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[Page 289]

The Troubled Voyage of the
Illegal Immigrant Ship “Astir”

Translated by Tamar Amit

The Jews of the Free City saw themselves eligible to be assisted in their plans by the Jews of the West. For that cause, the head of the congregation Dr. Kurt Itzig & Zvi Segal flew to London and Paris a day after the committee ended. Previous members of the congregation that now lived in these capitals assisted them. The government renewed its efforts with the UK government to get more entry permits to the UK and maybe more certificates to enter Eretz Israel [Land of Israel] only to be totally rejected again. There were no remaining alternatives other than illegal or clandestine immigration to Eretz Israel. For that, major resources were required: The exodus from Danzig included people of means as well as poorer people and their numbers were rising. The Jewish property has not been officially expropriated yet but at the end of November 1938 the Senate ordered the banks to stop Jews from withdrawing their accounts except for small sums for day-to-day needs or debt payments. The prerequisite of the HAAPALA[1] organizers to pay 25 British pounds in foreign currency per immigrant also added to the financing difficulties.

The government requested the Jewish organizations' financial assistance for the HAAPALA and was in for another disappointment: the charity and aid organizations refused to assist the HAAPALA that was organized by the Revisionists, ardent right-wing Zionists. The British council for German Jewry that was established to help the victims of Nazism and had in its control vast funds justified its refusal not just with the worry to the lives and welfare of the clandestine immigrants but also in loyalty to the British government that was fighting insistently against the “illegal” immigration. After much persuasion, the “Joint” has agreed to assist but indirectly: By paying for the congregation's Judaica collection [literally: art collection].

In 1938, London served as a center for the revisionists organizing the HAAPALA. London's lobbyists including the Orthodox Zionist Rabbi Zvi-Joseph Hertz assisted the delegation as much as they could. Their warm and sympathetic regard was enhanced in view of the disregard and alienation they received from groups and persons that in terms of point of view were close to the liberal head of the congregation. The Revisionists' help came through not only in attempts to get funds but also in actual preparation for the HAAPALA. On returning to his city at the end of his mission, Dr. Itzig ended his “thank-you” letter to the management of the “New Zionist federation” in London with special appreciation to Zabotinski [Jabotinsky] and to the man appointed by the “New Zionist federation” for HAAPALA issues, Shlomo Jaacobi.

The disappointing results of the delegation to the Jews of the West, led the community leaders to agree to the proposal, raised in the earlier stages of negotiations with the Senate, to sell the congregation's real-estate to the Senate for funds to assist in the emigration.

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Under the auspices of legitimacy – the Nazis in Danzig were willing to buy Jewish community assets, an unprecedented act in their régime, as it served their purpose of expelling the Jews and wiping all traces of them as soon as possible.

The preparations for this “deal” e.g. registering the properties and assessing them lasted until the return of Dr. Itzig from Paris. On the day of his return 8th Jan 1938, the representatives of the community were called to the department of government real estate to negotiate the sale.

The negotiations were under threat of what happened in the rest of Germany: the burning of synagogues and confiscation of Jewish property. The representatives had to agree to a compensation of less than a third of the required sum. They managed to get an increment - the sum of the community's debt to the banks that took part, 50 years earlier, in the financing of the liberal synagogue. The increment was to close this debt. As an additional “gesture”, the community received the right to bury its dead in the Jewish cemetery until 1948. The Nazis probably assumed that in the nine years all remaining Jews will die either because of their age or health.

The synagogue was left in Jewish hands until after Passover of 1939. Although its sale was a direct consequence of the decision to leave the city, it triggered many scruples with the Liberal heads of the community as well as a very emotional objection by the Rabbi Dr. Gruen: The man could not hold back his feelings and gave his last sermon crying.

The members of the community felt the tragic symbolism of the destruction of the synagogue, as indeed was stated in the community newspaper: “it marked their rise, their unity and their strength… Its time has passed when all its visitors have scattered all over the world.” In the dark front was also a small consolation – The destruction of the temple opened a way out for Danzig's Jews.

A no-less symbolic end was for the holy vessels including Torah books from other previously German communities annexed to Poland after the world war and handed to the Danzig community for safe-keeping: their symbolic purchase together with the rich collection of Jewish art, allowed the “Joint” to participate indirectly in financing the HAAPALA. “Joint” was committed to return this treasure to the community as soon as possible, at the most after 15 years when the community has resettled back in Danzig. The collection was delivered to the museum adjoining the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and part of it including the Torah books was lost in a fire in 1966. Among the items lost in the fire was also a memorial plaque to the soldiers who lost their lives in WWI; Danzig's Jews removed it from the wall of the synagogue and added it to the shipment.

Lamps and candlesticks of the prayer houses were sold to the Warsaw synagogue. The organ that generated much dispute as a sign of reformism & liberalism was sold to a catholic church in Krakow as no Jewish buyer was found.

The archive was part of the community assets. In it the German Jews kept systematically and constantly every document, report or letter with public interest. The community committee now had to decide to which of the two Jewish centers it will go: USA or Israel - and this was a choice with definite political and ideological meanings. In January 1939 the Jerusalem community requested to save the archives and certificates from destruction by shipping it to Jerusalem.

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The Danzig community accepted this request and the fact that the whole community would be the guardian as opposed to a political Zionist organization, made it easier for the Liberals to accept.

The congregation's committee began preparations for sending the immigrants on the day following the convention on 17th December 1938. The intention was that the first convoy would be of about a thousand people. First priority was given to those expected to be arrested, to German citizens and to stateless people. The Zionist position towards the HAAPALA was inconsistent. The head of the congregation, Dr. Herbert Lewy, along with his friends in Germany was for the principle of selective immigration but gave up the ideological-cultural principle as the circumstances were clearer. He settled for efforts to keep out people with a criminal record or unfit physically. Members of the “Halutz” and guides of “Ha-Bonim” were not favorable to the revisionist concept and chose to remain in the city both to stay with their families and under their organizations call to continue with educational activities. After consulting with “Halutz” delegate to Germany, Max Cimels, who instructed them to leave Danzig for the training centers of the German “Halutz” both inside and out of the Reich and there to wait for donors for the Aliya whether legal or not, most did so.

The immigrants were requested to pay for the expenses of their voyage but those without means were also included on the list. The HAAPALA from the Reich was conducted in cooperation and supervision of the Gestapo. The cooperation in the free city was made easier through the connections of Zvi Segal with the authorities. The Senate and the police created a committee whose mission was to make the exodus of Jews easier by arrangements of customs and currencies, issuing documents etc. The secretary of the congregation was part of this committee. The first convoy was to leave at the end of January.

The complex and dangerous mission of transferring hundreds of Jews from Danzig to Eretz Israel, breaking the British naval blockade was supposed to take place as part of the Revisionist HAAPALA, based on its experience and possibilities.

The Danzig immigrants had a fair chance to overcome an obstacle that was almost paralyzing the clandestine immigration from central Europe: the refusal of countries with Mediterranean ports to grant transfer-visas to the immigrants, under the pressure of the British. The convoy was intended to sail from Danzig. This plan was canceled after too much publicity in the papers that awoke the attention of the British intelligence services. Instead a new route through Trieste was planned. Italy wasn't about to grant transfer visas to the immigrants and only with the influence of the Senate as part of the cooperation of “the Axis”, the visas were granted. This plan was also shelved after the Italian consul to Danzig revealed negotiations to the British consul and after the press, including in the UK, reported that on the 27th of January a convoy of 1,000 Jews would leave Danzig through Trieste to look for a country that would accept them.

The third and final route was made possible after the head of police received by personal persuasion transfer visas through Hungary and Romania to the departure port of Reni near the Danube delta.

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Germany allowed travel on her territory after getting the commitment that no Jew will stay within its territories. The permits were subject to a visa by a country designed to be the destination and that one of its consular representatives will be willing, with some persuasion and gifts , to help deceive the British Intelligence. With experience accumulated with the Revisionists HAAPALA, the Jewish lobbyists of Danzig were looking for consular representatives of South American countries. The most wanted was a collective visa that was good for the whole convoy as it allowed changes in the convoy itself. After Panama's consul denied a collective visa and requested a great price for each individual visa, the community's lobbyists got what they wanted, probably through ample payment, from the Cuban consul in Prague; of course, this achievement did not end the difficulties of the voyage.

In the beginning of 1939 it was very difficult to find a ship for the exhausting voyage or to hire a crew since the British, after failing to stop immigrants in the mid of 1938 had enhanced the blockage and raised the punishments of those who breach it. On the 6th of February 1939 the British caught and confiscated a ship, an act that deterred ship owners from renting their ships to the “illegal” immigrants. Also deterring was the fate of other ships that due to the armed naval blockade had to roam for weeks between ports and the open seas even though they were not built to carry passengers and their technical equipment was old and lacking; the crowdedness, hunger and bad sanitary conditions cause disease among the passengers and even attempts of mutiny that were repressed with an iron fist. There were also incidents where the sailors mutinied and the organizers of the voyage had to replace them. Amongst the sailors and captains willing to venture on such an adventure were many extortionists with no conscience that were hoping for big profits at the expense of the Jews' distress.

The Danzig immigrants were not the first on this road of torments. It was just a coincidence that their journey included all these hardships. The Greek cargo ship that was rented for the voyage, the Astir, was with 700 ton capacity and after temporary arrangements to carry passengers, could take on board 400 to 500 passengers. It reached Reni near Galatz in the Danube delta at the beginning of March of 1939. Its arrival was received with relief and happiness not just by the proposed passengers who were “sitting on packed luggage” for weeks, but by the whole community as the local authorities were putting pressure on the heads of the community to fulfill their part and start the exodus.

The long wait endangered the community's good relations with the British consul when it needed his assistance in work permits to the UK for children and teenagers; The British representative could not ignore the wide publicity given to an act that was illegal by his government; He objected to it to the Senate and warned the heads of the community of the risks they are taking on themselves. They on their part, tried to convince him that they are preparing a journey to Germany in order to join the immigrants flow there.

The hardships of the journey started even before the sail – the convoy left equipped with food and medical supplies and two doctors on the night of the 3rd of March 1939 through Eastern Prussia, Breslau, Vienna, and Budapest to Romania; the organizers had allocated 500 places for Danzigers instead of the promised 1,000. The rest of the 300 passengers were members of Revisionist organizations from Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

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The drastic change left hard impacts as it was done just before leaving Danzig and required amongst other things separation between family members. This was softened only by the promise of the organizers to take the remaining 500 soon afterwards.

The special hardships of this journey derived not only from the general circumstances of the HAAPALA but also from the ethnic and political constitution of the convoy; the Revisionist leadership was supported by a minority of the passengers where the hard conditions and the accumulating experience let it to practice, in its opinion, a strict and inflexible discipline that included amongst others a separation between men and women and a ban on letter writing. When the Danzigers protested and probably even declared at some point that they would like to leave the ship, they were repressed violently, their leaders confined to the hold and severe punishments were instituted for example tying one up to the mast. After the ship reached the shore and the dimensions of the suppression became known, the ETZEL[2] leadership brought the captain to trial and revoked his rank.

The immigrants of the Astir spent about 3 months on their journey. Their ship was intercepted in the territorial waters of Eretz Israel and brought to the port of Haifa. The passengers spent Passover on board as detainees with no permission to meet their friends and relatives in Israel. They were sent back to sea on April 4th. The ship sailed along the Greek shores, anchoring in several ports and receiving aid from the Jewish communities of Athens and Danzig. On the 29th of June the Astir came close to the Ashkelon shore and in an attempt not to get caught “transferred the 700 passengers to a sailboat meant for 200 passengers at most… there was an explosion in the engine and the sailboat was stuck in the water for the whole night. The passengers cried for help for seven hours” until they were captured by the British coast guard. The detainees were sent in part to an immigrant camp in Haifa and part to the detention camp in Sarafant (Tzrifin) where they were released after 2 days. The captain and sailors of the paddle ship[3] were put on trial and sentenced for incarceration. The hardships and failures of this journey brought the Revisionist leadership to stop all HAAPALA activities until July 1939, thus postponing the immigration of the rest of Danzig's Jews.

The Astir's passengers came to shore with no lives lost but many of them were sick and weakened and close to exhaustion. Upon reaching the Danzig community after weeks of no news, the stories of their hardships and torture created astonishment and shock. The community's newsletter expressed this rage by saying that the leaders of the journey embezzled in the trust and trampled with a proud foot on the consciousness and feeling of a joint destiny of the Jewish people.

The general embarrassment and confusion was made worse by the disappointment of what seemed to be a within reach solution. When the first passengers left, the newspaper praised the resourcefulness of Danzig's Jews that succeeded, while the world abandoned them, in creating an “organized withdrawal” that had a promise of rescue; now this outlet was in doubt.

The news of the survival of Astir's Jews was received with a wave of great joy and excitement. With the live radio broadcast on the Astir being captured “the hearts were on the verge of breaking from the excitement… each man called his friends and the news spread like a wild wind.”

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each man called his friends and the news spread like a wild wind. For the first time in weeks, the worried people enjoyed a nightmare free night of good sleep. On the following day, eve of Shabat, they gathered for prayer in the sports hall that served under the destroyed synagogue: The prayers had new meaning… a miracle occurred, the head of the community thanked the people on the ship and those still waiting for their bravery”. The general joy was combined with anxiety and worry that the hardships might have hurt the bodies or souls of the immigrants and with hope, as expressed by the community's newsletter that their strength will last them to partake in the rebuilding of the old-new homeland – Eretz Israel.

The immigrants of the Astir were to be pioneers and their decent on the shores of Israel was to give the sign for the second dispatch of immigrants. The disappointment from the Revisionists and the stop in its HAAPALA activities moved the heads of the community to search for other options. Indeed, in the summer of 1939, the worker's unions and the HAGANA[4] were planning an immigration of a major scale. The community's committee sent a delegation to Warsaw to get in touch with the organizers but the negotiations were shadowed by the war and were without results. The intent to move the majority of the free city's 4,000 Jews to Eretz Israel by the fall of 1939 was accomplished in a small way only even with the Nazi pressures applied. Additional steps to formulate a rescue plan were taken in the next few months under the new terms of annexation of the free city to the Reich.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. HAAPALA – the word in Hebrew that describes the illegal immigration to Israel toward the end of the British Mandate period; other meanings in Hebrew are: climbing, ascending; advancing, progressing, rising. See also Return
  2. ETZEL (אצ”ל) – the Hebrew acronym for “National Military Organization”. In 1931, the most militant elements of the “Haganah” (see below) splintered off and formed the Irgun Tsva'i-Leumi (National Military Organization), better known as “Irgun.” Return
  3. It was previously a “sail ship.” Return
  4. HAGANA – A Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1920 to 1948, which later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces. Return

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