At the end of World War II, millions of displaced Jewish Holocaust survivors sought to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael but were prevented from doing so by the British policy barring ma’apilim (“illegal” immigrants) from entering the land of their forefathers. Nevertheless, between August and December 1945, eight ships containing 1,040 Jewish illegal immigrants were able to reach the shores of Eretz Yisrael.
At that point, the British intensified their anti-aliyah efforts, capturing over 52,000 survivors from August 1946 to January 1949, and confining them in 12 camps on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. (The first camp and one of the larger ones, at Caraolos, had been used to hold Turkish prisoners of war captured at Gallipoli.)
Although, in a monstrous perversion of the truth, one reprehensible source went so far as to characterize Cyprus as “a sanctuary for Jewish refugees from Germany,” no amount of propaganda, then or now, can alter that fact that the Jews were held on Cyprus as prisoners.
The pitiful Holocaust survivors sailed on unseaworthy vessels on long and dangerous journeys seeking to run the British blockade and to find refuge in Eretz Yisrael. Most of them were young Jewish activists who had joined Zionist youth groups before their departure; about 15 percent were in the 12-18 age range; another 65 percent were 18-35; and there were over 6,000 orphans amongst them.
The youth of most the Cyprus captives was hardly surprising given that the group responsible for organizing the ma’apilim movement – the mossad l’aliyah bet branch of the Haganah – was primarily interested in recruiting strong, young, and resilient people to join the coming military struggle to create a Jewish state.
The British operated the Cyprus prison like a European POW camp, imposing military rule and surrounding the camp with barbed wire, watchtowers, armed military police, and over 2,000 British personnel. Conditions were such that the local director of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Morris Laub, commented that German prisoners of war were treated better than the Jews of Cyprus.
The prisoners were packed into tents, huts, and shacks little different than the crammed trains they had ridden to the concentration camps – the Cypriot media estimated that more than 50,000 people were being held in space that could, at best, accommodate no more than 10,000 – and they suffered extremes of weather in both summer and winter with poor sanitary conditions and little water. The British enacted any number of measures for no other reason than sheer cruelty.
After December 1946, the majority of the young children and teens were placed in Camp 64, which came to be known as the “Youth Village.” Some 400 Jews died on Cyprus during their internment, but over 2,000 babies were born during that period, notwithstanding the lack of marital privacy in the camps.
Reflecting the eternity of the Jewish people even in the harshest of times and under the most difficult circumstances, the Jews in the camps were inspired to bring Jewish children into the world to compensate, even if only in small part, for the over 1.5 million children lost during the Shoah. Every birth was a source of great joy to the prisoners, all of whom shared in the simcha of the promise represented by the arrival of another Jewish child in this world.
Asked how she could even consider having a child in the misery of the camps, one mother explained that pregnant women were the first to be driven to the crematoria because they represented the future of the Jewish people and that having children was therefore the best possible response to Hitler.
For undetermined reasons, no master list of the 2,000 babies born to Jewish internees on Cyprus exists. Yitzhak Teutsch, director of the AJDC archives, undertook to research the issue in depth. He discovered that the British military hospital in Cyprus sent weekly lists of births to the AJDC and was able to locate 20 such reports containing the names of about 600 children.
Widening his search to locate the remaining names, Teutsch hit a brick wall until a librarian from the University of Southampton in England related that he had traced a birth ledger from the Cyprus camps that had been compiled by a local rabbi that included 400 names (some in Hebrew), birthdates, and names of parents. However, a complete list of the children of Cyprus has still not been assembled.
Exhibited here is “HaTipul BaTinok,” a rare and fascinating document regarding a baby, Yosef Yisrael, born in Cyprus in Camp 64 (the Youth Village), shed B7. He was among the 609 babies born in the Cyprus internment camp who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael on Oniat HaTinokot (the “ship of babies”) on November 28, 1947 – just one day before the famous UN Partition Plan for Palestine.
Survivors of the Cyprus camps later testified that one of the biggest problems for the prisoners, particularly the children, was forced idleness and boredom. Mendel Charles, the Jewish Agency representative to Cyprus, recalls:
When I came to Cyprus, what horrified me most was what I saw in one of the tents. In the darkness and filth, 15-16 year old boys and girls sat with old men killing time by playing cards. At that time, a Hebrew book was nowhere to be found, nor even a leaf that fell out of a Siddur or Chumash. There were no tools. No newspapers arrived. Teachers and craftsmen went idle. What was common to all ages and groups was the forced inaction, which wreaked havoc…
Nonetheless, the British recognized that they could not treat the Jewish refugees as enemies of the British Empire or as arch criminals and, as such, they allowed them a measure of autonomy. Aid poured in from Jews around the world, with the AJDC providing extra food rations, medical aid, and two nurseries, and the Jewish Agency sending teachers and social workers from Eretz Yisrael.
Some 25 percent of the Jewish internees were Orthodox and, as such, the AJDC also provided Torah scrolls and other religious accoutrements as well as two rabbis who were available to counsel all the Jews regardless of their level of observance.
Caring for the Jewish children of Cyprus became the essential communal priority. The children’s lives were placed largely under the supervision of angelic Jewish nurses who were sent from Eretz Yisrael to take care of them and to normalize their lives to the greatest possible extent under the circumstances; this effort included setting up kindergartens and classes, Jewish holiday celebrations, sports activities, games and other children’s activities, birthday parties, cooking lessons, and the like.
* * * * *
In this rare original photograph, five-year-old Nurith Laake has been brought by her mother (seated) for an examination at one of the ambulatory clinics maintained by the JDC in Cyprus. She was born in a hachsharah (a preparation center for Jews planning aliyah) in Denmark, to where her mother fled from her native Germany.
The doctor is Benjamin Eckerling, a Polish-born resident of Eretz Yisrael who served as one of the full-time JDC medical staff in the camps. The nurse, Susannah Simon, is a native of Poland who spent the war in the Stutthof concentration camp and was herself a prisoner on Cyprus.
Members of the aid organizations and detainee leaders established routines, schedules, job assignments, educational instruction, religious activities, and the means for creative work. The result was a broad and truly amazing range of creative works by the prisoners, including decorative sculptures carved out of the plentiful marble and limestone available at Cyprus.
An exhibition of the children’s work was held on Cyprus in October 1947. When the JNF learned about it, it asked the Hashomer Hatzair organizers of the exhibition to send it to Eretz Yisrael where, on April 25, 1948, an exhibition was held in Tel Aviv showcasing works sculpted by Cyprus youth, including portraits, bas-reliefs, engraved tableware, decorated boxes… and a piano, with all its parts meticulously carved. A favorite artistic theme for the youngest children was carved images of the ships that would take them out of the hell of Cyprus to Eretz Yisrael.
As history ultimately proved, the British policy of preventing Jews from making aliyah was an abysmal failure. Although it proved efficient at intercepting the boatloads of ma’apilim, they kept on coming until there was no space to squeeze them into the already inhuman accommodations.
Moreover, the miserable conditions in the camps and the sight of Jewish survivors of the Shoah, especially children, being caged behind barbed wire engendered broad criticism of the British policy across the civilized world, which hit a peak when the British sent the refugee ship Exodus back to Europe in July 1947. Many people do not realize that one of the main reasons the British sent the Exodus back to the Land of the Final Solution was because they lacked the space to incarcerate all its passengers on Cyprus.
The experience of surviving both the Holocaust and imprisonment on Cyprus only strengthened the resolve of the Jews to get to Eretz Yisrael, who began referring to Cyprus as “erev Eretz Yisrael” (the eve of being in Israel). Following the birth of Israel and the closing of the detention camps on Cyprus, most of them did ultimately realize their dream of getting to Eretz Yisrael, where they made important contributions to the welfare of the new state.
However, even after Israel was established, the British permitted only “non-fighters” to leave for Israel, which constituted about 40 percent of all olim to Israel during the war months of May through September 1948. Some 28,000 men of military age were prevented from leaving Cyprus because, the British disingenuously claimed, that would give the new Jewish state an unfair advantage over the Arabs and would “destabilize” the entire area.
The United Nations, which participated directly in this horrible debacle, sent representatives to Cyprus to conduct exacting screenings and to determine each prisoner’s age, lest any fighting man somehow find his way to Israel. The British dramatically increased the mistreatment of the remaining Jews, including reducing their already meager rations.
Jewish prisoners made several attempts to escape from the island. They were assisted in many instances by the local Cypriot community who loathed the British for how they were treating these wretched Holocaust survivors and who regularly brought food, medicine, and necessary supplies to them.
The most significant of these escapes took place in August 1948 (about 11,000 Jews were still incarcerated on Cyprus) when about 100 prisoners escaped a camp through a secret tunnel that had been dug over a six-month period. The British believed the escapees were being met by the Haganah and the Mossad in Cyprus and put on small boats brought in at night.
The British captured 29 of the escapees and sentenced them to prison sentences of various lengths, ranging from four to nine months. However, their condition in prison could hardly have been much worse than their treatment in the camps. After the final evacuation of all the prisoners, a system of tunnels under the camps was discovered through which many hundreds of prisoners are thought to have escaped.
As late as December 12, 1948, the British commander of one of the camps was ordered to appear before the Cyprus Supreme Court to show cause why 5,164 still imprisoned Jews should not be released. Even after the January 1949 truce ending Israel’s War of Independence, the British delayed releasing the remaining Jewish captives on Cyprus.
They finally agreed to permit the final prisoners to go to Eretz Yisrael, but only if Israel assumed the costs. Israel began the final emptying of the camps in December 1948 with the last 10,200 Jewish internees evacuated to Israel aboard the S.S. Hatikvah during Operation Pedut (“redemption”) from January 24-February 10, 1949.
Pinchas Reichman became the last Jew to leave the Cyprus camps, although some families and individuals remained in Cyprus until November 1949 due to health issues or because they had infants who could not yet make the trip to Israel. Reichman, who served as chairman of the Cyprus Camp Committee and was an activist on behalf of the children of Cyprus, joined his fellow former prisoners in Eretz Yisrael.
In February 2016, Cypriot Defense Minister Christophoros Fokaidis and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, unveiled a monument erected in honor of the babies born on Cypress. On the side of the monument is one of the few metal camp structures where Jews lived that has survived.
Three years later, in February 2019, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin made a state visit to Cyprus as the guest of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to mark the 70th anniversary of the closing of the last remaining prisoner camp on Cyprus. As part of the visit, Rivlin took a tour of the monument and of the old British Military Hospital where most of the Jewish babies were born. Today, there is a very active organization of “Cyprus babies” in Israel, and many were invited to join Rivlin on his historic trip.