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Surviving the straits of hell

An old press cutting provided the key to a defiant tale of life after Auschwitz

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Ninety-five-year-old Moshe Ha-Elion proudly ushers me forward to admire the view from his smart fourteenth-floor apartment overlooking the beach in Bat Yam, south of Jaffa. It is late January and the mist is rising over the Mediterranean as if shielding us from the memories of the Europe he fled in 1946.

I have come to hear his reflections not only of Auschwitz but also of the hard years that followed: the actual process of surviving. On a warm summer’s night in June 1946, Ha-Elion was one of 1,300 Holocaust survivors on a tiny beach on the Italian Riviera. They waited patiently to board a secret ship, the Josiah Wedgwood that planned to run the Royal Navy blockade of the Palestine coast.

When I stumbled across an old newspaper cutting that reported their voyage, my mind buzzed with questions. Where had they come from? What had they endured? How did they make their way to this obscure little port?

I assumed I would be able buy a book on Amazon, but soon found myself having to write the book myself. To answer my questions I had to turn into a detective. I found a list of the survivors’ names, ages and places of birth at the former Atlit detention centre, where the Josiah Wedgwood’s passengers were interned by the British after they arrived in Haifa. But it failed to answer the burning question: who were they?

There was no time for pain and sorrow if you wanted to survive, he says

I hunted on the internet for clues and travelled to Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland to discover why they had decided to abandon the homes where their families had lived for generations. I began to realise this was not a remote story from the distant past, but one remembered by living people. It is a journey that brought me to Ha-Elion’s home. He is one of the last survivors of 42 Greek Jews who sailed on the Josiah Wedgewood and one of the few people alive who remember the vibrant, 54,000-strong community of Jews who once lived in the Greek port city of Thessalonica, where he was born in 1925.

Ha-Elion is tiny and slightly stooped. He pours the tea and offers me a biscuit before he says proudly, “The Salonika Jews were different and in Auschwitz they were considered exotic and tough. We spoke Ladino, not Yiddish, were Sephardim, and many of the men were strong and had worked as stevedores in the port.” They also played a key part in the Sonderkommando uprising in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1944.

Four months after he was liberated, he began to record dates and notes of what had happened to him but soon abandoned the project as the task of building a new life took over. There was no time for pain and sorrow if you wanted to survive, he says.

He was successful in building a new life, meeting and marrying a fellow Auschwitz survivor, Hanna Waldman, and together sailing to Palestine aboard the Wedgwood. Ha-Elion fought and was wounded in the 1948 Israeli war of independence and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he realised he had to try once more to write down what had he had seen and experienced.

His memoir is a slim book with a black cover called The Straits of Hell: the title comes from Psalm 116:3 — “The pangs of death compassed me, And the straits of Hell got hold upon me, I found anguish and sorrow.” He also began to process his memories by writing poetry.

After Ha-Elion’s father, a bookkeeper, died in the Salonika ghetto, his family — his grandparents, mother, sister, uncle and his uncle’s wife and baby — believed the Germans were resettling the Jews in Poland. In April 1943, they volunteered to go, as they thought life might be better there. He tells me again and again with a sense of bewilderment that they had no idea what was to happen to them.

Every trick was used to convince them. They were even given receipts in Polish zlotys for reimbursement of money confiscated in Greece. The Polish underground sent information of the Holocaust to London, but the Allies chose not to publicise it. It was a silence that sentenced the Ha-Elion family to death.

Moshe was separated from his mother and sister Nina and sent to work in Auschwitz I as a labourer. “You could not comprehend the place. I was there weeks and I did not know what was going on until one day a schoolfriend, Yona Yaakov, pointed at the smoke and told me my family were dead. I thought he had lost his mind, something had happened to him. I simply could not believe the Germans could do this.”

He has an impish smile and senses the absurd in the story that he was saved by a fellow inmate, a Polish classics professor who wanted lessons in modern Greek and shared his food in return. As a political prisoner, the professor received food packages from relatives.

Documents from Auschwitz spread out in front of us on the coffee table detail how he was condemned to 25 lashes after it was found that he had sent a note to a girl from Salonika in the women’s section of the camp in an attempt to find out if his mother and sister were really dead.

In Tel Aviv he saw the man, a fellow Jewish inmate, whose job it had been to carry out the punishment. He says he does not know if he had been let off lightly: this was his only experience of being whipped. He refuses to be judgmental: “You don’t know how it was if you were not there,” he says. “You cannot understand the unimaginable.”

As we talk, he guides the conversation to his liberation at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria

This is the central problem with the story of the Holocaust as it fades into history: it is so unfathomable that it can easily be disbelieved. Since his retirement in 1996, Ha-Elion has become a tireless campaigner against Holocaust denial, and sat on the board of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, for ten years.

As we talk, he guides the conversation to his liberation at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria. “I have pictures. Would you like to see them?” he asks, much as he might be offering to show me a collection of prints or stamps.

He walks slowly but steadily to his study at the back of his flat and settles down in front of a giant computer screen that dwarfs him. He has translated, maybe aptly, The Odyssey into Ladino, the language of medieval Spain that the Jews took with them when they were driven out in 1492. He taps a picture of survivors sitting on bunks. “That’s me! Do you recognise me?” I do not. He chuckles, and then says in his heavily accented English, “I have written a poem for my sister.”

Through his large glasses he studies the screen looking for a file. He has set the poem to music. We watch a video of a beautiful young Israeli soldier singing it in Hebrew. He hums along but I am not sure what is being sung. He sings a verse in Ladino and then chuckles again as he remembers that I cannot understand either language.

He clicks on an English translation. There is a pause while he studies it. Then he starts to sing in a shaky frail voice:

The beautiful young maiden, the most beloved daughter

to whom always her parents, all best in life they gave her.

They bought her silken garments, with golden jewels

        adorned her,

and shielded her from sadness, from crying even further.

 

He pauses and then selects a verse further down the page:

One day the evil Nazis, far from her nest they stole her, together with her parents, they took her to the lager.

They stayed six days in wagons, locked up by day and night,
in darkness they remained there, without seeing daylight.

 

He stops and turns to me. “It’s called ‘The Maiden in the Lager’. You know what a ‘lager’ is?” I nod and he looks surprised. He is silent and looks as if he is studying the words, working out how to improve them.

Gazing out of the window, he sees the lights of Tel Aviv, its skyscrapers and beachfront, twinkling in the distance. He recalls that when he and his wife Hanna first arrived here, he built them a lean-to shack behind a laundry where they worked on Levinsky Street.

His unsteady voice takes up the song again:

But when to Birkenau, the camp of death, arrived,

immediately, her fate, at once was then contrived.

They shout to her, they beat her, each hit assaults her frame,

the number on her left arm, from now becomes her name.

 

I think in this part of the poem he is actually writing about himself, as his sister did not survive long enough to be tattooed. He has processed the trauma in a different way from the other survivors I have met.

Sitting next to Ha-Elion and listening to his faint, frail voice, I can only think what an extraordinary journey his life has been. Everyone who was a prisoner in Auschwitz was the same: struggling to remain human and alive, to fathom what had happened to them and to continue to be who they were before.

The experiences of the survivors in the camps, forests and ghettos were so overpowering when they first told them that until now few of us have asked them what happened next: how they began to survive. Ha-Elion, like the others, is well aware of this.

Again, he knows exactly what he wants to say and it is difficult to ask a question. The story is an important one that has been long overlooked — what happened to the survivors in those crucial months and years after the liberation, before the founding of the state of Israel. It is central to the story of the Josiah Wedgwood. “After the liberation all I wanted to do was to return to Greece, to go home. Our family were Zionists,” Ha-Elion says. “But we never thought of going to Palestine to live. Our whole world was in Salonika — it was a whole Jewish world in itself.

He becomes more animated as he tells me how he made his way to Italy. He is no longer mystified by the evil he has stared in the face, and as the years slip away, he is once again a dynamic young man in charge of his destiny.

“We were in lorries moving through the beautiful Austrian countryside on our way home to Greece when I suddenly spotted a convoy of trucks with the Star of David on,” he tells me. “The soldiers had little signs on their arms that had the same Star of David. I realised they were Jews and it was a wonder.” He still looks surprised as he tells the story.

He knows exactly what he wants to say and it is difficult to ask a question

“When we arrived in Villach near the border with Italy, we seized the chance to speak to them. They were members of the Jewish Brigade, a unit of the British army recruited in Palestine. I had studied Hebrew at school, so I was able to talk to them. I told them we were going back to Greece. ‘What are you doing going back to Greece?’ they asked us, ‘You have no family there and there is a civil war going on. If you go back you will be called up into the army.’

“It was at this point I realised I had no home to go back to and no future in Greece, so along with about 40 others, I decided to follow the Jewish Brigade’s advice and we were taken by train to a small fishing village in the heel of Italy, called Santa Maria di Bagni. We were the first group to arrive. It was late June 1945. In time thousands of survivors came from all over Europe from Poland, Romania, from all over eastern Europe, and they all wanted to go to Palestine.”

It was in Santa Maria di Bagni that Ha-Elion met and fell in love with Hanna Waldman, a young Romanian survivor. “At first we spoke with our hands. Then I taught her some Hebrew and she taught me some Yiddish. That was how it began. Soon we adopted her into our group and she became an honorary Greek,” he laughs.

In Santa Maria di Bagni the emphasis was on preparing for life in Palestine. They often marched through the town demonstrating against the British policy of restricting immigration, and in April 1946 they went on hunger strike.

“They told us all about Palestine and I got very excited but with time we realised that people who arrived after us had already left,” Ha-Elion says. “Most of these people were Poles and they were moved quickly but we Greeks just sat there. They were members of political parties, you see. They were in the right youth movements but we were not involved in any of that, so no one helped us.”

In Santa Maria di Bagni the emphasis was on preparing for life in Palestine

As soon as Ha-Elion and the rest of the Greeks realised what was going on they were furious. “We were so angry, we made a real  uss. Some of us went to Bari and met with one of the organisers. We threw tables and chairs until they agreed to take us to Palestine. The group were quickly moved to Rome and told we would be taken to Genoa to be put on the next ship.”

It is now dark outside and time for me to leave. “We must never stop talking about the Holocaust,” Ha-Elion says, holding my hand as I bid him farewell. “Never.” He may be a frail old man but there is a strong determination in his manner. He stands by the door waving in a grandfatherly way, as I call the lift.

On the bus back to Tel Aviv I read the appendix to his memoirs, in which his daughter Rachel writes: “We were born in the State of Israel in the first years of its establishment. During our childhood you were in uniform, we were proud to be the children of an officer in the IDF, the army that protects our country and assures our independence.”

She continues: “We knew from pictures that you wore the striped clothes, which we had already imagined as a symbol of submission and of helplessness.” The story of the people who sailed on the Josiah Wedgwood is also the story of how the survivor in the striped pyjamas became a suntanned Israeli soldier with a gun.

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