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Chapter XV



Map of the Island of Cyprus


The island of Cyprus was placed under British administration in 1878 and annexed in 1914. The island's location in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea south of Turkey and northwest of Israel as militarily very important for the British colonial empire, particularly the proximity of the island to the Suez Canal, the main route to India. During WWII, Cyprus was an important naval base and an important supply center for the Allied forces.

As mentioned previously, the numbers of illegal ships grew with the strong partnership between American Jews, the Mossad and the Brichah[1]. The British refused to open more internment camps in Palestine and decided to send all future illegal refugees to Cyprus.

On August 13, 1946, the first transport of Jewish refugees arrived at Famagusta, Cyprus and were transported under military escort to camp number 55[2]. The entire operation was kept secret and the press was not allowed to record the event. A total of 12 camps would operate between August 1946 and January 1949 holding approximately 53, 510 Jewish Shoah survivors. The camps were located mainly near two sites about 50 kilometers apart, at Caraoles north of Famagusta and Dhekelia outside of Larnaca.

Conditions in the camps were very harsh, with poor sanitation, over–crowding, lack of privacy and a shortage of clean water. The prisoners were mostly young, 80% between 13 and 35, and included over 6,000 orphan children. About 2,000 children were born in the camps. The births took place in the Jewish wing of the British Military Hospital in Nicosia. Some 400 Jews died in the camps and were buried in Margao cemetery.

UNRRA or United did not operate in Cyprus nor did the International Red Cross and Jewish social welfare agencies were not permitted to operate in the camps. The Jewish Agency of Palestine had taken the position that the refugees were Jews coming to their homeland, no one had the right to deport them; and refused to have any official contact with the mandatory administration in Palestine or the Cyprus military authorities on the issue. Now, the Palestinian mandatory authorities were paying for the maintenance of the refugee camps, not Jewish organizations.


An internment camp in Cyprus
(Yad Vashem Archives)


The Jewish Agency and the JDC knew they had to do something to alleviate the situation. The groups formed a committee of two people: Dr. Reuven Katznelson, a well–known physician in Mandatory Palestine, and Charles Passman, head of the JDC office in Jerusalem.[3] Both men were influential but not viewed as political. As mentioned earlier, Passman was an American citizen and a troubleshooter for the JDC. The two–man delegation flew to Cyprus but the British authorities on the island refused to acknowledge them. Dr. Katznelson returned home but Charles Passman stayed on and investigated the camps. He then informed the British authorities that he intended to hold an international press conference to expose the terrible conditions in the internment camps where Shoah survivors were forced to live, and would be raising the fact that an American humanitarian agency, the JDC, wanted to help but was not permitted by the British since the refugees were kept behind barbed wire for the sole crime that they had tried to reach Palestine.[4] Britain, already suffering from bad press in the United States, did not relish the thought of more negative publicity and decided to meet with Passman. He was even permitted to visit the camps where he witnessed terrible and inhumane conditions. He established a list of priorities that was sent to the JDC in Paris and to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

The Paris office of the JDC granted an emergency financial allocation to Passman to open and staff an office in Cyprus. Passman was also authorized to bring the necessary staff, including doctors, nurses and teachers, to organize various medical and social facilities in the camps. Most of the staff were brought from Palestine. So the Jewish Agency, the Mossad, the Haganah, and the political Zionist parties were all able to send their representatives to Cyprus. Contacts were also established with Brichah and Mossad leaders who were on the island mixed in with the refugees. Passman found it difficult to cope with his offices in Jerusalem and Cyprus and urged the JDC to appoint a director specifically for Cyprus to handle the growing needs of the refugees. The JDC appointed Morris Laub as director of Cyprus operations.

Morris Laub assumed his post on December 10, 1946.[5] He brought his family to Famagusta and began to effectively provide all the necessary assistance that the Jewish camp population needed. Laub was born in Przemysl, Galicia, Poland and educated in the United States. He was a conscientious Jew, familiar with Jewish literature and history, and spoke fluent Hebrew, Yiddish, the language of most of the internees, as well as English.

He spent much of his time dealing with the British authorities on the island who were not inclined to be cooperative. The smallest concession required many hours of discussions with military officials who went by the book and were suspicious of his But he managed to establish medical and educational facilities and organized sports activities. He also received permission to have the ORT train youngsters in manual skills they would later use in civilian life in Palestine. He rarely dealt directly with the Jewish population or its leaders.

Laub was familiar with Palestine and the workings of the Jewish Agency but he lacked the intimacy that was needed to handle the multitude of problems among the camp population. The British permitted the Jews internal autonomy. Most of the population belonged to Zionist parties that formed the camp administrative councils. The Brichah and Mossad had agents in the camps as did the Haganah and the Irgun, which organized semi–military formations in the camps. To all of them, Laub was an outsider, an American Jew who helped them, but they questioned whether he could be trusted with smuggling or tunnel–digging operations. The answer was always doubtful and Laub knew it. He therefore began to look for an assistant who was very familiar with the Palestinian situation but also spoke English fluently.

Laub flew to Jerusalem where he was introduced to Yehoshua Leibner. The two “Galitzianers” (both originally came from Galicia, Poland) hit it off. Leibner was born on July 1, 1910, in Krakow, Poland, and died on July 29, 1956 in Israel. In 1921 he immigrated with his family to the United States where he attended secondary school. By 1928 he was a prominent activist of the Zionist pioneering youth movement and joined an American Jewish training farm that prepared youngsters to move to Palestine. He married Pearl (later Pnina) Horowitz and they moved to Palestine where they established kibbutz Ein Hashofet, which belonged to the Hashomer Ha–Tzair movement. The kibbutz sent him on many missions to the US where he organized Jewish youth. He also represented the Jewish Agency on several missions abroad. Leibner was familiar with the leaders of the Haganah and its elite force the Palmach. He was also familiar with the American Jewish scene since he had spent a great deal of time there representing the kibbutz movement. During his stay in the US met and became friendly with Louis D. Brandeis, the U.S. Supreme Court justice and Zionist.


Yehoshua Leibner
(photo from the Ghetto Fighters Archives)


Laub was impressed with what he saw and submitted Leibner's name to the JDC headquaters in Paris. The latter confirmed his appointment.


Tent Camp for Cyprus Jewish Shoah Refugees


The British military authorities that accepted him. The Jewish Agency was pleased with the appointment as were the British authorities. The kibbutz Ein Ha–Shofet granted him and his family a leave of absence and they left for Cyprus on April 12, 1946. They arrived at Famagusta and Leibner started to coordinate the various Zionist existing parties and associations. The fact that he represented the Jewish Agency in Palestine carried a great deal of weight and greatly helped him in his tasks. Unlike Laub who spent most of his time with the British authorities on the island, Leibner spent most of his time with the Jewish refugees. He also supervised the Palestinian Jewish staff at the camps and transmitted the latest requests from Palestine. In effect he was responsible for creating an Israeli atmosphere in the camps with an emphasis on studying the Hebrew language and culture.

A number of escape attempts took place while the camps were active. The most significant was in August 1948, when an estimated 100 inmates escaped a detention camp through a secret tunnel that had been dug over a period of six months. The British believed that the escapees were aided by Palestinians who were rescuing needed technical or military men. Hochstein and Greenfield in their book The Jews' Secret Fleet also mention the event. One man managed to escape while being transported from court to prison. In January 1949, as the British began deporting the final batch of inmates from Cyprus to Israel, an unspecified number of Jews who had escaped the camps earlier and remained at large on Cyprus turned themselves in so they could be sent to Israel.

Each month, the British granted a limited number of certificates to enter Palestine, and Leibner coordinated the list of people who were selected to leave the island . The demand for such certificates frequently resulted in heated debates and discussions among the various political parties. The camps frequently received or dispatched emissaries to and from Palestine who needed official assistance. Laub was not involved in these activities and did not want to involve himself since he dealt with the British and had to fight hard to obtain benefits for the refugees. The running of the camps themselves was greatly influenced by Leibner, who dealt with many individual problems. Leibner's door was always open, according to Laub.[6]

The JDC tended to the many needs of the Jewish detainees in the camps while the Jewish Agency provided the spiritual sustenance and hope that they would reach the shores of Palestine. Leibner assured them daily they would reach their homeland. Indeed, many reached Palestine legally and illegally. He urged the remainder of the detainees to learn trades and Hebrew so that they would become productive citizens of the land of Israel. Most of the young detainees enlisted in the Haganah formations in the camps, ready to join the battle for independence. British hostility to the detainees continued to the last possible moment.

From November 1946 to May 1948, Cyprus detainees were allowed into Palestine at a rate of 750 per month. During 1947–48, special quotas were given to pregnant women, nursing mothers and the elderly. Released Cyprus detainees amounted to 67% of all immigrants to Palestine during that period. Following Israeli independence, the British began deporting detainees to Israel at a rate of 1,500 per month. The Pan Crescent and the Pan York were used to transport the detainees to Palestine.[7] They amounted to 40% of all immigration to Israel during the war months of May–September 1948. The British kept about 11,000 detainees, mainly men of military age, imprisoned throughout most of the war. On January 24, 1949, the British began sending these detainees to Israel, with the last of them departing for Israel on February 11, 1949.

Even when Britain handed over the Palestine mandate to the United Nations, it kept the Jewish refugees in the camps on Cyprus. When the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, many of the Jewish refugees in Cyprus, especially young men, were still behind barbed wire. Britain used every device to keep the Jews in the Cyprus camps. . On February 11, 1949, Morris Laub and Yehoshua Leibner were the last JDC officials to leave Cyprus when all the camps were closed JDC operations ceased


The Leibner family returned to the kibbutz. Yehoshua resumed tending to his sheep. He soon passed away. His family donated to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem all the artifacts (shown in photo) that he received in Cyprus from the Jewish refugees.


  1. Return
  2. Ibid., p.38 Return
  3. Bogner, Deportation, p. 63. Return
  4. Bogner, Deportation, p. 80 .Return
  5. Bogner, Deportation, p. 53. Return
  6. Laub, Morris A Barrier to Freedom, Judah Magnes Museum, 2911 Russel Street Berkeley , California.,USA. p 35 Return
  7. Hochstein. Jews' p.149. Return


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