Passengers aboard the SS Hilda
Two months after the outbreak of World War II, Efraim Lilian, a destitute man, escaped Europe ahead of the Nazi regime. He, along with 727 other refugees boarded an overcrowded, run down ship hoping to make it to the Promised Land. The journey, which was nothing short of a nightmare, should have taken a week or two but instead, lasted three months. As the SS Hilda finally approached the port of Haifa, the British Royal Navy intercepted it and arrested everyone on board.
The SS Hilda was part of secret operations designed to bring persecuted Jews to Palestine between 1920 and 1948 when Great Britain ruled the region. The program was called Aliyah Bet. After the outbreak of WWII, the urgency for Jews to leave Europe intensified.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “62 voyages were made between 1937-1944. The trips were dangerous and hundreds of people lost their lives at sea. By 1948, well over 100,000 people had taken this route, including more than 70,000 Holocaust survivors.”
The reason why it was so difficult for Jews to enter Palestine was because of a change in the immigration policy imposed by the British. On November 9, 1938, the British issued a statement called the White Paper. It was designed to drastically reduced Jewish immigration in order limit their population growth. The goal was to prevent violent unrest amongst Arabs who vehemently opposed Jewish immigration.¹ Ironically, the White Paper statement was issued on the same date that Kristallnacht broke out in Germany.
The White Paper contradicted the Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour which favorably viewed the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
After the White Paper went into effect, a strict immigration quota was enforced. This led to secret operations known as clandestine immigration.
The following details describe the experience aboard the SS Hilda.²
SS Hilda passengers on the pier in Balchik, Bulgaria
before their journey.
Weeks ahead of a special secret mission to escape Europe, hundreds of refugees began their journey from all over the German Reich (Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia). A couple of ships were organized to take passengers down the Danube River and meet in Sulina, Romania where they would board the SS Hilda. Approximately 300 people from Germany sailed on board the ship, Tsar Dushan and another group of 350 people sailed from Prague on board a ship named the Karlitza Maria. They both departed from Bratislava and landed in Sulina.
In the meantime, the SS Hilda was under renovation ahead of the journey. The vessel, far from seaworthy, was just a Danube river boat. The upgrade was designed to satisfy basic needs such as sleeping and bathing as well as to prevent detection. The British kept watch by land, air and sea looking out for these ships and any hint of a clandestine immigration mission would cause reason to detain and turn the ship back. The wait was long and difficult to withstand for those whose lives were at stake.
The SS Hilda was also delayed because a group of people expecting to join the mission were detained in Hungary. Eventually, the wait became too risky due to harsh weather conditions and lack of vital supplies. The organizers, along with the original 650 passengers and a new group of 78 people, decided to change course to Balchik and wait there for the additional refugees.
After they arrived at the port of Balchik in Bulgaria, the weather conditions deteriorated and the SS Hilda became imprisoned in the frozen Black Sea. The ice was too thick for travel and the ship was stuck to the pier. The organizers tried to locate a different vessel but were unsuccessful.
The mishaps during the journey prolonging the trip well beyond what anyone would have anticipated. The refugees had to stay in Balchik for almost six weeks starting from the end of November, 1939 through the beginning of January, 1940.
The following passage, found at the Maapalim website best sums up what happened next.
The people who organized the journey struggled to find a new crew to replace the former one.
The physical conditions deteriorated every day. After a few weeks at the dock in Balchik, the water pipes froze, the passengers were left without drinking water, ran out of food and the morale was low.
Despite the hardship, the passengers organized parties on board the ship (like a Chanukah party on December 7th). The youth movements’ members organized lectures and musicians performed.
On December 29, a fire broke out on board after one of the passengers filled an oil lamp with gasoline. A passenger named Emgrad Levinstein died in the fire. A short while later, a storm tore the ship’s ropes and almost threw it into the pier.
Despite these disasters, the passengers celebrated a few engagements and two births, a boy and a girl. On January 14, 1940, after the ice in Balchik melted, the SS Hilda left the harbor and started its journey to Palestine. It arrived in Istanbul on January 15. The ship didn’t enter the port but food and coal were brought over.
When the SS Hilda arrived in Istanbul, the passengers were struck with a stomach flu and the long line to the lavatories exposed the ship’s clandestine immigration mission.
SS Hilda crossed the Dardanelles and entered the Aegean Sea near Kos [a Greek island]. A storm forced the ship to enter a nearby harbor. After the storm subsided, the ship continued its journey to Haifa. It was captured by a British destroyer on January 17, 1940. A few days later the SS Hilda was escorted by the British destroyer to Palestine and entered the Port of Haifa January 23.
After arriving at the port of Haifa, the passengers were not permitted to disembark. Instead, they sat on the battered ship for another week. As word got out about their plight, many people tried to help.
Below is an example of one of several petitions that were made to publicize the ordeal. A brief summary of the petition follows.
72 hours on the water of Haifa. 730 souls – destroyed souls. Three months on the ship and now waiting at the port of Haifa with no sign of help. During our long and difficult journey, we have seen tragedy after tragedy but our spirits are still high. We are not giving up. Please give us a helping hand. We are waiting to immigrate. From the passengers of the SS Hilda. We are your brothers and with us you will live.
Despite tremendous hardship and suffering, they continued their fight and never lost sight of their dream. A week after landing, the refugees were permitted to disembark but would not gain the freedom they sought. Instead they were all sent to an internment camp. The women and children were released after a few weeks but the men were forced to stay for six months.
In 1939, the British converted a military facility in the town of Atlit, into a detention camp for clandestine immigrants. The center, known as Atlit Detention Camp, was located south of Haifa.
The following account³ captures the essence of the facility.
The Atlit camp, surrounded by three barbed wire fences and guarded by armed sentries in six watch towers, eerily resembled the Nazi concentration camps whose horrors had been branded into the survivors’ psyches as surely as the numbers branded on their arms. The British could not have designed a more sadistic absorption process for the already traumatized survivors. After being forced to disembark from their ships, many of the refugees were put into cattle cars to be transported to Atlit. When the prisoners entered the Atlit camp, the men were sent to one side, the women to the other. They were sprayed with DDT, then told to undress and enter the showers. Then they were sent to sleep in long wooden barracks with corrugated tin roofs, a facsimile of the barracks from which they had recently been liberated. Men and women were assigned to separate areas of the camp, with barbed wire between them.
Following a month of detention, a file was opened in order to deport Efraim Lilian.
This document was one of millions that have been indexed and set up as a free resource. The purpose is to preserve the memory and provide information about survivors and victims of Nazi persecution. The document itself was an index for a deportation order.
Thanks to this record, I found a cousin that I never heard of because his birth record was improperly transcribed. After discovering this index page, I was motivated to learn more.
His full name was Efraim Fishel Lilian, the firstborn son of Ettel Bernfeld Lilian and her husband Isak. Efraim was born in Stanislawow in 1881 and like so many other children in his extended family, he received the honor to be named after his great-grandfather. I stumbled upon his name while researching another family member. If it wasn’t for this record and the World Memory Project, he may never have been discovered.
Since Efraim’s birth index was transcribed incorrectly, it did not show up with those of his siblings. Following the discovery, I went back to the birth indexes and searched for Efraim using his mother’s first name and his year of birth. His record turned up under the surname Rosenfeld instead of Bernfeld.
The record below, which clearly shows the name Bernfeld, is followed by the full birth record.
Efraim Lilian Birth 1881
One happy part to this story is that although there were documents revealing an attempt to deport Efraim, in the end, he along with the other people on the application below were permitted to stay.
An archivist from the Atlit Museum showed me a list that records Efraim Lilian’s release date as July, 1940. At this point, I don’t know what happened to him after he left Atlit.
My search included Atlit Detention Camp, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and on-line inquiries both in Hebrew and English. There is one archive that I recently found which may have information but it will take a while to receive an answer. Perhaps Efraim changed his name, left the country or died shortly after his release and therefore may not have left a paper trail. For now, the rest of this story remains a mystery.
The following video is about the Atlit Detention Camp. The center was restored to its original state and is now a museum. Tour guide, Zahi Shaked made this video.
Writing about Efraim Lilian, the SS Hilda and the Atlit Detention Camp was a learning experience. Before researching this story, I was unfamiliar with clandestine immigration, the situation in the area during British rule or Atlit.
Thank you Alex Koegel for sharing many resources about the SS Hilda. Alex’s father, Shraga-Iser Koegel Z”L was one of the passengers aboard the ship.
¹Puckett, Dan J. In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama’s Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust. U of Alabama, 2014. Print.
²”Hilda.” Http://en.maapilim.org.il/ShowShip/589/51197. Golan, Yehudit. “ומי במים…” Breslev.co.il.
³Rigler, Sara Yoheved. “Escape from Atlit.” Aish. Aish, 12 Jul. 2009.
*Palestine was the name given to the Jewish homeland by the Romans in the year 132 CE.
*Kristallnacht, literally Crystal Night is also known as, The Night of the Broken Glass. Kristallnacht began on the evening of November 9, 1938 and lasted throughout the next day. In total, almost 200 synagogues were destroyed, over 8,000 Jewish shops were looted, and tens of thousands of Jews were removed and placed in concentration camps.
Information about the World Memory Project can be found here.