The last stop on our ulpan field trip (after visiting the First Aliyah Museum in Zikron Ya'akov and the beautiful living memorial at Ramat Hanadiv) was to somewhere I had never heard of prior to my visit. Despite not having heard of Atlit previously, it was a place that left me forever changed after my visit.
Atlit, Israel is a coastal city located just south of Haifa and it is most well known for its detainee camp where survivors of the Holocaust were shuttled and housed after the end of the horrific war. The detainee camp was actually established and used by the British Mandate government in the 1930s, in order to serve as a refuge for those escaping Nazi-controlled Europe; however, the camp is most well known for it post-WW2 life.
Following the drawn-out end of WW2 and the liberation of concentration camps across Europe, the British authorities filled hundreds of illegal boats and ships holding thousands of Jewish refugees hoping to escape to a better life. Because Arabs in the area wanted to limit Jewish immigration (instead of open their arms and embrace these poor victims of war), the British mandate eventually succumbed to Arab wishes and refused to allow the Jewish refugees to enter the land of Israel. Instead, they were detained in this camp in Atlit.
Imagine coming from the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. You have lost your family, your friends, your children and all of your loved ones. You have experienced things that no human being should ever have to feel and you have witnessed things that no human eyes should ever see. You are, astonishingly, holding onto life by a thread by virtue of some miracle. You have no available connections to your previous life and no idea what you will possibly do in the future, let alone the present.
At this time, cue in the arrival of hundreds of ships headed for a new life in Israel. A place where you will allegedly be surrounded by other survivors, by your people, by hope, possibility and compassion. The journey there is rough and many people die on the journey over. The ships are overcrowded and the sanitary conditions are dire. After the tumultuous journey at sea (and the years-long struggles of the Holocaust), you arrive only to discover that here too you are not wanted, here too you are not permitted.
At the Atlit camp, already in the worst physical and mental states imaginable, the unthinkable happened. It disgusted me beyond words to see how these survivors were greeted, which was as you will read in a minute, an almost exact duplication of the despicable treatment towards these individuals in the concentration camps they had just left behind.
Upon their arrival, malnourished and deeply pained, the survivors were told to form a line, men to one side and women to the other. They were unwillingly sprayed with DDT, which was thought at the time to cleanse, though we know now that is not at all the case. They were told to then undress and to enter a vast room where showers were waiting for them. Does this sound at all familiar? If you know anything at all about the Holocaust, then this will sound awfully eerie to you. The profound lack of empathy and compassion toward these innocent victims at this essential turning point in their lives is one of the most disappointing and despicable examples of the lack of human regard that I have ever heard of. Way to kick someone when they are down.
Essentially, these victims were transported from one concentration camp to another at a time when they should have been greeted with the utmost amounts of human compassion and positive regard. Instead, they were met with barbed wire fences lining the proximity of the area, dozens of shared cabins filled with bunks comprising the living situation, guards standing duty on multiple watchtowers overhead and limited supplies of food and water. No matter where they turned, the Jewish people seemed to be faced with a lack of human regard. Throughout history, they seem to always be fighting an uphill battle to simply have the most basic human rights which should be a given to every human being in the world: food, water, shelter, life.
Here, between the years of 1939-1948, several detainees stayed and lived in imprisonment never knowing when the detainment would be over. Additionally, underground movements placed bombs in a few of the incoming ships' holds, killing thousands of incoming refugees. Imagine this type of world where you literally have nowhere to be accepted. Finally, in October of 1945, the Palmach (the special forces of the Haganah) led a raid organized by a young Yitzhak Rabin in which the special forces broke into the detainee camp, releasing 200 detainees who then escaped to freedom. Following this event, the British mandate began deporting the illegals to internment camps in Cyprus where many stayed until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. At long last, come 1948, the Jewish people had a place to call home - the same land inhabited by their ancestors generations ago. As you know, this establishment has resulted in unending strife and disarray between the Israeli and Palestinian populations who both feel a rightful and historic connection to the land.
The detainee camp in Atlit may be a somber story but it is an important one to be aware of. I hope to have educated or enlightened just a few of you to this unimaginable history in hopes of never again letting history repeat itself, which it always seems to have a tendency of doing anyway.
Classmates on our visit to Atlit were profoundly moved by the sacrifice that generations before us made in order for us to be alive today and living in Israel freely and legally. I know it made me appreciate the endless list of struggles that resulted in the freedom and accomplishment which we perhaps take for granted.
* black and white images borrowed from US Holocaust Museum website (see here)