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April 20, 2012

Remembering the Rafiach


The Athina-Rafiach set sail from Bakar port in Yugoslavia on Nov. 26, 1946, with 785 passengers – all Holocaust survivors. Twelve days into the journey to Palestine, there was a storm and the Rafiach sought shelter in a bay on the coast of the island of Sirna. Unfortunately, the ship ran into the rocks and, in less than an hour, it sank. Fortunately, almost all of the passengers managed to survive.

Vancouver community member Tzipi Mann’s parents, Lili and Solomon Polonsky z”l, were among the survivors.

“Having survived the Holocaust, separately – my father had fought against the Nazis in the Russian army and my mother was evacuated from Romania into Russia – they married in 1946 and found their way to the Rafiach, scheduled to take them to Mandate Palestine,” she told the Independent.

The Rafiach was part of the Aliyah Bet, also called Ha’apalah, which was the clandestine immigration of Jews to Palestine during the British Mandate period, when quotas severely restricted, even forbade entry, of Jews into the region. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “By 1948, well over 100,000 people had taken this route, including more than 70,000 Holocaust survivors.”

Travel by ship was the main mode of transport for Aliyah Bet, the coordination of which was taken up by the Mossad l’Aliyah Bet in 1938. “During World War II, Aliyah Bet continued, but at a slower pace and under more dangerous conditions, with hundreds of lives lost at sea,” notes the museum’s website. “Despite the dangers, 62 such voyages were carried out from 1937 to 1944.” And there were more Aliyah Bet voyages after the war, until Israel achieved independence in 1948.

In 2010, Mann placed an ad in an Israeli paper, wanting to find other Rafiach survivors (and their descendants). Before then, she said, “My only contacts had been Mrs. Niura Deutsch (now deceased), a friend of my parents, who had kept the link to the Rafiach alive, and Mr. Benyamin Kopmar, who had kept the survivors connected through the years. Fortunately, I met him briefly in 2004, but he passed away subsequently.

“I was hoping to connect with other survivors (even a handful), as part of my research into my parents’ history. When e-mails began to arrive in reply, it was momentous! The numbers grew as my departure date came closer, and exponentially once I arrived in Israel.”

The first reunion took place that year. It was an event that Mann described as “extremely moving and almost surreal.”

“The captain of the Rafiach, Gad Lasker, 95 years old in 2010, was in attendance and spoke,” she shared. “The event was held at Mevo’ot Yam, a naval high school, whose graduates go directly into the navy for military service upon graduation. This school had undertaken a trip – in 1997 – to find the Rafiach, which they did, filming it where it lies underwater. The students also brought up some items from the ship, a candleholder, for example.”

From this reunion, several initiatives have developed, said Mann. In June 2011, survivors and their families visited Sirna, and a nonprofit association has been formed. Called Amutat Nitzulim Rafiach (Association of Rafiach Survivors), its purpose is to preserve the memory of this Ha’apalah ship and its story for future generations, said Mann.

As well, Avraham Lichovsky’s remains were brought from the United States to Israel in November 2011 for burial at Kibbutz Shoval, where his sister lives – Lichovsky was the ship’s gideoni (wireless operator). “He’s the hero of the story,” explained Mann, “having saved the radio transmitter (and a baby) during the sinking, which enabled ... contact with Israel, and a rescue became possible.”

Lichovsky managed to set up an antenna and reach the Mossad l’Aliyah Bet in Tel Aviv, she said, adding, “We’re told that Golda Meir received the text of the transmission.” Mossad l’Aliyah Bet then contacted the British authorities. Four ships arrived, Mann recalled, two British, two Greek. “To my knowledge,” she said, “the Greek ships took the wounded and pregnant women to a hospital in Rhodes. Babies were born there, one named Rhodita.

“The British vessels took the others to detention camps in Cyprus,” Mann continued. “From there, not all detainees were permitted to settle freely in Israel. Many, like my father, were sent from Cyprus to another detention camp in Israel, Atlit, which today is a museum honoring the Ha’apalah.”

Nicholas Messinger, the son of one of the naval commanders who partook in the rescue mission, has posted his father’s story on his website. Of his father, Cmdr. William Messinger, who died in 1993 (and is buried in Essex), Messinger writes, “My father joined the Royal Navy in 1928, as a seaman boy at HMS Ganges. He spent the entire war on active service, and was at Salerno on the day I was born. He retired in 1961 with the rank of commander, having been awarded both the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] and OBE [Officer of the Order of the British Empire].”  On the website Britain’s Small Wars, 1945-2005, Messinger describes what happened on Dec. 8, 1946:

“While attempting to anchor, the Athina/Rafiach ran onto rocks and began to take on water at an alarming rate. The terrified immigrants, men, women and children, were ordered to jump overboard in the darkness. Some managed to clamber ashore with the help of hastily rigged ropes. Others had to jump into the sea. Babies were wrapped in bundles and tossed to those in the water below. [Explained Mann, ‘A number of adults placed themselves on the rocks to cushion the landing of the children who jumped or were thrown from the ship.’]

“Within 45 minutes, the ship had sunk,” continues Messinger on the Britain’s Small Wars website. “Eight immigrants died in the tragedy, their bodies washing ashore on the morning tide. As one of the survivors, a child at the time wrote: ‘It is hard to describe the panic and shock at that moment: 800 souls in a leaking tub desperately trying to save their lives, under the worst weather conditions possible, in the freezing cold, with six-seven-metre waves, clothed only in their underwear or robes jumping onto the rocks and into the raging waters.’”

To this description, Mann added that, “Documentary filmmaker Gadi Aisen interviewed a descendant of the family on Sirna who stated that 15 more bodies washed ashore after the survivors were rescued.”

HMS Providence, part of the Royal Navy’s Palestine Patrol, which generally sought to prevent ships like the Rafiach from reaching Palestine, was in Haifa Harbor, according to Messinger’s website. At 10:40 p.m., or 22:40, a signal was received, “ordering Providence to raise steam and proceed, without further orders and at best speed, to Sirna Island (36°20’N, 26°40’E), where more than 700 survivors from the wrecked ‘illegal ship’ Rafiach (Athina) had come ashore.”

Messinger’s website continues, “Clearing Haifa at 23:30, Providence passed through the Scarpanto Straits at 0800 10th December, arriving off Port Vathi, Sirna Island, at 1210, where she joined HMS Chevron, HHMS Themistocles and HHMS Aegean.

“Due to deteriorating weather conditions, embarkation of survivors by ship’s motorboat and whaler was not able to commence until 22:25. On the first run, Providence’s whaler capsized alongside, when her passengers panicked. Fortunately, all on board ... were rescued.”

Messinger notes that, in 1946, “Sirna Island had a population of eight: a farmer, known as the ‘King of Sirna,’ his wife and their married children.” By the time they were rescued, the survivors of the Rafiach had spent more than three days and nights on the barren island, without hot food or drink, and many were in poor health.

A documentary about the Rafiach is in production, said Mann, who is looking for investors in the film, which is being produced by Aisen. Many hours of filming have been completed, she said, including interviews with survivors, many quite elderly, as well as interviews conducted in the United Kingdom with Nicholas Messinger and his 94-year-old mother, Doris, about his father’s role in the Royal Navy and the rescue of the Rafiach.

About her motivation to document the story, Mann quoted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “To preserve is to create,” adding, “Investors here would have the satisfaction (and privilege) of knowing they’ve contributed to the documenting of a major piece of Jewish/Israeli history, about which not much is known to date.

“Other than names,” she said, “there is no record of other clandestine ships. The Exodus was a major story, but no one knows who its passengers were, or where they are now.”

Anyone interested in knowing more about the Rafiach documentary project can contact Tzipi Mann at [email protected].