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Purity of Arms

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Avi Livney (Lifshitz)  E-mail

Avi LivneyI was born 26th April, 1927 in New York City, U.S.A.   I served in the Hospital Corps of the United States Navy, 1945-46, and served in the Mosad Aliyah Bet from January 1947.

I joined the “President Warfield” (the “Exodus ‘47”) in Baltimore in January as ship's purser-pharmacist. Two weeks later, in a ceremony on the ship's deck, the entire crew was sworn into the Haganah by Yaakov Dori (Destrovsky).  The crew of forty were primarily Jewish American volunteers in their early twenties who had served in the Army, Navy, or Merchant Marines during World War II (the person who ultimately became captain was 23-years-old).

The “President Warfield” had been an overnight ferry which sailed the Chesapeake between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, carrying up to 300 passengers at a time (it was destined to carry 4,500 refugees on its historic trip as the “Exodus”).  During World War II it was sent to Europe and used in the transport of Allied troops across the English Channel.  At war’s end, it was escorted back to the U.S. and sold to be broken up for scrap when it was acquired by Aliyah Bet.

It took several months of work to make the “Warfield” seaworthy, which included a near-sinking in a storm the first time we set out across the Atlantic.  Our voyage led us to Ponta Delgada in the Azores, to Marseilles, La Spezia (Italy), Port de Bouc (France), where final preparations and fueling were made, and finally to Sete on the Bay of Lions.

The morning our passengers were to arrive was our last opportunity to shower and put on clean clothes.  It was like preparing for Shabbat.  The truck convoys began arriving and as the first refugees got off the trucks, we thought that they would be strangers, but they weren’t.  They were family.  They came bundled up in several layers of clothing plus a backpack – all their worldly goods.  Their trek had led them from concentration camp to displaced persons camp, to us.  When all 4,500 were on board, we moved out to sea and headed east.  The needs of the community had to be taken care of 24-hours a day.  Three infants were born, and the mother of one died, and was buried at sea.

British warships followed us each day in numbers which increased to six destroyers and a light cruiser.  On our last night, the British ships came in one at a time, rammed us, threw tear gas bombs and stun grenades, and succeeded in getting a large part of club-swinging marines on board.  Three people were killed, including our second mate Bill Bernstein.  Over a hundred were injured.  By daybreak, we surrendered and were towed into Haifa.  What had been the refugees’ crime?  That they were trying to go home?  The pier (which has since been named the Pier of Tears) was where the “Exodus” passengers were forced onto three British ships.  The ships ultimately moved out to sea, surrounded by warships, and sailed back to Port de Bouc in France and unsuccessfully tried to get the passengers to disembark.  The result was that all of the people were taken back to Germany.

While still in Port de Bouc I was instructed to get off the Ocean Vigour, one of the three prison ships, and joined the “Pan York” (“Kibbutz Galuyot”) in Marseilles.  We sailed to Safi in Morocco and up to Brest  in France, where we were told of the sabotage bombing of the “Pan Crescent” (“Atzmaut”) in Venice.  Three of us were sent there by way of Paris and Marseilles; we crossed into Italy by rowboat in the middle of the night, from Monte Carlo to Ventimiglia, and traveled on to Milano.

Under Berchik Magen (Lifshitz) and with several others, we continued to Venice and the “Pan Crescent,” which was in dry dock. We remained with the ship and once repairs were completed, sailed down the Adriatic and on to Rumania, arriving in Constanza October 1st. The “Pan York” arrived from France a month later and both ships remained in Constanza until the end of December. when both of them sailed together to Burgas in Bulgaria and began loading refugees. Each ship took approximately 7,500 people from Romania, Bulgaria, and Transylvania. As on the “Exodus”, duties were mostly in the medical area. We sailed south, cleared Turkish waters, were caught by a flotilla of British warships and convoyed straight to Cyprus, arriving on New Year's Day, 1948.

Getting off the “Pan York” in Cyprus, Gedda Shochat and Dave Lowenthal were immediately caught by the British, and getting off the “Pan Crescent,” Teddy Vardi (Rosenfeld) and I were also caught. Dave and Teddy had also been part of the “Exodus” crew. When we saw Gedda and Dave several days later, both of them showed signs of beatings. Teddy and I spent a night in a jail cell of the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. The next day we were interrogated several times individually (no beatings) and ultimately sent to the winter camps at Xylotimbou. We found Dave and Gedda, and under Gedda's lead, cut through the fences and escaped in the middle of the night, made our way 40 kilometers to the camps at Karoulis, and cut our way in. Twenty-four hours later the four of us, plus Berchik, Grisha Shenkman and several others, escaped through a tunnel under the camp fences, were picked up by a fishing boat and arrived in Caesarea the following night (January 13th, 1948).

While still in the Cyprus camps I met Yehoshua Lieibner, an American member of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, who was working for the Joint Distribution Committee.  He suggested that since I didn’t know anyone in Palestine aside from the people that I worked with in Aliyah Bet, I should join the American garin of KAH (Kibbutz Aliyah Hei, the fifth American group of Hashomer Hatzair to go to Palestine to settle on the land as a kibbutz), the first of whose members were beginning to arrive at Ein Hashofet for training.  I told him that they were a bit older than I (I belonged to KAV [Kibbutz Aliyah Vav], still in the States), but he didn’t think that this should be a problem.  I joined the Americans after two weeks in Palestine.

At Ein Hashofet I worked with mules, sheep, in forestry, and as a “second driver” on an armor-plated truck that picked up milk from neighboring kibbutzim each morning to deliver to the dairy in the Haifa Mifratz.  We were at Ein Hashofet during the fighting next door at Mishmar Ha’emek, and on the Independence Day of the State of Israel.

More and more members of KAH arrived at Ein Hashofet, and in the early fall our garin was divided, and half of us were sent to Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan in the Jordan Valley.  Sha’ar Hagolan had been attacked by Arab forces and the kibbutz evacuated.  We arrived after the kibbutz had been retaken.  All the kibbutz women and children remained in Haifa and we lived in buildings without windows, doors, or roofs.  The lawns were crisscrossed with deep trenches and underground bunkers.  Most buildings were badly damaged.  We worked at pouring new roofs, restarting banana plantations and serving on guard duty.  I occasionally relieved the kibbutz nurse in the underground dispensary when she was in Haifa.  We received a tablet each day with lunch, to prevent malaria. We were occasionally given military training by the woman in charge of the defense of the kibbutz, although almost all of us had previously served in the U.S. or Canadian armed forces or Merchant Marines.

In the late winter we were taken up to see Sasa, an abandoned Arab village situated at a strategic crossroad between the Western and Upper Galilee, near the Lebanese border.  The former inhabitants had fought against us during the war and had retreated into Lebanon.   We thought the area was beautiful, and were offered the site as a place of settlement for our kibbutz.  As we had no idea as to when we might be offered another site, we accepted the offer and settled at Sasa on January 13th, 1949, relieving an army group.  On the first day, Jewish Agency officials and others came, made speeches and promptly departed, leaving us alone to the cold, rain, and snow, without transportation, communication, or water source. Such were our beginnings.

In referring to our beginnings at Sasa, we might also say that when we received our first tractor, we had a celebration, and when we received our first cow we had a celebration; and when the first baby was born we had a celebration because it was everybody's baby; and when the first person died, we all cried because we had lost a member of our family.

I have truly had a most fortunate life. I've always been grateful to those who gave us an opportunity to serve in the Aliyah Bet.  We could have done no less.  I am also grateful to those who gave us Sasa and a lifetime of comradeship with those who are and were its founders.

Author: Avi Livney