Sy Israel has always been a man of the sea. An avid boater his entire life, he has spent much time sailing various seas and lakes, but never the Mediterranean.
“That is an interesting body of water to traverse,” said the Orlando resident and businessman, “and I can only imagine what it must have been like to cross it illegally determined to make for Israel’s shores.”
To preserve the story of the more than 122,000 people known as ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) who were transported from Europe and Arab countries to Israel’s shores in spite of the British blockade between 1934 and 1948, Israel is doing his part to help restore a boat similar to the 92 refitted vessels that carried them.
Working through Jewish National Fund and the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), Israel helped fund the transport and refitting of the Galina. Unveiled on the Mediterranean Sea at Hadera on March 27, it will best tell the story of the Jewish people’s determination and struggle to enter the country.
The British Mandate authorities had put severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and showed little sympathy for Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing persecution in Arab countries. Overcrowded ships were intercepted by the British, and passengers and crew were incarcerated in a detention camp for illegal immigrants in Atlit (which has been restored by SPIHS and is the permanent home for the museum).
Now, with the arrival of the ship, the history of this era will be preserved for the future.
Bedecked in blue and white, the 40-year-old Galina was moored to the Israel Electric Company’s dock. Its body was streaked with rust stains, giving testament to her age.
The boats used during the time of the illegal immigration, the most famous of which was the Exodus, were kept in the Haifa port. Over the years, these boats were destroyed in order to expand and modernize the port.
To find a ship similar to the boats during the time of the illegal immigration, a group of volunteers, under the guidance of SPIHS, worked up the specifications. Many of the volunteers actually took part in the illegal immigration, and were part of a group known as Palyam, a Hebrew acronym for
“plugot hayam” (sea companies).
Palyam was the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces’ Naval Commando Unit, the special unit formed by the Haganah in 1943, which later became the Israeli Navy. Many of the Palyam people were involved in bringing illegal immigrants to Eretz Israel before, during and after the Holocaust.
A search through various ports throughout the world turned up empty, but Internet advertising produced results. A 40-year-old boat from Riga, Latvia — the Galina — was the best fit. The two decks inside could be designed to replicate the immigration ships, including sleeping quarters and warehouses.
About 100 people were on hand for the unveiling ceremony. Many had served in the Palmach or the Palyam, their white hair reflecting the bright spring sun as the Israeli flag was raised and they sang “Hatikvah.”
“Aliyah and the story of the illegal immigration is an important chapter in Israel’s history,” said Yehuda Dekel, chairman of SPIHS. “Illegal immigration had a major impact and probable influence on the United Nations. It is necessary to show how the Jewish people, both the immigrants and those that helped them, such as the Haganah, risked their lives to come to Eretz Yisrael to make aliyah.
“It is the story of the struggle of the Jewish people and their right to be here in Israel.”
Labor party member Ephraim Sneh, one of the speakers, talked about his father, Moshe, who was a member of the Haganah and responsible for illegal immigration efforts. “Atlit is more than a tourism site,” he said. “It is an educational center.”
“This is the first time that an illegal immigrant ship has received such an enthusiastic welcome,” quipped Council President Shlomo Hillel, who spoke of its significance in preserving the memory of the struggle to bring immigrants to Eretz Israel in the battle for independence.
Sy Israel, howver, was not there. He and his wife, Debra, plan to visit in June.
“But,” he said, “I am old enough to remember the beginning and what it was like when the state was created. I feel very proud to be part of this. It will be there for all to see how Israel became a state.”