On a summer’s night in 1946, over one thousand Holocaust survivors secretly travelled to a secluded beach on the Italian Riviera. They stood in silence in the moonlight as they waited for a ship disguised as a banana boat to collect them.
Britain’s Labour government, despite its promises, had refused to lift the strict limitations on Jewish immigration to the Palestine Mandate. With the doors to other countries firmly locked, thousands of destitute Holocaust survivors felt they had no choice but to embark on a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The ship, which was to become the Wedgwood, was a former Canadian corvette that had hunted down German U-boats during the Second World War. It had then been bought by the secret Jewish underground organisation Mossad LeAliyah Bet in New York, which would channel 70,000 survivors through Italy between 1945 and 1948.
The image of this anonymous and huddled group of people waiting for the Wedgwood stuck in my mind. How did they get to Italy? Who told them the ship was arriving? Who paid their fare?
To answer that question it was necessary to uncover the names of those who sailed on it. This was relatively easy as once they landed in Haifa they were interned by the British in the detention camp at nearby Atlit. The number of illegal immigrants who arrived on the Wedgwood shocked the British authorities and after this, all illegal immigrants were interned in Cyprus. Over the weeks and months that followed, the Wedgwood’s passengers’ names were recorded before they were granted permission to remain.
But what of their stories?
Soldiers with a Star
After liberation, many survivors tried to return home but were greeted by a hostile, often violent welcome from their gentile former neighbours. Pogroms in the summer of 1945 in Poland and Czechoslovakia convinced many survivors that they had to find new homes. Many left for the occupied zones of Austria and Germany where they found themselves destitute in Displaced Persons’ camps, often former concentration camps.
By a quirk of fate in May 1945, the Jewish Brigade, a unit of the British Army recruited in Palestine, arrived in the Italian Alps. They ignored orders and crossed the border to help survivors reach the safety of Italy.
Among them were a group of one hundred teenage Auschwitz survivors. Over tea at his kitchen table in central Israel, Yechiel Aleksander, now 97, told me how, after the liberation, he and his friends lived a feral existence. “We stole and swore and were very, very violent. We did not listen to anyone until one day soldiers from the Jewish Brigade came and saved us.” With Stars of David painted on their guns and jeeps, Aleksander recalls how he and his friends were in awe of them and agreed to leave for Italy.
The heart of the secret mission was the Palazzo Odescalchi in Milan. Here over 35,000 people were sorted by Jewish volunteers and despatched by former Jewish soldiers and agents pretending to be British Army units to various temporary camps, children’s homes, and military training centres.
Zionism offered Aleksander and his friends a future. They were first taken to a villa near Florence where they recuperated. After this Aleksander and some of the older boys in the group were taken to an Aliyah Bet training camp in northern Italy.
Priority passage was given to the young who could build – and fight – for the Jewish state.
Fear of Stalinism
A significant number of the people who sailed on the Wedgwood were former partisans. Zionists, in particular, were a target of an increasingly antisemitic Stalin and many had been ghetto fighters.
In his home in Haifa, Yitzak Kaplan explained it was his partisan brother-in-law, fearful of the encroaching communist takeover, who led the family out of Eastern Europe. The Kaplans spent two weeks sleeping on the floor of the Palazzo Odescalchi.
Central to their operation was a large turreted villa, known as Camp A, near the upmarket town of Magenta, west of Milan. Here they prepared the illegal voyages that not only trafficked people but also weapons.
Aleksander was he says put “in charge of cleaning the guns and hiding them in barrels that were buried under the cauliflowers in the fields.”
The Wedgwood had a skeleton crew of volunteers and the duty of keeping order on the ship was assigned to the partisans, many of whom had been the lieutenants of Abba Kovner, the underground leader of the Vilnius Ghetto.
Aleksander says the Wedgwood was almost prevented from sailing by the Italian police but one of the secret agents took an axe and cut the mooring ropes. Aleksander whacks his hand like a karate chop on the kitchen table as he describes the event. It was the cord that tied him to Europe.
The Wedgwood story reminds us of the suffering and the desperation of Holocaust survivors. They were, however, not the downtrodden angst-ridden remnants of a weak and passive people, nor were they aggressive imperialists off to conquer a foreign land as some would like to depict them. If the facts are forgotten it leaves those who want to hijack history free to do so.
Rosie Whitehouse is the author of The People on the Beach: A Journey Through the Holocaust, which is awaiting publication.
Suggested further reading:
The Wiener Holocaust Library holds a number of books and documents relating to this subject, some of which are listed below:
- Greenfield, Murray S., and Joseph M. Hochstein. The Jews’ Secret Fleet. Gefen, 2010.
- Patek, Artur. Jews on Route to Palestine, 1934-1944: Sketches from the History of Aliyah Bet, Clandestine Jewish Immigration. Jagiellonian University Press, 2013.
- Porat, Dina, and Elizabeth Yuval. The Fall of a Sparrow: the Life and Times of Abba Kovner. Stanford University Press, 2010.
- Stein, Joshua B. Our Great Solicitor: Josiah C. Wedgwood and the Jews. Susquehanna University Press U.a., 1992.
- Wedgwood, Josiah C. Palestine: the Fight for Jewish Freedom and Honour. Palestine Foundation Fund Keren Hayesod, 1926.
- 800 Men, 500 Women Landed at Haifa from Josiah Wedgwood. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 28 June 1946.
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Rescue, Foreign Policy, Biographies, Illegal Immigration, Migration, Postwar, Zionist, Jews, Palestine.