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Salon de Provence

June 1947

Translated by Selwyn Rose

After a journey of several hours we parked in a refugee camp in the city of Ulm, where we were quartered in a large hall. To the same destination came more and more trucks from all over Germany, disgorging groups of immigrants - kibbutz members, 'graduates' of orphanages, organized groups from different refugee camps, and so on. No one knew what was going to be done with us nor what the immediate object of this immense gathering was. What was clear, was that we wouldn't be staying in the hall a long time, because no arrangements had been made for that purpose. During the day, so many people arrived at the immigrants' camp that it seemed as if all the Jews in Germany were being gathered together. Men of the Escape managed the operation with exemplary order. The groups were arranged one after the other, side by side, on the road-side, food parcels quickly and efficiently distributed and every one of us received a new identity card with a fictitious name which we were told to learn by heart, together with the other details on the card. To my surprise, I learned that the identity card I had been given was made out in the name of a woman - Rachel Grecca but my efforts to have it changed for one with a male name were in vain - there was no one with whom I could speak.

During the day, tens of trucks entered the camp and parked in a long line. With night-fall, we climbed up on them again and started on our way, accompanied by heavy motor-cycles which flew back and forth along the length of the convoy as it rolled along, providing an air of mystery and excitement. I sat together with Sarah, close to the back of the truck, hugging her tightly, both of us looking out, into the night. A full moon shone down on us, disappearing from time-to-time and then reappearing once more. By its light we could see the mountains and valley and occasionally a river in which it was reflected. The view was exciting and magical. When we entered a mountainous region, we could see ahead of us the lights of the convoy following the snake-like road, to and fro up the black mountain side. The convoy stopped and the Escape men came and told us that we had reached the border of France - we were forbidden to get off the trucks and we were to keep quiet.

Excitement gripped us. We were about to enter the territory of one of the Allied Powers, a country of beauty and romance. Our truck got closer to the border-station and stopped again. French police shone their torches on us, registered something and waved us on. We left Germany and that same moment, I swore to myself, that never, as long as I lived, would I set foot in that country again.

I looked for some visible sign that we were in another country, but the moon had disappeared and in the total darkness it was impossible to see a thing. For all that, it seemed to me that another sort of smell pervaded the air and my nostrils from the fields. By the light of the headlights, we could see that the French road was narrower and less well-cared for than its German counterpart. Suddenly, the convoy stopped and one of the motor-cyclists stopped alongside us and asked if there was a doctor among us. Even though the convoy was being managed and controlled with care, a fatal accident had occurred - a fellow had stuck his head out and a truck, coming the other way had taken his head off killing him outright, on the spot. After a little while we stopped again. This time a giant truck had blocked the road - At that very period, French truck-drivers were on strike. The Union heads had given special permission for our convoy to proceed but the driver who had blocked the road was drunk and didn't want to listen to any explanations. In the end, there was no alternative but to take the keys from him by force, and move his vehicle for him. He resisted everything and got some healthy blows for his trouble.

At midnight, we stopped outside Strasbourg Railway Station, shivering in the night-time cold which penetrated our bones. The light in the booking-hall dazzled us after so many hours of darkness. A long table had been set up in the centre of the hall and men and women, nicely dressed, distributed hot cocoa and fresh sandwiches. The cocoa, and more important the knowledge that someone was worrying about us (one of the women was insisting: “Est, est, kinderlech!” - “Eat, eat, children!”), warmed the heart. Alongside one of the platforms was a special train waiting for us and we crowded into the carriages, filling them up to capacity. Those who couldn't find a seat, simply sat themselves on the floors of the compartments, the corridors and wherever else it was possible. The train pulled out of the station and we all quickly fell into a deep sleep.

A new day woke us up. A day on French soil. They seemed to be the same fields, the same copses, the same hills and rivers as those in Germany or Poland, but for all that the scenery was different in each of the countries, and the more that I looked, the more clearly I could see the differences. Like when I had been a child, so, too, now, I took immense pleasure in watching the changing scenery drift by, the villages and farms, the people and the cattle which we passed. Sarah's hand was resting on my shoulder and the two of us sat, looking out the window, swamped with happiness and optimism as if the next time the train stopped it would be at Jerusalem Station.

The mood of all the others was also good and soon everyone began singing long and loud. At Marseilles Station, we all transferred to trucks and quickly started on our way again, this time only two trucks at a time, until we reached the town of Salon. We stopped alongside a wall . An iron gate opened for us and we entered a large courtyard, in the centre of which was a big, two-storied building, either a palace or a ruin - it was difficult to tell which - and all around it tall trees and greenery growing wild. Near the house I saw a fountain, with marble stairs leading up to it and statues of two Cherubim on either side. After some time we learned that it was in a palace in Salon that Napoleon had installed one of his mistresses, and that he himself had stayed there on more than one occasion.

An energetic fellow, about twenty-years old, whose name was Uzzi, got us together and told us in broken Yiddish, that he was from the Hagannah and had been sent from Palestine. From now on, we were informed by him, we were under his orders and all the legal framework of the Hagannah now applied to us.

“Soon,” he said, “we will be boarding the ship and be sailing to Palestine, but in the meantime we don't know how long we'll have to wait here, therefore we'll exploit the time that we have, organizing ourselves and doing some training.” Later, he emphasized the need to keep everything secret - no one was allowed out of the boundary of the courtyard, nobody was allowed to telephone outside, no one was allowed to send a letter. He read to us the daily agenda, which included Reveille, physical training, meal-times, training, and lights-out, telling us at the end that any infringement would be punished according to Hagannah rules.

The young Hagannah man with a Hebrew name, whom we didn't know, representative of the Jewish Settlement Authorities in Palestine, laid upon us his authority and discipline in a few simple words, in broken Yiddish, but his words took on special significance, when we looked at his serious, stubborn face. My heart told me that my period of freedom had ended. We were, to all intents and purposes, in a military camp, turned into disciplined soldiers in the struggle for our future in Palestine, with all the heavy responsibilities involved. With the sense of that responsibility came also a sense of pride in belonging to the Hagannah.

In an operation, unprecedented in size and complexity, the Hagannah had concentrated thousands of immigrants in Marseilles, and done in it in complete and utter secrecy. They hired every conceivable accommodation as hiding places for the people and organized everything in such a way, that, when the moment came, we could all board the ship in the shortest possible time and with the maximum efficiency - and in the meantime they prepared us as much as they could for the difficult voyage ahead of us. The remote, deserted palace, where we were billeted, with its large courtyard - the whole surrounded by a high wall, was ideal and convenient for training purposes. First of all, we worked hard for a couple of days cleaning the whole place up, both inside and out, making it suitable for human habitation. During this process the true beauty and elegance of the place became exposed. Our daily routine was regular: we woke up very early, had a morning run and exercises in the courtyard, roll-call, self-defence training, lectures, meal-times and rest-period, lights-out - everything under the tight control of Uzzi, who tried constantly to drill into us the significance and importance of good order and discipline.

Uzzi told us that we had to be ready to move at a moment's notice, and for that purpose made sure that we also had training in roll-call with all our packs ready.

One day, one of the guys went missing. He took himself off to Paris to visit an uncle. When he returned, two days later I was jealous of him that he had visited Paris. Not so Uzzi! Uzzi called a special parade that same day and with an angry, serious face, such as we had never seen on him before, called the offender to the front of the ranks and recounted for all of us what the fellow had done in leaving the camp without permission, an offence of extremely grave proportions - and accused him of 'treason'. Uzzi read for us, on parade, several articles from the regulations of the Hagannah relating to periods of emergency and the heavy punishments for various offences committed during such periods, including the death sentence. So far as the offender in this case was concerned, and in his capacity as commander of the Hagannah camp, he had decided to punish the serious breach of discipline, by banishing the man from the camp.

The judgement sounded like a death sentence to my ears. The fellow was ordered to collect his belongings and leave the camp immediately. He passed in front of us, his pack on his back, head lowered and our eyes followed him as if he were walking towards the guillotine. Uzzi, like his colleagues, had been sent from Palestine to Europe to organize the daring immigration operation and had no real knowledge of the type of people who were survivors of the Nazi camps, who had endured the Holocaust in all its manifestations and behaved towards us in the beginning, with a somewhat heavy disciplinarian hand, as if he had received into his hands a group of new recruits. With time, he came to know us better as individuals and sensed our strong desire to immigrate to Palestine and our willingness to do whatever was asked of us, only then did he let the barriers down a little, draw closer to us and become more tolerant.

Within the palace itself and its courtyard, there was no real possibility of being alone and when Sarah and I wanted some privacy, we stole out of the building, after 'lights-out' and found ourselves a hiding place among the bushes. Uzzi, who regularly patrolled the courtyard at night, to check that all was in order, discovered us one evening, shining his torch on us momentarily, then passing on. I thought that, perhaps for all that, somehow he hadn't seen us but the following day he sought me out and good-humouredly told me that he didn't want to find Sarah and me outside the building again, after 'lights-out'. I respected Uzzi for the tact he had displayed when he found us, and his subsequent attitude to the incident. On serious breaches of discipline he usually punished with the full force of the regulations.

One afternoon, Uzzi assembled us all together and told us that in a few hours - that same night - we will board a ship and sail to Palestine. He added, with pride, that our ship was the biggest and fastest that had, as yet, been used by the Aliyah Bet and that the number of immigrants the largest so far that had taken part in the history of the organization. If we should have to fight the British, we should be able, because of our numbers, to hold out for a long time and should consider ourselves lucky, that we are sailing on this ship. He divided us into several groups and nominated me as head of our group. The job of the group leaders was to control the group under his command and maintain order during the journey to the port, during embarkation and during the voyage itself.

We all broke into an instinctive cheering, roar of joy which quickly became stilled as an atmosphere of tension gripped us: what will happen? Was the big ship able to stand a battle with the British? What will be the nature of the fight with the British on the high seas? With what will we fight? Will we succeed in getting to Palestine, or will we find ourselves prisoners on the way to Cyprus?

Everything was foggy and certain. We didn't know what the day will bring forth. But in my heart there was no fear. I had a blind faith in the Hagannah and in our commander Uzzi. I was convinced of the correctness of the road I had chosen and had not the slightest shadow of a doubt of its success; in the same way, as a child, I had said to myself that it was forbidden to hold the slightest doubt of the existence of God.

Late that night, two trucks entered the courtyard, one closed, one open. Sarah and I climbed aboard the open one. The road was deserted. The truck drove very fast. The cold was intolerable and the wind sliced into us. Sarah and I tried to snuggle together for mutual protection but nothing helped. Later, with morning, it was foggy and we got drenched by the dew. We managed to dry out a bit and resuscitate ourselves only when the sun rose and began to warm us a little. Eventually we came to a halt in a little harbour - Port Sète. The vehicles approached the pier, where a large ship was tied up, its hull constructed of iron, its superstructure all of wood. On its one deck row upon row of port-holes crammed together, and above them, the one funnel, tall and black. When we got up to the gangplank, I tried to tell the man at its foot, that we were a group and wanted to arrange for us to stay together on the ship, but before I could get a word out, he shouted towards us:

Arein! Arein! Schneller! Schneller!” - “On board! On board! Quickly! Quickly!”- He stretched out his hand and pulled me on to the deck. Inside it was dark and in the narrow companion-way stood other people who also pushed us towards some bunks, shouting: “Lie down and don't move!”
It was a terrible moment of helplessness and loss of identity. For one second the memory of the transport to Sobibor flashed through my mind with the shouts of the Germans, but it passed because the association was out of context and shameful. My eyes became adjusted to the gloom. I poked my head out of my bunk and saw how the ship was filling up with people. All my colleagues were settling down close to me. In an exemplary show of team work by men of the Hagannah and Palim the sister branch for maritime operations, four-thousand five-hundred were packed onto the ship, carried on three-tiered bunks, specially built into the ship from deck to cabin roof, between them narrow passage-ways. The ship, which in other times had been used as a ferry on the Mississippi, was constructed to carry only a few hundred passengers, had been acquired by the Jewish Agency and refurbished for use in immigration operations. The British Intelligence services had followed with interest the process of preparation and repair of the ship, which carried at its mast-head the flag of Panama. Our people had carried out all sorts of manœuvres with the ship, sailing it from port to port in attempts to confuse the eventual destination and purpose, until it had reached Port Sète. Because of its size it had been impossible to hide it completely and the men of British Intelligence, who were in all the Mediterranean ports knew, in fact, where it was. At that point, the British Government began to exert pressure on the French, threatening to break off diplomatic relations, if they allowed the Jewish refugees to sail. The local French authorities received instructions to halt the sailing of the vessel, in spite of the earlier authorization permitting it to do so. This became known to our operatives when four thousand five hundred people were already on their way to Port Sète, from all over Europe, a significant number of them already on board. In that situation, there was no way of calling a halt to the process and changing the programme so it was decided to continue with the embarkation and then think of some strategy of getting the ship out of the harbour. The Hagannah operatives sought, and found a pilot who agreed to pilot the ship out of the harbour in secrecy, at midnight, for a considerable sum of money - half of which he would receive in advance and the other half on completion of the manœuvre.

During the day, the embarkation of all the people was completed. The ship was overflowing and well beyond its capacity. All the normal preparations for sailing were completed. During the evening the captain 'Ike' (Yitzhak Aharonowitz), and his men inspected the ship and made sure that everything was in order. Ike, a young member of the maritime branch, wore short trousers, and the jacket and cap of a captain, both of which were too big for him. He looked more like a little boy dressed up than a captain in charge of a ship-full of people but his serious expression and his energetic, confident speech bore witness to his competence and rank. The passengers, who had received instructions not to move around and not to get out of their bunks until we sail, were disciplined and quiet, resting where they were, their heads poking out of their bunks, watching what was going on.

The men of the Hagannah waited for the French pilot in vain; in vain they searched for him. He had disappeared - and with him, in his wallet, the money he had received. The officers in charge of the operation faced a dilemma - a very hard choice. It was very likely that if the attempt to sail the ship failed that night, it never will sail at all. The disembarkation of the people on board, and returning them to the camps would cause them a psychological shock of major proportions and strike a serious blow to the entire immigration enterprise. On the other hand, sailing out of a harbour without the help of a pilot, is considered an extremely hazardous manœuvre, if not an impossible one. The ship could run-aground on rocks or a sand bank with tragic consequences.

In the end, we felt our hand was forced and Ike, the captain, decided to take the ship out himself, taking upon his young shoulders a heavy responsibility.

We knew nothing of the drama of events taking place above our heads. We only knew that we weren't moving and that our leaders and the rest of the crew were looking tense and worried. Later, when we did learn what was happening, were, too, became worried that we would be disembarked and maybe returned not only to Salon but even to Germany. But suddenly, the engines! The heavy engines, specially added to increase the ship's speed and its manœuverability, began turning and throbbing. The anchor was raised and within a few minutes, nerves stretched to breaking-point, we heard and felt the ship creak and groan, its sides butting the pier beneath the sea, every bump shaking the whole ship from stem to stern. We moved forward, then astern, then forward again. When I peeped out of one of the port-holes, I saw how the ship struggled like a live animal trying to get out of its cage. The fight was also against time itself. We could leave the harbour only at night, while the coast-guard, the harbour personnel and the police, were all in their beds, sleeping the sleep of the just and righteous, secure in the knowledge, that without a pilot, the ship won't get out onto the high seas. Suddenly, the ship increased its speed and began to move forward silently - it was still dark and we stole out of the harbour, which quickly disappeared behind us into the dark. We were on the open sea. From the deck I heard the crew laughing. We all drank a hearty “Le-Haim!”

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