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Deaths of 260 in 1940 ship explosion commemorated

by PRAGUE (JTA) -- Jiri Polacek was below deck on Nov. 25, 1940, supervising the cleanup of the Patria when a small explosion rippe, Within minutes the boat had sunk, killing 260 people.

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"If you've seen the film 'Titanic,' you'll have seen the panic and what people are capable of. In reality, it's much worse," he almost whispers.

In 1940, then-Cpl. Polacek, 27, was among 3,600 Jewish immigrants sailing to pre-state Israel.

Most came from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary or Germany, traveling down the Danube River to the Romanian Black Sea port of Tulcea, where over 1,000 boarded a ship known as the Pacific.

Another 1,900 went aboard the ship Atlantic, and 700 Czechoslovaks, including Polacek, boarded the Milos.

British authorities, who had learned of the boats' imminent arrival, regarded the refugees as illegal and banned them from pre-state Israel. They chartered a French liner called the Patria to deport the Jews to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

Polacek and about 100 other soldiers, however, negotiated with the British to allow them to disembark at Suez, where they would enlist in the Czechoslovak army and join the Allied forces.

However, at about 10 o'clock on that morning of Nov. 25, 1940, an act of sabotage went horribly wrong.

The underground Jewish army, the Haganah -- which rejected the British policy of barring most Jewish refugees from entering pre-state Israel -- smuggled explosives aboard the Patria, hoping to cripple the ship in a desperate attempt to prevent its departure.

But they miscalculated the force the explosion would have on an aging ship. Within 15 minutes, the 12,000-ton liner plunged to the bottom of Haifa Bay.

"At first we didn't really take much notice because we'd been used to the Milos, the ship we came to Palestine on, which would often lurch like that," recalled Polacek, now 88. "The captain would say, 'Everyone move to the other side, please,' something we'd have to do to balance the ship," Polacek says with a quick laugh, before his face turns serious again.

Polacek, who returned to Czechoslovakia after the war and received the rank of colonel, spoke shortly after a memorial service with about 40 members of Prague's Jewish community. The crowd included the Czech minister for trade and industry, Miroslav Gregr, whose father, Capt. Emil Gregr, had been a passenger on the Milos and survived the Patria sinking.

Many of the 260 who died, Polacek says, were killed when timber with which refugees were expected to build new settlements in Mauritius fell from the liner's decks onto escaping swimmers.

The roughly 1,700 Jews were interned in a detention camp at Atlit. They were permitted to stay in pre-state Israel and were released in groups throughout 1941.

After the war, a band of Czech veterans who survived the tragedy in Haifa Bay formed the Patria group and vowed to commemorate the sinking annually at Prague's Jewish cemetery, which they do every year around the Nov. 25 anniversary.

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