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Orlando resident’s ship comes in

Sy Israel helps memorialize historical era

By Jodi Bodner

Sy Israel has always been a man of the sea. An avid boater his entire life, he has spent much time sailing various seas and lakes but never the Mediterranean. “That is an interesting body of water to traverse,” said the Orlando resident and businessman, “and I can only imagine what it must have been like to cross it illegally determined to make for Israel’s shores.”

To preserve the story of the more than 122,000 people, known as, ma’apilim, illegal immigrants, who between the years 1934-1948, were transported from Europe and Arab countries to Israel’s shores in spite of the British blockade, Sy Israel is helping restore a boat similar to the 92 refitted vessels that carried them.

Working through Jewish National Fund and The Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), Sy helped fund the transport and refitting of the Galina. Unveiled on the Mediterranean Sea at Hadera on March 27, it will best tell the story of the Jewish people’s determination and struggle to enter the country. The British Mandate authorities had put severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and showed little sympathy for Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing persecution in Arab countries. Overcrowded ships were intercepted by the British, and passengers and crew were incarcerated in a detention camp for illegal immigrants in Atlit. Atlit itself has been restored by SPIHS and is the permanent home for the museum. Now, with the arrival of the ship, the history of this era will be preserved for future.

Bedecked proudly in blue and white, the 40-year-old Galina was moored to the Israel Electric Company’s dock. Like the cheeks of the immigrants who arrived on Israel’s shores in boats like her more than 60 years ago crying with happiness, her upper body was streaked with rust stains giving testament to her age.

But in her dotage, now the Galina will have an easier job to do and a most rewarding one at that.

The boats used during the time of the illegal immigration, the most famous of which was the Exodus, were kept in the Haifa port. Over the years, these boats were destroyed in order to expand and modernize the port.

To find a ship similar to the boats during the time of the illegal immigration, a group of volunteers, under the guidance of SPIHS, worked up the specifications. These weren’t just any volunteers; many of them actually took part in the illegal immigration. They were part of a group known as Palyam, a Hebrew acronym for plugot hayam (sea companies), the precursor of the IDF Naval Commando Unit, the special unit formed by the Hagana in 1943 which later became the Israeli Navy. Many of the Palyam people were involved in bringing illegal immigrants to Eretz Israel before, during and after the Holocaust.

A search through various ports throughout the world turned up empty, but internet advertising worked. A 40-year-old boat from Riga, Latvia the Galina-- was the best fit. The two decks inside could be designed to replicate the immigration ships, including sleeping quarters and warehouses. The boat is about 100 feet by 70 meters wide.

About 100 people were on hand for the unveiling ceremony. Many had served in the Palmach or the Palyam, their white hair reflecting the bright spring sun as the Israeli flag was raised and they sang Hatikvah.

“Aliyah and the story of the illegal immigration is an important chapter in Israel’s history,” said Yehuda Dekel, Chairman of SPIHS. “Illegal immigration had a major impact and probable influence on the United Nations. It is necessary to show how the Jewish People, both the immigrants and those that helped them, such as the Hagana, risked their lives to come to Eretz Yisrael to make aliya. It is the story of the struggle of the Jewish People and their right to be here in Israel.”

Labor MK Ephriam Sneh, one of the speakers, spoke of his father, Moshe, who was a member of the Hagana and responsible for illegal immigration efforts. “Atlit is more than a tourism site,” he said. “It is an educational center.”

"This is the first time that an illegal immigrant ship has received such an enthusiastic welcome," quipped Council president Shlomo Hillel, who spoke of its significance in preserving the memory of the struggle to bring immigrants to Eretz Israel in the battle for independence.

Sy Israel was not there. He and his wife Debra will visit in June. “But,” he said, “I am old enough to remember the beginning and what it was like when the State was created. I feel very proud to be part of this. It will be there for all to see how Israel became a State.”

Representing JNF was Zevi Kahanov, who said: “"I am blessed to be standing in front of you representing the Jewish National Fund and its donor Seymour Israel who are proud to be part of this educational and historic endeavor. I am also blessed to be here as the son of Avner, my father, who personally carried illegal immigrants from a boat like this to shore.

“JNF is interested in this boat project as an expression of the link to our Jewish and Zionist heritage and as an effort to safeguard the eternity of Israel. The boat is like a compass toward the future, linking young Israelis to their heritage and representing the heart of the partnership between the Diaspora and the State of Israel as manifested here by Seymour Israel and JNF. "

The boat project is a joint effort of the Council, the Israel Electric Corporation, the Jewish National Fund-USA and Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal.

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Jewish National Fund is a non-profit organization founded in 1901 to serve as caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners-Jewish people everywhere. Over the past century, JNF has planted over 240 million trees, built over 180 reservoirs and dams, developed over 250,000 acres of land, created more than 1,000 parks, provided the infrastructure for 1,000 communities and educated students around the world about Israel and the environment. Today, JNF is putting its century of experience to work with the Blueprint Negev initiative, supporting Israel’s newest generation of pioneers in developing the Negev Desert - Israel’s last frontier. For more information on JNF or to plant trees in Israel, call 1-800-542-TREE (8733) or visit www.jnf.org. To contact your local office, please call 888-JNF-0099 or visit www.jnf.org.

 

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