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Chapter II

Bucharest, Romania

Abraham Lidkowsky and Ruzhka Korczak arrived in Bucharest and located the Palestine office headed by the legendary Moshe Auerbach (later changed to Agami). Auerbach was born in Latvia and came to Palestine in 1926 and settled in “kfar” or village Giladi along the Syrian border near the old settlement of Tel Chai. Yosef Trumpeldor had fallen in

 

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Moshe Auerbach, later Moshe Agami

 

Battle defending the settlement. The area was constantly exposed to marauding bands of Bedouins and the Kibbutz was forced to devote a great deal of energy to defense. Agami joined the local Haganah branch and quickly rose through the ranks. He showed exceptional leadership qualities and in 1936 he was chosen by the Jewish Agency of Palestine to head the Vienna office, where his main job was to help Austrian Jews leave for Palestine, legally or illegally. He actually met on several occasions with Nazi leader and future Shoah executor Adolf Eichmann in Vienna and walked away alive.

His activities increased greatly when the Jewish Agency of Palestine under the leadership of David Ben Gurion decided to abandon the policy of co–operation with Britain, following various measures Britain adopted

 

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Shaul Avigur, head of the “Mossad” which organized the smuggling of Jews into Palestine

 

aimed at Jews, including the drastic reduction of entrance certificates to Jews wanting to go to Palestine, even though the number of Jews trying to leave Europe grew daily. The British were determined to stop all Jewish immigration to Palestine and adopted pro–Arab policies hoping to gain the favor of the Arab world.

The Jewish Agency decided to attack British policies in Palestine. A special office named the “Mossad” was created and empowered to use all means possible to bring Jews to Palestine. The Mossad organization was headed by Shaul Avigur, who organized a network of offices throughout Europe for this effort. The Mossad began to buy ships and load them with Jews headed to Palestine. At first, there was some success but soon Britain ordered its Mediterranean fleet to patrol the approaches to Palestine. Still, boats with illegal immigrants kept arriving. British ambassadors intervened everywhere diplomatically to stop the departure of ships but Jews kept coming to Romania where they hoped to board ships for Palestine. Agami was very busy expediting Jewish transports from Austria to Romania until he was finally kicked out of Austria as a foreign Jew. He moved his office to Greece, then to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey. Everywhere he tried to buy ships and load them with Jews. The task was very difficult. British agents followed him and managed to destroy many deals by the mere threat that the ship would be confiscated on arrival in Palestine. The British agents also publicized when ships with Jews were expected to leave the European shores. No European country wanted problems with England. Meanwhile, Germany expanded control over Europe. Mossad offices kept closing one after the other as the Germans advanced. Agami and other Mossad agents arrived in Turkey where they tried to continue their activities, now limited to countries bordering the Black Sea: Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.

The Bulgarian Jews had been Zionist sympathizers since the days of the Hovevei Zion, forerunners of the political Zionism created by Theodor Herzl. They supported the Zionist movements and participated in Zionist activities. They also helped the Mossad acquire ships and increase the illegal shipping activities as the German threat spread throughout Europe. The first ship to leave Bulgaria was the Velos in 1934. The following ships left Bulgaria with Jews aboard heading for Palestine.

 

June 1938 Karlica Maria
June 1939 Aghios Nicolaos
July 1939 Colorado
August 1939 Rudnitchar
August 1939 Krotova
November 1939 Rudnitchar
December 1939 Rudnitchar
January 1940 Rudnitchar
May 1940 Libertad
December 1940 Salvador

 

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The illegal ship Salvador that left Bulgaria with Jewish refugees for Palestine in December 1940 (Yad Vashem Archives)

 

Despite all the obstacles, quite a number of ships left for Palestine, mostly financed by the Jewish Agency and the JDC.

The Salvador was the last ship to leave the Bulgarian port of Varna. In December 1940, with 352 refugees bound for Palestine, the boat ran aground 100 meters off the coast of Silivri, west of Istanbul, and sank. Two hundred twenty–three passengers drowned or died of exposure in the frigid waters. Half the survivors were sent back to Bulgaria while the remainder were allowed to board the Darien II, and landed in Palestine but were imprisoned at Atlit detention camp as illegal refugees. Eventually they would be released from the camp against certificates of entrance that the British mandate issued each month. Following the departure of the ship, the climate in Bulgaria began to change rapidly. Germany pressured Bulgaria to join the Axis countries, dangling territorial concessions and influencing public opinion through propaganda.. Bulgaria officially joined the Tripartite Agreement on March 1, 1941.

In 1941, the Bulgarian parliament and Tsar Boris III began to enact anti–Jewish laws. Jews were prohibited from voting, running for office, working in government positions, serving in the army, marrying or cohabitating with ethnic Bulgarians, using Bulgarian names or owning rural land. Authorities began confiscating all radios and telephones owned by Jews. All Jewish organizations were disbanded. All Zionist offices were ordered closed. All non–Bulgarian Zionist officials had to leave the country and Mossad activities came to an end. Most young Jews were drafted into labor battalions and forced to work on big projects. The Germans began to demand that Bulgaria send their Jews to Poland and other areas of the Reich. Serious discussions continued on the subject between the governments. The Germans meanwhile detained all the Jews in the areas that they had given to Bulgaria like parts of Macedonia and deported them to Poland where they all perished.

German pressure continued but the Bulgarian government was divided on the issue and the Bulgarian Church was totally opposed to the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. Meanwhile Germany suffered some military setbacks and victory became uncertain. The Bulgarians procrastinated and finally decided not to deport its Jews. Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews were saved from deportation to Nazi concentration camps with the help of Dimitar Peshev, an influential political figure in Bulgarian politics, leaders of the Bulgarian Church, led by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, Tsar Boris, and ordinary citizens. Most of the Jews would leave Bulgaria for Israel following the establishment of the Jewish State.

Romania was also an important port of embarkation for Jews to Palestine. The Palestine office was very active in Bucharest and helped many ships leave Romania via the port of Constanta. Below is a list of the ships that left Romania for Palestine.

 

November 1938 Draga B and the Delpha
December 1938 Chepo
January 1939 Katina
February 1939 Chepo
March 1939 Astir, the Sandu, the Agios Nicolaos and the Asimi
May 1939 Liesel and the Frosula
June 1939 Las Perlas and the Rim
July 1939 Parita
August 1939 Tiger Hill, the Aghios Nicolaos and the Noe Mijulia
January 1940 Hilda
February 1940 Saraya and the Pentcho
October 1940 Pacific
November, 1940 Atlantic and the Milos Nou
March 1941 Darien and Mihai
April 1941 Mirceal
May 1941 Dor de Val
December 1941 Struma
August 1942 Dora
September 1942 Vitrol and the Europa

 

Most of these ships reached the Palestinian coast where the Mandate authorities detained the passengers and placed them in detention facilities but at least they were saved. The extent of illegal shipping was carried out against huge obstacles by a vast operation involving many groups and individuals to find the ships and bring the refugees aboard the vessels. Even the war that started in September 1939 did not stop the movement of ships and the rescue operations. On the contrary, the war increased the activities. The Palestinian Office was flooded with applicants but the lack of ships limited the number of sailings.

The Jewish situation in Romania went from bad to worse. Anti–Jewish legislation started as early as 1937 with the exclusion of Jews from professional associations. On September 14, 1940, General, later Marshal, Ion Antonescu seized power in Romania. He forced King Carol to abdicate in favor of his 18 year–old son Michael. Romania then adopted the Romanian version of the Nuremberg laws in Germany. The “Iron Guard” or extreme nationalist and anti–Semitic members of the government pressed for more anti–Jewish laws that were constantly issued by the government. These acts made life very difficult for the Jews in the old provinces of Romania. Most of the Jewish organizations, including Zionist groups, were dissolved. In the new areas that Romania acquired – Bukovina, Bessarabia and Transnistria – the Jews were decimated by the Romanian and German armies. A zone was created between the Bug and Dniester Rivers where all Jews of the new areas were sent and eventually perished. But the regime actually encouraged all Jewish emigration or aliyah activities. The anti–Jewish campaign intensified with Romania's participation in the attack against Russia. Romania committed large forces and supplies to the attack. The Romanian economy could barely keep pace with the expenses of the war. Marshal Antonescu was determined to stay with Germany and kept a close eye on the young Romanian King.

Some Jewish organizations in Romania refused to close down and went underground, like the Council of Jewish Communities, that was able to maintain contact with the JDC. The Palestine office headed by Leo Eisner continued to function and successfully organized many ships to get Jews out of Romania. The Revisionist Zionist organization in Romania headed by Samuel Klamart also continued to function underground. Illegal ships continued to leave Romania until the Struma was torpedoed.

 

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The Struma

 

The Struma was an old vessel built in 1867. The Mossad had to use what was available and the Struma with a crew was ready. Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth (members of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement), there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship. Antonescu's Romanian government approved the voyage. The diesel engine of the Struma failed several times between her departure from Constanta on the Black Sea on December 12, 1941, and its arrival in Istanbul on December 15, 1941. The ship had to be towed by a tug both to leave Constanta and to enter Istanbul. On February 23, 1942, with its engine still inoperable and its refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed the Struma from Istanbul through the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Within hours, in the morning of February 24, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the ship, killing passengers and crew, making it the Black Sea's largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II. David Stoliar, age 19, was the only survivor.

 

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Poster that appeared after the sinking of the Struma. Mac Michael was the head of the Palestinian Mandate Authority

 

It was obvious that the Struma had needed major repairs to continue the journey. The passengers had been stripped of all their possessions by Romanian customs officials, so the ship had no money to undertake repairs. The Turks wanted the ship to continue its voyage unless the passengers had certificates for Palestine. Britain refused to issue certificates although it had plenty in reserve. A small number of passengers had Palestinian visas so survived along with Stoliar. Turkey and Britain tried to hide the disaster. Stoliar was kept in a Turkish prison for some time until Britain issued him a certificate to enter Palestine. The Jews in Palestine were furious and expressed it through posters plastered on the walls of buildings across Palestine.

The terrible sea disaster forced the Mossad and the Revisionists to stop sending illegal ships since the risks were too high. Illegal shipping to Palestine came to a total standstill except for some small private boats. The Mossad resumed sending ships from Romania to Palestine in March 1944. Most of the transports actually left Turkey although the paperwork and preparations were made in Romania. With the military defeats suffered by the Axis forces, the winds of war shifted and so did the policy of Turkey regarding Jews heading to Palestine. Turkey consented to be a transit country and the Mossad took full advantage of the situation with eleven ships leaving that year.

 

March 1944 Milka A
April 1944 Meritza A, the Bilasitza, the Milka B and the Meritza B
April 1944 Bilasitza
May 1944 Meritza B
July 1944 Kazbek
August 1944 Moriana, the Bulbul, the Mefakure and the Salah El Din
December 1944 Taurus

 

The Soviet armies were driving toward the Romanian borders, the Allies were bombing the industrial sites in Romania, particularly the Pelosi oil fields. The Antonescu regime in Romania was weakening by the day. On August 23, 1944, the young King Michael assumed power, joined the allies and dismissed Marshal Antonescu from office. The JDC, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), the Palestine Office, Zionist organizations and the Hechalutz all reopened their offices and functioned in the open again.

The various Romanian Jewish organizations, including the Union of Jews in Romania under the leadership of Wilhelm Filderman, also started to work once again. Filderman, a well–known and respected community leader since 1919 had protected and fought for the rights of Jews in Romania. He was a lawyer by profession and was well connected with leading Romanian personalities. He retired to France where he continued to live until April 8, 1963.

 

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Wilhelm Filderman

 

Moshe Auerbach was assigned to head the Palestine Office and he galvanized the bureau into activity. All Zionist groups that dealt with aliyah formed a common front. The aim was to expedite as many Jews as possible to Palestine. Bucharest had thousands of illegal Jews; some had escaped from Transnistria camps, others from Romanian labor battalions, still others from Poland. All these people wanted desperately to leave Romania since they were surviving on false papers. The demand for seats aboard the illegal ships far exceeded the available space.

Then Lidkowsky and Korczak showed up in Auerbach's office. This was the first contact between a Palestinian Jewish official and Jewish partisan survivors in Eastern Europe. They talked for hours and explained the present chaotic situation in the area. Auerbach decided to send both representatives aboard the Taurus to Palestine where they would be able to explain what had happened in Eastern Europe. Most of Palestine and the Jewish world knew very little if anything of what had happened to the Jews. Auerbach knew it was vital that eye witnesses share their stories. Both men arrived December 12, 1944 in Haifa, Palestine.[1] Lidkowsky and Korczak quickly met with important Jewish leaders and shared their knowledge of the dire situation of post–war Jewish Europe.

Auerbach enlarged the Palestinian Office in Bucharest and created a Brichah office whose task was to bring Jews out of the Transnistria area camps to Bucharest where they could be helped and shipped onwards to Palestine. Auerbach, Kovner and Lidkowsky all worked together with the JDC providing assistance to Shoah survivors. The Council of Jewish Communities under the leadership of Wilhelm Filderman pushed the government to help return the surviving Romanian Jews from the death camps of Transnistria.[2] Small groups of Jews also began to arrive from Rowno and Vilnius through the route established by Lidkowsky and Korczak. Jews in other cities such as Lwow heard of the possibility of going to Palestine and decided to join the exodus.

Remnants of the pre–war Zionist movements began to move to Bucharest via Czernowitz, part of the Soviet Union. The city became an important Brichah center from where Jews would be smuggled into Romania. It is estimated that by April 1945 there were 2,000 to 3,000 new Jewish arrivals in Bucharest.[3] The Soviet secret police began to take an active interest in the aliyah movement and managed to plant an agent within the Brichah organization in Czernowitz. He was a local Jewish doctor who professed to be a Zionist sympathizer and actually helped the smuggling operations. When Dr. Amarant, a close associate of Kovner, arrived with a sizable group of Jewish partisans from Wilno, they were surrounded by Soviet secret police who knew where to look. There was a great deal of confusion and some of the new arrivals managed to disappear but 11 people were arrested, including Dr. Amarant, and Rabbi Kahan. While on their way to prison Dr. Amarant managed to send a cable to the community in Lwow that they had been arrested.[4] Word soon spread to all Brichah units: Stop sending Jews to Czernowitz. The Jews who arrived in Czernowitz and were not arrested by the police were eventually smuggled to Romania. But the Czernowitz Brichah operation center was destroyed. On May 11, 1945, proceedings started against the arrested Brichah leaders in Czernowitz, most of whom faced serious charges of counterrevolutionary activities, and some received up to two years in jail. The Soviet police interrogations revealed the activities of Lidkowsky in Rowno and Kovner in Wilno. They and some of their associates became wanted men and left for Poland.

The Czernowitz Brichah center was shut dealing a serious blow to the entire Brichah movement, for the route of hope for many Jews in Eastern Europe was now closed. The Brichah organization in Romania continued to expand and create more illegal routes leading to Hungary and Yugoslavia. The port of Constanta in Romania that once handled ships leaving for Palestine was now almost entirely closed to civilian shipping; the Soviet navy kept expanding its presence in the port and the government slowly closed private shipping companies.

Some pictures of Brichah agents in Romania

 

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Left to right: Rachel Halpern, Dov David, Bruria Gelber–Jacobi and Shimon Breitner

 

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Left to right: Treiman Fink, Chaim Wurtzel, Yael Winkler–Yatir, Shimon Hertzig

 

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Left to right: Yehuda Levi (Pitzi). Tzivia Lahav–Brina, Eliezer Kochba, Poldi Trichter

 

Incomplete list of Brichah agents who operated in Romania
Some of the names have been altered or changed or are intentionally incorrect for safety reasons

Last Name First name or code name Gender Area of operation
ABRAHAM Hersh M Romania
ARTZI–HERTZIG Itzhak M Romania
ASHMAN Frida F Romania
ASHMAN Chaim M Romania
AUERBACH Moshe Agami M Romania
BEN EPHRAIM Itzhak Meno M Romania
BIELSKI Hatzair M Romania
BITESH     Romania
BREITNER Shimon M Romania
BURSHTEIN Mordechai M Romania
CHERMATZ Julek M Romania
COMIN Baruch M Romania
COMIN Ariela F Romania
DAVID Dov M Romania
ELDAR Arieh M Romania
FARKASH Laci M Romania
FELDMAN Raphael M Romania
FELLER Neta F Romania
FERBER Fishel M Romania
GARFUNKEL Sulka F Romania
GELBER–YACOBI Bruria F Romania
GENOSSAR Menashe M Romania
GOLDSTEIN Baruch M Romania
GOLDSTEIN Reisel F Romania
HALPERIN Rachel F Romania
HAMEL Itzhak M Romania
HELLER Bumek M Romania
HENDLER Oskar M Romania
HERTZIG Shimon M Romania
KLARMAN Yossef M Romania
KLEIDMAN Lionka M Romania
KLESS Shlomo M Romania
KEMPNER      
KOCHBA Eliezer M Romania
KOVNER Abba M Lithuania
KRAUSS Erica F Romania
KUPPERSTEIN Meir M Romania
LAHAV Tzivi F Romania
LAZAR Chaim M Romania
LEVI Yehuda Pitzi M Romania
LEVIPENSE Moshe M Romania
LITVAK Itzhak M Romania
LUPOVIC Chico M Romania
MUNKATCH Mordechai M Romania
PELED Chaim M Romania
RABINOWICZ Shimon hanita M Romania
RABINOWICZ Zeev M Romania
REICH Herman–Gav M Romania
REZNIK Nissan M Romania
ROSENBERG Raphael ReJo M Romania
ROSENBERG Yaakov M Romania
ROTEM Kazik M Romania
ROZMAN Mordechai M Romania
RUCHMAN Pasha M Romania
SHAPIRO Cila F Romania
SHIBA Hanah F Romania
SHNIRSKA Mira F Romania
STEINMAN Baruch M Romania
TCHITINSKY Klaman Katzetnik M Romania
TREIMAN Fink M Romania
TRICHTER Poldi M Romania
TZIMAND David M Romania
WINKLER–YATIR Yael F Romania
WITZMAN Zelig M Romania
WURTZEL Chaim M Romania

Footnotes

  1. Bauer, Flight, p. 17. Return
  2. Israel Defense Ministry. The Brichah Movement from Europe to Israel 1945-1948. 1998, p. 59. Return
  3. Bauer, Flight. p. 31. Return
  4. Bauer, Flight, p. 17. Return

 

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