Commentary Magazine


Departure and Arrival:Embarkation to Israel

The mass movement of Jews from Europe and their ingathering in Israel goes forward month by month. In these two pieces of personal reportage we are given vivid glimpses of the sight and feel of this extraordinary moment in Jewish history, together with some sense of the emotions it stirs in the hearts of the “diaspora” beholder-who is also part of the story. The first account, a report on a typical embarkation from Europe, was written by Robert and Martha Levin, though it is told as through the eyes of Robert. Mr. Levin, a graduate of City College, has published in the New Mexico Quarterly and Collier’s. Mrs. Levin is a graduate of Hunter College and has taught English in the New York City high schools. Juliette Pary, who describes the scene in Israel, in the report that follows, is a French journalist who, after a long stay in Israel, has just returned to Paris. Her article has been translated from the French by Ralph Manheim.

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For two months my wife and I had been bicycling through France, cut off from the world. At La Ciotat, some twenty miles east of Marseille, we had settled ourselves for a while—bicycles and bags—in the local auberge de la jeunesse, a youth hostel so new that it was not yet finished.

In the midst of an impassioned argument, in which we two Americans, two English boys, and a Dutch hosteler were pitted against a lone English vegetarian who had been pushed so far out on the limb that he was vehemently denouncing vivisection, one of the youth-hostel parents entered. The père l’aube, as he is called by even the non-French-speaking hostelers, was a young fellow who worked in La Ciotat’s shipyard.

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After saying good evening and excusing himself for having broken into the conversation, he surprised everyone by making no effort to join in. Instead he went straight to Martha and me and took us aside.

“There is something you must see tonight,” he said. “Go down to the port a little later, and you will see them go aboard, les misérables, les malheureux. You will never forget it. I have seen it many times myself, these departures of the Jews.”

It is, perhaps, not odd and perhaps it is not shameful, but the truth is that the word alone, whether it be “Jew” or “juif,” turns me in on myself as though I were suddenly in a room of mirrors—floor and ceiling and all four sides—and I have a moment of panic in which I am afraid that some of those mirrors, taken from Coney Island’s House of Fun, will distort me into something monstrous and inhuman. So it was that when he spoke of an event that encompasses misery on a gigantic scale, my first thought nevertheless was of myself, my first words, of self-defense.

“You know of course that we are Jewish.”

“No,” he said, looking straight at me, “but you’re a writer and this is something a writer should see for himself. It is easy to do. They will not start until it’s completely dark. Then it will go on until one, two, even three in the morning. If you come with me now, I’ll show you where it is.”

We went up one flight and into the girls’s dormitory, which was dark and empty, and there in silence we joined the pére l’aube’s wife and a young Indo-Chinese girl, who stood at the window gazing down at the town and the port of La Ciotat stretched out below at the foot of the hill on which the auberge stood. In the warm still September air, the sounds of the shipyard nightshift-the clang of metal and hiss of steam, with now and then a whistle of warning from the donkey-engine that chuffed through the yard carrying coal or steel—floated up to us and made the night seem alive. Even the lights along the streets and the window lamps of a hundred homes seemed to throb with a pulse of their own.

The pére l’aube pointed off to the right. “The trucks are waiting.”

For a moment I saw nothing but La Ciotat’s confusion of lights. Then I made out four tiny red dots buried in a corner of the night, and it was as though my heart had been struck a stunning blow, so hard did I find it to breathe, for memories had rushed upon me with an impact I could not sustain. This was to happen many times more in the course of that night, but here it was both simple and sudden: six precisely spaced tail-lights seen at a distance. There were, perhaps, ten or twenty times six such lights, but otherwise it was no different in the army. And this sameness of things as they were and as they had been was enough to give me a depth of vision and a feeling of identity that should be easily understood by any ex-soldier who has ever remained standing in a crowded semi-trailer, waiting for a convoy to move or an embarkation to begin.

It is true that these were Jews fleeing Europe and Africa, and most of them were with what remained of their families, or else they were the very old who wanted to die in peace, or the very young, the orphans, who simply wanted to live; but they too had been waiting in camps and had finally been crowded onto trucks and had rolled in darkness to a port they didn’t know, and they too must have realized that they were where they were because the world they lived in was sick and festering.

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Martha and I dressed quickly and went down into La Ciotat. With us came Thihai, the twenty-year-old Indo-Chinese girl, frail, soft-voiced, soft-eyed, who spoke of the tragedy of the Jews in tones so low they seemed numb with horror. She was innocent, so that for her there could be no explanation except in terms of men who were evil, and this was an evilness she could not comprehend. The concentration camps were one thing, products of Nazi viciousness; but now the war was over and with it went the concentration camps and the Nazis and, it would seem, the viciousness. How then explain this flight from native lands? Who were the evil men, and why were they so evil? She asked me this but I had no answer. I do not know who has.

When we reached the main street, which runs along the boat basin, we stopped and glanced around indecisively, for the perspective from the heights had been one thing and this, particularly at night, was quite another. To the left loomed the delicately arched prow of the passenger liner that the Ciotat chantier had almost completed, and beyond it lay the port cove and all the small fishing boats on the dark water, lazily rubbing against their piers. But the ship’s lights, which had been pointed out to us, had vanished.

Two men and a woman stood under the street lamp across the way and watched us. When our uncertainty became clear to them, one man called out: “Are you looking for something?”

We hesitated. We were not sure whether or not the sailing was a secret, whether the law was being evaded, or even whether we had the right to be there at all, so we tried to fence in reply. Yes, we were looking for something we had been told to see. We were Americans, our friend was Indo-Chinese.

The three of them looked at us even more carefully and then one of them in a leather jacket said, “You are Israelites, aren’t you?”

Neither then nor later did he speak of Jews. Israelites and Palestinians, and that was all.

When we said yes, he stretched out his hand and said, “Sholom aleichem.”

We shook hands with the three of them, and when I repeated the greeting, it was for the first time in my life.

Then he asked, “Are you going?”

Even as I said no, I experienced an instant of regret that almost amounted to shame, as though I had let him down, and I explained that it was purely by chance that we were in La Ciotat that night, and a friend had told us of the embarkation. Were they going?

Their story poured out. They had come from Algiers, where they had lived all their lives, because the Arabs were armed and, as they said, “Arabs are the same as Nazis.” Killings had become an almost everyday occurrence and terror was in the air. Seeing no hope and no security for themselves anywhere but in Israel, they had sold everything they possessed and fled. They and their children.

As though proof had been called for, one man, a widower, disappeared around the corner and returned carrying a little boy. Securely wrapped in a blanket, the child stared at us with grave, unblinking eyes, his full face pale in the sick light of the street lamp, and then he put his head on his father’s shoulder, whimpered once, softly, and fell asleep.

“Our two are sleeping back there,” the other man said. “It has not been easy with them, these three weeks that we’ve been waiting here. But that’s finished now.”

His eyes lit upon three young men crossing the street toward a café. All three wore white shorts and white shirts wide open at the neck, and their legs and arms were heavily muscled.

“Those are Israelis,” he said proudly, “our sailors. God bless them!”

That reminded the woman of something and from her pocketbook she took a photograph. “This is my brother,” she said. “He too is a sailor!” The snapshot was of a young man in bathing trunks, facing forward and grinning, displaying his massive chest and biceps in the best Charles Atlas tradition.

“Ah,” said the father carrying the baby, “there is a man for you!”

A truck came around the bend in the road. It was the type that GI’s called a “six-by,” and as it went past, the sound of the motor was familiar, a peculiar kind of whine, and the sight was familiar: people crowded in the back, standing up and waving as we waved to them. Then there was another truck. And another. And another. And another. And another.

“Always six,” the man explained, and he could not contain his exultation. “Six at a time they come in from the camp near Marseille, where they all have been waiting their turn—and now we see them on their way! What a wonderful sight!”

We told them that we wanted to see the loading but they doubted that we would be given permission by the gendarmes. The embarkation was not illegal, we learned, but it was—well, surreptitious. Sailings took place from La Ciotat, and not Marseille, because the port authorities here had a different attitude, less legal, less demanding. The exact adjective depends on a person’s point of view, for it could be said that La Ciotat’s inspectors were more sympathetic, realizing that health rules concerning the number of passengers permitted aboard a vessel should be relaxed for urgent voyages of this order, or it could be said that they were more available and were willing to be lenient for certain considerations. Or, possibly with more justice, both could be said simultaneously.

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We decided to try to reach the ship and said good-bye in the hope that we would see them later on their way. Martha and Thihai held hands and followed me down the road, the three of us keeping to the side that was poorly illuminated. Finally we came to a line of trucks parked one behind the other, awaiting orders to move forward. These were the tail lights seen from the hill.

To avoid walking in the middle of the road, we went between the trucks and the wall that skirted the way, and because this passageway was extremely narrow, we came practically face to face with those who turned to look at us. In the shadows there could be little detail: dark figures huddled together, massed anonymity, vibrant with whispers and the slightest of movements, the pallor of an indistinguishable face here and there confronting us in silent question.

It was a question I wanted to respond to but could not. The moment cried out for a sign of unity, if not identity, for a word or gesture of solidarity that would break the barriers between us—the furtive darkness, the sideboards of the truck—and give them the encouragement with which even then my heart was bursting. But I can speak neither German nor Yiddish, so I passed them by in miserable silence.

Beyond the trucks there was still no indication of the direction to be taken. Off to the left, and extending back from the road, was the shipyard administration building, its unshaded windows a bright neon-blue, and behind this, completely enshrouded by the starry moonless night, was a scrap heap, a dumping yard. In the daytime we had seen it: chunks of rusty iron and rotting timber resting on ashes and refuse, with one crude track beaten down by the trucks that came to dump their loads. Even by daylight a driver had to proceed with caution, and it would seem dangerous at night.

Then we saw lantern markers to guide the trucks. We trudged along the way until we passed the first, a single kerosene lamp at the feet of a man who sat on a small ash heap and watched us as we approached.

In silence we went by and headed for the second marker, and then the third, with never a sound uttered by any of the men. Even with our ineffectual flashlight we kept stumbling over coils of wire and stones as well as the railroad tracks that ran through the yard, but we did not want to ask for directions. When one man did call out to us, we ignored him and hurried on.

Unexpectedly we came upon a cluster of people almost invisible in the darkness, except for the dusty shoes and makeshift sacks lying on the ground in the path of our light. Here was the line-up. And in another moment we found ourselves on a level area of poured concrete. Here, at the edge, was a sheer drop of twenty feet, and from this vantage point we confronted a scene that could have been a stage set, so compactly were its elements arranged.

Directly before us, securely shored up in drydock, was the massive-timbered hull of a ship that must have sailed the Mediterranean in another century but which now, stripped of all superstructure and set permanently in an equally massive cradle, would never serve the sea again—except as a loading platform for other vessels. And just beyond, broadside to the quay, was the American passenger liner, the “Pan York,” its flood-lights blazing, its decks alive with activity.

Even as we stood there, the order came to start loading. Slowly, while the first group filed forward, we grasped the full picture of this embarkation. It began in the early evening at a camp near Marseille, mounting trucks, riding for more than an hour across a mountain range, stopping in a strange place and waiting, finally descending and clambering in the dark over treacherous ground, along the edge of a stone quay no more than three feet wide with a wall on one side and water on the other, across steel pontoons bolted together to form a floating pier, up a steep-stepped gangway and into a ship with a passenger capacity of perhaps one half the number who were actually to come aboard.

First came a steady stream of children, who were to occupy the best places aboard the ship. Their step was light, although most of them bore heavy knapsacks. Healthy-looking, scrubbed, rosy-cheeked, and well bundled against the dampness of the night, they mounted the stairs quickly, moved easily along the ties of the railroad track, descended the other side and passed the table where they had to show their blue cards in calm and orderly fashion. All the while, fascinated, their eyes were turned upward, drawn by the brightly lighted ship—so large because they were so small—and then, in a matter of minutes, they were below deck. These were the orphans.

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No other group was to proceed as efficiently. Then and only then did we fully understand what a trial such a sailing for Israel must necessarily be, for we saw the people who were going aboard. I know that I myself had observed little until that moment. The faces in the truck had been anonymous and the figures waiting on line had been anonymous, and my emotions were, in a sense, anonymous. As a soldier I had many times experienced this kind of activity. I had gone aboard myself and I had put men aboard: trains, trucks, troop-ships. Because of this, I thought, then, that I knew what these people were enduring, knew the strange mixture of fright and docility that goes with being herded from one place to another like a dumb beast, knew the stabbing ache of a back that can no longer support the burden it cannot put down, knew the need for help and encouragement that everyone else needs and so cannot give. And even for them, who would sing when the ship sailed, I thought I knew the moment when the gag would slip and the strangled accusation would cry out against the unfairness of this destiny.

But then I saw them clearly. There were some so very old they could barely walk and there were the very young who had to be carried. There were fathers and mothers with two children, three, four—and occasionally there were grandparents with them. They came from many countries and spoke many tongues, so that even among themselves communication was often impossible. And to talk of fear and weariness for them is not the same. It must be seen through their eyes, and when it is, even the ground over which they struggled no longer looks the same.

The stairway leading down certainly did not. These were stone steps, and on one side was a wall. On the other was nothing, except rocks twenty feet below. There were no lights. More than two thousand people had to descend those stairs, and this included mothers carrying infants in one hand and satchels in the other, exhausted and uncertain of their footing; old men and women who needed sticks to help themselves along and yet literally dragged sacks behind them; children of twelve with baby brothers or sisters clinging to their necks; other youngsters staggering under the weight of knapsacks meant for strong men; and it included the near-blind and the lame and the panicstricken. A single misstep, a moment’s loss of balance would have meant a twenty-foot fall to the rocks below.

The three of us did what we could to help them past this point and, further on, past the narrow ledge of the quay where, with only a few feet between a wall and the sea, people were moving in two directions. We carried children and valises and let the old lean on us. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not—as when babies, taken from their mother’s arms, became frightened and struck out in a frenzy with arms and legs, or when the old people grabbed us so tighdy that it became difficult to move at all.

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On top of the steps a young Jew from Czechoslovakia, part of the Marseille camp’s embarkation personnel, was directing the emigrants and he made the best use of us that he could. Since he spoke little English, he called to us in simple fashion: “Here, Mister,” or “Hello, Missus.” His nicest compliment consisted of a wonderful smile and: “You hokay.” I sometimes wonder what he would have thought of us had we been able to communicate freely and had he learned that we too were Jews but that, except for this chance occurrence, we played no part in this struggle for existence. Would he have been like the Americans who worked aboard the ship and who, once they learned our nationality, communicated their contempt for anyone not doing what they were, by silence or curt answers? Or like the Englishman who asserted that none of this could have been achieved without American dollars and that consequendy this was the contribution for an American to make?

My wife has told me since that she has often thought back to that young Jew from Czechoslovakia, to the urgency of his concern over every man, woman, and child who descended those steps, his eagerness to make their burdens lighter, if only for a few minutes, the kind way he spoke to each one. For us, this was the one boat in all our lives; for us, each person who boarded was someone we wanted never to forget, and each moment we stood still was a reproach. That the ship finally sailed seemed, to us, a miracle. But our friend had been through this many times before, as had the rest of the people whose job it was to get this boadoad of people, their people, aboard the “Pan York” quickly, safely, and efficiendy. To this Puckish-faced Jew from Czechoslovakia, though, they had never become “boadoads”—he was not toughened to their heavy valises, their waiting, their anxiety. This was why Martha remembered him.

Doing what we could to lessen their burdens going down the steps, we soon found that every contraption ever invented to carry belongings, and many that must have been unique to this journey, were in evidence that night. Valises, strong-boxes, duffelbags, valpacks, army footlockers, potato sacks, cardboard containers, paper parcels, harnesses of necessity and ingenuity, and that most efficient of all methods, the sac-à-dos. One couple struggled down the steps, each gripping one handle of a tin bathtub, in the bottom of which they had put all their belongings and on top of which slept their baby.

But that was not all. They had been told to take a maximum of ten kilos, a miserable twenty-two pounds with which to remember the old life and start the new, and of course the regulation had been ignored. So it was that they labored along with the most fantastic things, and the most heartrending, the rickety wooden stool and the battered pots and pans, the umbrella, black and bulky, the hat box, the chamber pot. The sight would never have amused any Frenchman who could recall the frenzied flight before the Germans in 1940, l’exode, when people carried overshoes and empty bird-cages. And GI’s with memories not too short will remember the barracks bags overloaded with orange-juice squeezers, alarm clocks, electric razors, and pillows. Everything considered, that black umbrella with the stout handle might not prove to be foolish, for the sun in Palestine is strong for an old man who has lived in the shadows of ghettos and concentration camps; and surely only an American would think the chamber pot ridiculous.

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The old people who went aboard were superb, although how most of them made it, I do not know. I remember one old woman who stopped at the top of the steps, looked down at them helplessly, and then, a moment later, took my hand as though it were an answer to a prayer. She held it tightly but, unlike many others, made no effort to cling to it. Instead, like a child determined to walk by itself, she held my hand rigidly away from her and used it for balance rather than support as her foot sought unsurely for each succeeding step. She was terribly excited—her hand told me that—but that same hand and the stiff set of her body spoke of a rigorous self-restraint that her will imposed upon her emotions. Her calm was almost excessive, as was the deliberateness of her pace, the inflexibility of her carriage. She looked at the ground and she took each obstacle as it came along. The ship was miles away from her and every inch of the way was perilous, the pitted earth, a sudden rise, the mere foot separating shore and pontoon, the gangway. Never once did the spectacle of the “Pan York” divert her. She had no time to be diverted—she was too old, and the ship was just another obstacle to overcome on her way home.

During a brief breathing spell toward the end of the embarkation, when the lines were temporarily halted, Martha said to me that of all the women who had gone by, she had just seen the one who looked wrong, out of place. This woman was the very one who would have gone unnoticed in any other crowd. Not that she was elegantly dressed and the others were not; but her coat turned inside out and folded over her arm, her hair wrapped in an improvised turban, the little vanity of earrings, all conspired to make her look like any woman boarding any boat to go anywhere—precisely what no one else looked like. She carried a valise and a hat box. The hat box, my wife learned when it was handed to her with the air of consigning it to a porter, held something much heavier than hats. Martha suspected shoe-trees.

The last group to mill past us was the most distinct, the North Africans. A few seemed fairly prosperous, a fact made conspicuous by the bright-colored clothes they wore—the dark-faced little girl lost in rabbit fur, the woman in a new silk dress and this year’s spring coat. But between them and the overwhelming majority of the others there existed a difference so sharp that it seemed to set them in two separate worlds. The children were shabbily dressed, bare-legged, thin—very thin. Their parents carried few belongings, and these were tied up in bundles or had been dumped into coarse sacks. Although many of the women were strikingly beautiful in the exotic way that Hollywood and Hedy Lamarr have made popular—the dark eyes, the immobile features-they—were extremely timid, with hands soft and moist, and now and then they would whimper.

The English quartermaster, who was assisting with the embarkation, shouted at them to keep quiet and stop pushing, and he remarked to us that they were ignorant and helpless and could not be depended on to carry out the most elementary of orders. A group of young North African Jews were going aboard last, he explained, because they were to sleep out on deck.

Perhaps the end of the long evening’s work had left him drained of sympathy but nothing in his tone indicated that he thought of them as the same kind of human beings as those who had preceded them. His words struck a discordant note, one that reverberated with terrible familiarity, and at that particular moment it was unbearable.

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Shortly afterward we left. Thihai, who was still recuperating from a serious illness, had reluctantly gone back just past midnight, and so Martha and I were alone. The air had turned cold. Behind us we could hear Yiddish songs over the ship’s loudspeaker system, and then, as we walked, even that died away.

We had the empty, useless feeling of those left standing on the dock as their ship sails away, a terrible longing after it that has no effect at all on the reality of its leaving. All of our lives up to that moment, the lives of educated American agnostic Jews, had barred us from that boat. All of their lives had led them to this moment, the discrimination, the suffering, the war. Our paths had crossed on the Côte d’Azur. They were sailing towards the New Year, four or five days away. We were bicycling on towards Italy to see the treasures of the Renaissance. We envied them their future.

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