How the Film Came About
By Nahum Laufer
Some years ago I was researching my own personal family history, on how we as refugees fled Poland, a trip that went from Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Bombay-India. My story starts in Chrzanow (Kshanov), a small town between Krakow and Katowice, nearby Oshwiecien (Auschwitz). 10,000 people lived there 60-70% of them Jews. My parents were born and grew up in Kshanov. My father Jacob immigrated to Israel in 1924 as a young man of 19 and became a pioneer but returned to Poland in 1927 and joined the family business of export and import of fruits and vegetables. He became the "Foreign minister" of the Firm, traveling in the Balkans, Italy and even to Israel.
My mother Hanna (from the Stanner family) was a member of the Shomer Hatzair youth movement at the age of 23. In 1934 she married my father. He promised that soon they'll immigrate to Israel and open a branch of the family business. This Zionist plan wasn't carried out and instead the young couple moved to Katowice where the family business was based. I was born in Katowice in 1935.
We had a 3 room apartment in Katowice and I had a room for myself full of toys. We even had a phone, a rarity in those days. I went to the Jewish Kindergarten in Katowice.
In August 1939, the kindergarten teacher organized a 2 weeks holiday at Zakopana. I can still remember the farmers threshing wheat and the fresh honey on the breakfast table. My mother came to visit and we remained at Zakopana a few days more after the other children returned home. At the same time father was traveling out of Poland.
On 27 August we had returned home to Katowice, and got a telegram from father "Finished business coming Home for Rosh Hashanah"
Mother immediately returned a telegram "Don't return the situation is bad, get us out of here."
On the 1st September, the day the war started, we traveled by train to Kshanov. The next day, on a one horse cart, we went to Krakow running away from the advancing German army. Grandpa Zcharia was the "Driver" I sat beside him, mother, my uncles and some other people put there bags on the cart and walked beside the cart.
I remember that at that night it was a "full moon" and clouds covered the moon from time to time. I asked my grandfather "Is the Man on the moon is God?", "Maybe, but he's hiding today"
From Krakow my mother's brothers continued to Russia (they didn't return). Grandpa Zcharia, Mother and I remained at Grandpa's brother's place. We were there when the German's entered Krakow on the 6th September 1939. My uncles flat was in a building of several floors, overlooked a square. I have clear memory of sitting on the blacked-out staircase with mother as bombs fell on the city.
The next day I saw from the window German tank standing in the square, a orthodox Jew running and 2-3 people (maybe Poles) beating him. I was pulled away from the window.
After the German occupation Grandpa, Mother and I returned to Kshanov. I have nearly no memory of the winter of 39-40, except the fact that mother put on the Star of David on her coat (though she could have easily passed as an Aryan).
13th March 1940, my mother received a telegram saying: "Have certificate for you and Nahum. Ship sails from Trieste 22 March. Jacob"
The thought of trying to smuggle across 4-5 borders wasn't an option. After family consultation trying to find maybe some connection or possible bribe a German, so it was decided that Mother should go to the local authorities and try to contact Lasserbach (an Austrian Gestapo man). Hanna's Aryan look, sky blue eyes, dark blond and fluent German, helped her to enter the local Gestapo. At first Lasserbach made a big noise shouting how a Jewess dares come at all to his office, but somehow Hanna's fluent German talking quietly and humbly made him listen. Hanna told him the truth that her husband, a businessman, had left Poland some months before the war and he wants us to come with him to Palestine.
Lasserbach told her to come back in 3 days after he wil lask the Gestapo Headquarters. The 3 days became 6. On the 6th day Lasserbach called into his office a clerk that printed the Reisenersatzpass ("Instead of Passport"). We prepared to leave the next morning and the whole family, grandma, uncles, cousins, neighbors and many others broke the curfew, all came to say goodby, and send messages to relatives to send certificates.
That night I got a high fever 41°C, a doctor came in the morning. The diagnosis was meningitis, so instead of going to the railway station we went to the hospital. There was a hospital run by nuns in Kshanov and it seems that they still took in Jewish patients. I even received a medicine that arrived strait from Berlin.
Next morning mother returned to Lasserbach, and in his handwriting he extended the pass for 30 days.
I got well but the doctors didn't want to let me out of the Hospital. One of my uncles smuggled me out of the hospital and the next morning we went by train to Krakow. Grandpa Zcharia got a horse cart, took us to the station, again many people on the way to the station accosted Hanna to beg their relations to send certificates.
I know now that from Kshanov only one other family of three got exit visas, but they had Swiss nationality. Only a few of the Jews that remained in town survived and none of the young children of my age.
At that time the "Final Solution" was not yet implemented, and a small trickle of refugees from Poland stopped a week after we arrived in Trieste. Yet this Reisenerzatzpass is very strange. Look at the birth certificate issued by the Nazi authorities 2 weeks before this one. It's a German copy of the original Polish certificate. The Queries are printed in Gothic letters, the answers by typewriter in Latin letters. There is paragraph for Religion. The Riesenerzatzpass is all by the same typewriter, even the Heading, and most important no mention of Religion.
The 30 day extension was in handwriting. More strange, Lasserbach has no rank and no private name!!!
This pass got us out of the Reich!!!!!
I have a strange feeling that Lasserbach was playing an ugly game, from one side he wanted to show the Jews of Kshanov that there is hope "The one that can get a certificate can go". On the second hand he was up to some kind of double crossing. With such a queasy paper we won't pass the border and we'll end in a concentration camp.
The same night we continued by train to Vienna. Over the loud speaker "Jews on transfer should apply to the Jewish Help organization in ... ... corner for accommodations for night".picPop('27'); ?> picPop('28'); ?>
Mother took of the Star of David from her coat and didn't go to the help committee afraid of a Nazi trap. Instead she went to the ticket office. There were two windows, one for 1st and 2nd class with a sign "Juden Forbotten" (Jews are forbidden), and a second one for 3rd class. Mother went to the first one and bought a ticket for 2nd class. We then left the station and found a small hotel for the night. The lady owner even gave me a cup of cocoa with a bun. Of course she had no idea that we were Jews.
The next day 18 April 1940, the train stopped at the border, the Passport checking was done in the train. The German officer was baffled with the paper, he turned it up and down.
The following conversation was in fluent German.
"Where is your Yellow star??"
"On my coat" The coat was folded on the rack.
"Why are you in the 2nd class?"
Mother humbly answered "I didn't know I'm not allowed here, you want me to move we'll move".
He made a gesture with his hand "never mind!!!"
Mother picked up her hand and showed him her wedding ring. (Under her sleeve on the same hand was a gold watch with diamonds).
Again the gesture "never Mind"
Hanna opened her handbag in it were 2800 marks,
"You allowed only 800!"
Hanna counted 8 notes returned them to her handbag and was ready to hand the money to him.
"When I left Home I didn't know how much the journey will cost, take the rest!"
"No, go down from the train and send the money back to Poland, and show me the receipt!"
My mother left me in the compartment, asked the people sitting with us.
"If I won't come back, the boy's father is waiting at the station"
I sat still, I don't know how long it took for mother to return, 10 minutes or more, but it must have been ages for me. I still remember those moments.
Mother has returned and I was still frightened.
At the Italian border the train stopped again, an Italian officer gave a short look on the entry visa to Italy and stamped the paper.
Mother called my attention to this officer "see he has a red ribbons on his trousers, He's Italian the Germans never have such ribbons, we are in Italy."
Up till this moment I had been very quite sitting in a corner not moving around, not even noticing the journey. I than started to run up and down the corridor putting my head out of the window, mother had to restrain me.
Father, Jacob, was waiting for us at the station at Trieste. I remember he wasn't shaved for when we kissed his face was scratchy.
Also at the station was David Urbach.
The Urbach brothers also from Kshanov were competitors of the Laufer brothers, both had in Katowice big firms for export-import of vegetables and fruits in Poland.
David Urbach like my father was the "Foreign minister" of their firm, and as Jacob the war detached him from his wife and boy my age.
Naturally the two men attached themselves one to the other, and had an unwritten contract of partnership that lasted 25 years.
What was more natural than a family of 4, 2 men, a lady and a small boy?
More so, David was Hanna's were at the same age, they had gone to school together and they had common cousins. Though I called him Uncle, he was for me a second father and I was a substitute son for the son he left behind. During the whole time of our "journey" it was one family, for long time we lived all 4 in one room.
In June 1940 the Italians joined sides with Hitler, so my parents decide to move on. In our Polish passport we had visas to Nederland East Indies, Curacao, Surinam and Nationalist China. With these visas we got transit visas. We traveled through Yugoslavia, Greece to Istanbul in Turkey. There we were stuck for 9 months living on handouts from the Joint and the Polish Red Cross. We were staying in a huge house packed with other refugees like us and there was dole kitchen. We were waiting for certificates to Palestine. The situation got worse. As the Polish Red Cross wanted the men to join the Andreas Army or stop their help, and the Turks started deporting refugees.
The Jewish agency suggested that we should go to Iraq and wait for the certificates in Baghdad. A group of about 18 refugees (6 couples, 3 singles and 3 boys, except for me 2 others about 10-11 year-old) was organized. My father Jacob was appointed as the leader because he spoke Arabic and some Turkish and the only one in this crowd that had been a pioneer in Palestine.
Before leaving Istanbul we went to get passport photos, the photographer, V. Sender, wanted to take a picture of me. I was very gloomy and didn't even want to smile, he had one of those old fashion cameras that the guy has to hide behind a cloth. To make me laugh he told me jokes and made voices, he succeeded as one can see in each photo the laugh became bigger in the end he took a photo of me and my mother.
Behind the big laugh is dated 6th March 1941 (exactly the same date of the article about the Darien in the Turkish newspaper)
We could not travel by direct train from Istanbul to Baghdad as the train passes through Aleppo, Syria, that was under French Vichy (pro-Nazi government).
We went by train to Dirbakir (Eastern Turkey) and by raft to the Iraqi border.
On goatskin bags filled with air the Kurds put wooden planks, that how they transport wood from Turkey for sale in Iraq, the sacks are than returned home on camels. On the raft there was a tent from goatskins. The trip took 8 days.
On arriving at the Iraqi border we saw for the first time veiled women. One of the guys who were a bit simple minded made a gesture to one of the veiled girls to see her face. At once a cry went up into the air "Itbach Yehud" (Kill the Jews!) daggers were in the hands of Arabs. Father seeing what was going on fell on this fellow throwing him on to the ground, he whispered to him "let me beat you or we are all dead", into the crowd he shouted "Majnon, Majnon" (Mad, Mad)
One of the passengers had a box camera and took snap shots, the snaps are dated Dirbakir 28th March 1941.
I have no idea of the names of our fellow passengers and we lost contact with the people on arrival in India, except for Teichler Family and son Sigi (Sigmund). Lately I received a written testimony from a 94 year-old lady Harriet Meizner that lives in New-York, she and her husband were in our group and her memoirs fit those of my mother's.
After a stay of few days in a town in north Iraq, we continued to Baghdad.
Baghdad was a trap, we had nobody to contact and the government changed after a pro-Nazi revolt by Rashid Ali. We stayed in a flea hotel as Polish nationals trying to hide the fact that we were Jews. Also, the local community was afraid even to contact us.
It was very hot, at night the beds were taken out to the roof, in the morning they were returned to the rooms. I slept in a bed with my mother under a net. A fly must have entered one night, only I and mother got the Baghdad boil, a fly bite that leaves a scar, I have it on my right foot mother got it on the arm.
29th of May 1941 was a pogrom, a lot of Jewish houses and shops were put on fire and a number of Jews lost their lives.
The 29th of May was also my 6th birthday, I didn't have no toys or games. I remember that somehow my parents gave me a present, a small carton game with "Snakes and Ladders", but there was something in the air. None of grownups had the patience to sit down and play with me, (now I know why).
The next day the English forces entered Baghdad and Rashid Ali fled. Immediately we traveled to Basra and the British Consul gave us 6-month transit visas to India.
We didn't have enough money so we bought tickets for the storage. But the captain put us in the first class with full service. He said "I can't allow Sahibs in the storage with the natives".
After 4-5 days and a monsoon storm we arrived in Bombay without a penny.
Father got a loan from the Jewish help committee. With it rented a flat and a sewing machine,
My mother took apart an old shirt, made a pattern from it and cut and sewed a dozen shirts. The 2 fruit merchants went to sell them, at once they got orders for more, and soon it became a "factory" with 100 tailors bringing their own machines sewing uniforms for the army. We didn't become rich but had reasonable standard of living the whole period, we knew it is temporary as we'll continue to Israel.
Our home became a meeting point for Jewish soldiers serving in India and on the Burma front. The Seder table and Rosh Hashanah or even Friday evenings were big affairs, sometimes 20 soldier guests packed around the small table.
After the victory at Al-Alamein a spitfire squadron was transferred to the Burma front, a ground crew of this squadron was of Jewish guys mobilized in Palestine. The Jewish Agency intervened, stating "We are not at war with Japan and soldiers mobilized in Palestine will fight only the Nazis".
I suppose that there was a lot of ado about this crew, as they got stuck in Bombay for over 2 years, doing nearly nothing. I'm sure about this story yet I never found any mention in any history book of such an agreement between the Jewish Agency and the British Army. These guys were perpetual guests in our home.
David Urbach's wife managed to escape from Poland, (without their son that had past away) by Rumania to Istanbul (most probably by one of the Mossad ships that sailed from Rumania to Istanbul 1944). She arrived in Bombay January 1945. In Bombay the Urbach reunited and had two boys. Also my sister was born.
In January 1948 we bought flight tickets for the two families to Italy, via Lydda (the airport in Palestine) with visiting visas for 3 days. We went to Tel-Aviv and didn't return to the airplane, we became "illegal".
My parents, mainly my mother, told me and others about our journey, but I never heard from them about the Salvador or the Darien. I'm sure they knew about these ships. I never understood why a group of refugees left on perilous journey on an unknown path. Their explanations about worsening conditions in Turkey, the demand to recruit to the Polish army, and the advice of the Jewish agency to go to Iraq and wait there is most probably right. Yet during my research raised another point, their account that it was impossible to go by train through Vichy held Syria is not correct, in memoirs of other family that went through Syria at that time to Iraq, also at the same time March 1941 that we sailed on the raft the Mossad guys, and youth from Shavetz went through Aleppo to Beirut to Israel
I came to conclusion that though I was not ever told about the Darien it was the reason to leave as quickly as possible from Turkey even if the route wasn't a simple one. The Turkish Police put aboard the Darien by force refugees that their transit visas had expired, and it must be remembered that the Nazis had overtook Bulgaria a month before February 1941, and there was danger that the Germans will conquer Turkey also.
In my opinion my parents didn't have entry visas to Iraq so they traveled to Ankara hoping to get them. Not getting them, maybe it was promised that the visas will be waiting on the border, we went by train to Dirbakir east Turkey and continued by raft. I searched for documented support in Hagana and Zionist Archives but there I have found a completely different story, Ruth and the Darien.
The Darien saga isn't my personal story, but I felt that it is connected with my childhood and family Odyssey. Though we were in Istanbul for 9 months 1940-41, and we left Istanbul the same week that the Darien was anchored in Istanbul I never heard about it from my parents. I realized that in this story there was a great dramatic potential accompanied by many philosophic and moral issues.
Our first meeting in the research was with Zehavit Rotenberg director of "Atlit Deportee camp Museum" she contended "About this affair many people (Leaders) had a bad conscience". At first I didn't understand what she is talking about, yet continuing the research I found many clues to this argument. The fog that covered this affair, the contradictions in the testaments, the concealment and the vague became clear.
Checking the Hebrew Newspapers during WW II all the illegal boats, those that were deported, those that sunk were mentioned in spite of the censor, only the about the Darien not a word and also nothing about the 18 months the passengers "sat" in the detainee camp "Atlit".
Did Berl Catsnelson (at that time editor of Davar newspaper) impose self censorship on his paper and all the other Hebrew newspapers?
Checking the memoirs of the leaders involved in this affair also brought out queries. Haim Weizmann that went out of his way to convince to hand over the ship doesn't mention anything, Moshe Shertok-Sharreth wrote 7 casual lines in 7 books of memoirs, Ben-Gurion though not connected directly to the affair (he was away in England and USA May1940-January 1941) but had to know about the ship and the long detention of the passengers in Atlit doesn't write about it in his dairy. Also Anita Shapira in her autobiography on "Berl" doesn't mention his involvement in Aliya Beth and in this particular affair.
David Hacohen in his autobiography "Time to Tell" is an exercise in dodging the truth, yet his wife Bracha Habas in her book "Gate Breakers" wrote a wide and correct study of the Darien affair. (1951)
Further reinforcement to this collective amnesia we got when we interviewed our first interviewee Bracha, (now 80 years old) one of the Young Aliyat Hanoar saved from Kladovo. She is a member of Kibbutz Kinnerth, on the occasion of Ruth's book being published (1974), Saul Avigor (commander of the Mossad) also a member of Kibbutz Kinnerth asked her to come to his flat and tell him about Kladovo. After hearing the story he apologized, saying "we didn't know", but also "Ruth told too much"
I asked myself, how comes he didn't know? He was the commander of the Mossad from 1940 onwards, how did he not know that they left behind 1000 pioneers?
Moshe Agami, a Mossad activist on his way from Geneva (March 1940) to Athens and Israel, visited Spitzer in Belgrade and the boats frozen at Kladovo, is it possible that Saul didn't get a report from Agami? Why "Ruth told too much"? Avigor managed the Hagana Archive and edited "Hagana Book" maybe he thought that only he had permission to tell stories?
Most important, rang the words from Yehuda Brganiski's book "A People Striving for the Shore". "When I came home from Turkey, no one invited me to tell them what happened in Kushta (Istanbul) not from the Mossad and not from the political leaders. Nobody wanted to know why I behaved as I did behave, nobody enquired why I didn't carry out explicit orders from the leaders, also nobody gave a good word that we did succeed in bringing "illegals' to Israel. Also I never heard that the affair caused upset the relations with the British because we didn't hand over the Darien"
In historical perspective there is no doubt that Ruth, Yehuda and Comrades acted correctly, yet did they? They were soldiers in the Hagana could they refuse an order?
In the History books about the "Ha'apla" (illegal immigration) the Darien gets more space then any other early ships 1934-1941. Yet it seems to me that the affair was never studied properly. The missing points in the information, the contradictions between the testaments all aroused my curiosity. I didn't find testaments by Barpal and Azia Shapira both involved in the affair, also testaments by Shind, Zameret, Yehuda Arazi and David Hacohen are short and incomplete, were the people afraid to tell? Or was it a part of their education to stay quite? Was it natural for Zameret to answer Dan Carmel's query (from the youths of Kladovo and member of his Kibbutz) "Let it go!"?
Nearly everyone has heard about the brave Hanna Senesh that didn't succeed in her saving mission. Yet only a few have heard about Ruth Kliger Aliav, that succeeded by hard work to save thousands, in spite of her autobiography "The Last Escape" that was a best seller in USA but here in Israel was only had a small edition.
The character of Ruth, the beautiful woman, vigorous, feminist, that turned on the heads of ship merchants, bankers, ministers and kings caught my imagination. Also Yehuda "Yulek" Brganiski the Russian revolutionary that became an ardent Zionist, Shmaria Zameret the young boy from America that immigrated alone to Israel, also Zeav Shind Joseph Barpal and Yehuda Arazi (King of ruses) make up a mosaic of fascinating characters and forgotten heroes.
We are trying to tell the story yet we are not the inquiry commission that Brganiski expected, the audience and readers (of this text) can judge for themselves.
The film brings to the surface an important issue, which nearly didn't appear on screen: the links between the "Yishuv" (The Jews in Eretz – Israel) and the Jews of the Diaspora during the Holocaust. The leadership of the "Yishuv" had a difficult Dilemma: Should they prefer the interests of the Yishuv and the Zionist Movement to do all that they can to help the British in their war effort so that they'll help after the war in establishing a Jewish state or should they prefer saving Jews? In other words:
The question of "People or the Land?". What is more important save the Jewish folk or establish a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel (Palestine). This issue has been discussed in History books but never presented in Movies or TV.
Yet except for the historical documentation the story has also important implications on today's issues:
First of all, the question when do we fulfill a "Legal Order" and when do we not?
It wasn't an illegal order as in "Kfar Kassem" that had a red flag flying that you have to disobey. In the Darien affair the order to hand over the ship to the British was legal. The political leaders had their priorities. What did the Mossad agents have to do when they believed it's a mistaken order?
Shmuel "Samek" Yanai, the past commander of the Palmach Navy and has the know-how on the affair, answered this question "silly orders are mot carried out", but is the question so simple?
Also another question arises, who to save when your means are short?
It is clear that the Army and the Police can not give protection to everybody, the Israeli government had to dislocate people from dangerous places like Gaza so as to give better protection to other places. Isn't this decision similar to leaving the people in Shavetz and taking others that were available?
This not a dilemma from ancient times lately it was published that during the "Yom Kippur" war Dayan ordered to abandon wounded soldiers in the forts along the Suez Canal. Today's realities lay down similar dilemmas every day and the leaders have to choose who to protect and who not!
The last question (though there are other issues) is about cooperating with the conquering power for a far away target?
There is Ben-Gurion's famous statement "We will fight the Nazis as if there is no White-Letter, and fight the White Letter as if there are no Nazis"
The Darien Affair emphasizes the problem that the leaders of the Yishuv had to take on the issue of saving refugees and continuing the illegal immigration. Actions that imperiled the relations with the British and the war effort, two very important missions and the leaders had to choose.
If I started out just to tell a human, dramatic and historical story I ended up with relevant today issues that are more then enough!