat Torah and an illegal ship had arrived in Haifa. The able bodied passengers were removed and transported onto a different ship to Cyprus to the detention camps of Farmagusta or Nicosia. The sick who required emergency care and near term mothers were sent to Atlith.

As soon as I arrived that evening there was no doubt that it would be a long night. (I was always picked up and driven home again by ambulance). We had a hospital full of new patients to settle in. As soon as the patients were comfortable, we thought we had the shank of the night before us in happy spontaneous relaxation, when one of our new arrivals went into labor.

Whenever there were new arrivals the camp was placed in lockdown mode. That was a routine procedure to wart off escapees possible riots or even invasion by renegade groups. No unknown personnel were permitted in unless the names were called in ahead of time. When going through the barbed wires entryway, everyone was carefully inspected and even the known personnel were viewed with distinct distrust. We actually felt much safer under these conditions.

The lone physician on duty that night was a young refugee from Hungary who had not yet finished his residency training. He guessed and hoped that the delivery would be normal and routine. One could only guess what went through his mind at that moment. Could he handle it with a minimum staff and seventeen-year-old that would keep an eye on the rest of the patients? The primitive conditions had to be acceptable - there were no other choices. In those days there were no heart monitors or ultrasounds or anything except the mice who lined up on the rafters jockeying for a front row seat.

I had become very friendly with that young doctor.

He listened to my pleas to watch the event. I was flatly turned down.

"No! Someone has to be available for the rest of the patients," he commanded. But 'no' was not what I wanted to hear and I continued to press my case.

"No." [I suppose that today he would have said something to the effect of "what part of 'no' don't you understand?"]

"Why can't I watch, I won't be in the way."

"When you faint you will be in the way."

"I won't faint, I promise."

"Don't promise something you can't keep. You will faint. You are too young".

I continued to beg but in the meantime the patient went into hard labor and her discomfort awakened everyone in the hospital.

The event was shaping up into the serious phase and the physician, Dr. Otto Faber, ran out of time to argue with me.

"Don't faint. If you do you are on your own; we won't have time for you."

A head full of bushy black hair emerged with a red face opening the mouth to yell something and before I knew it the head disappeared back into the woman's body.

I was speechless and pointed at the disappearing head when I was unceremoniously shoved out of the way.

Seconds later a boy emerged announcing his presence to the beaming mother.

My feet became wobbly and felt as though they were floundering in churning water. My head swam and I was about to empty myself on the floor when I was pushed out the door into the arms of a couple of women who waited in the cold night air to bring the birthing news the to the ward.

He became my special baby for the duration.

Eliyahu should be about 56 years old now. Wherever you are Eliyahu, I hope you are healthy and perhaps a grandfather yourself. I never did say to you ba-ruch haba l'olamaynu (welcome into our world).

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from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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