Zionist Dialogue

The Children of Cyprus

By Herbert Belkin

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So close, and yet so far. After the war, over 50,000 Holocaust survivors tried to make the almost sacred journey from blood-soaked Europe to Palestine. Their journey was forcibly interrupted by a British blockade, and the survivors were imprisoned on the British island colony of Cyprus. These tragic Jews were not prisoners of war, but prisoners of a British government policy. The interception and imprisonment came about because of a 1939 British policy change that revoked the Balfour Declaration promise of a Jewish homeland, and sharply limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. That policy of restrictive Jewish immigration was continued after the war by Ernest Bevins, the British Foreign Secretary.

David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, fought against this limited immigration policy with the only weapons at his disposal: Holocaust survivors and public opinion. By 1945, the tragedy of the Holocaust was known, and world sympathy was aroused for the survivors. Ben Gurion arranged to have boatload after boatload of these survivors sent to Palestine, only to have them intercepted by the British navy and sent to Cyprus. Britain was adamant that only a small number of Jews would be allowed into Palestine every month, all others were considered illegal and interred in Cyprus. Jews caught in this tug-of-war between Britain and Ben Gurion found themselves once again behind barbed wire as the world watched and sympathized. This sympathy was the springboard for the United Nations partition vote in 1947.

Among the Jews desperate to leave any prison camp, even ones so relatively benign as those on Cyprus, were thousands of Jewish children, including many orphans. These children were a special, often difficult, problem. Their life and death struggle for survival taught them lessons that kept them alive, but left them morally twisted. In the hell of the Holocaust, these children had to steal, cheat and lie to survive. Following the social norm of moral behavior could cost you your life; survival was their school and it taught cruel lessons. How do you deal with children with such perverted values? That was the job of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a charitable organization founded by American Jews that followed the Talmudic teaching that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.

While the Jewish refugee camps on Cyprus were under control of Britain, it was the JDC that assumed a major role for the well-being of the refugees. Additional food, clothing, medical care, education and social services all became the self-imposed responsibility of the JDC. The critical psychological and physical needs of the children survivors were met by Jewish social workers from Palestine. The head of these social workers was Rivka Kahana, who became the angel of the camp. Sometimes the needs of some of these children were so pressing that Rivka would spend her own money to buy a necessary item, a practice that she was criticized for. She defended herself by stating that no one could stop her if she wished to buy something for a “family member.”

In May 1948, the independence of the State of Israel was proclaimed. The survivors in the Cyprus camps were jubilant; their interrupted journey from prison camps in Europe to prison camps in Cyprus was about to end. Soon Jewish boats came to the island and, with the newfound sovereignty of the State of Israel, carried them to their new homeland, without British interference. Not only was this a relief to Jews, but also to the British. Their responsibility of guarding civilian women and children was not considered proper military duty, and they were happy to end it.

When the survivors finally reached Israel, they became part of a nation at war. Many of the young men immediately joined the Haganah, and many died in battle, a sad ending for a life of peril. But their deaths were redeemed in some measure because they died with a rifle in their hands, defending their new homeland. The future of the camp children was mixed. Some were able to find a stability that led to productive lives. Others could not shake the psychological weight of the Holocaust, and carried that incapacitating burden throughout their lives.


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