Tuesday, September 03, 2019

  • Tuesday, September 03, 2019
  • Elder of Ziyon


Israel's National Library blog has a very interesting story about the passenger of the Marine Carp USNS:

The USNS Marine Carp was originally built for the purpose of transporting military forces to Europe and back. Following the conclusion of World War II, the vessel was repurposed as a  passenger ship and set on a regular, commercial route. She embarked out of New York, crossed the Atlantic, and docked in Athens, Beirut, Haifa, and Alexandria. At the end of the route, she returned to New York via Italy. During the post-war period, the Marine Carp transported many American Jews to the Land of Israel in order to volunteer on kibbutzim, attend youth gatherings, or simply immigrate to the Land of Israel legally (if they were able to make it past the border checkpoints successfully). The ship set out from New York every five weeks. On May 4th, 1948, Marine Carp embarked on its regular route. There were many Jewish travelers aboard, including Jews from the Land of Israel studying or living in the United States who were answering a general enlistment call put out by the Hebrew Yishuv which was already fighting for its life in the War of Independence.

When the ship reached Beirut, a stop on its regular route, 400 Lebanese soldiers were waiting for the passengers at port. The Lebanese authorities did not want to allow Jewish men of military age to continue on to Israel. Indeed, 69 passengers, all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 50, were forcibly removed from the ship. Among the detainees were 41 American citizens, 23 fresh Israeli citizens, 3 Canadians, and 2 others.

The ship’s crew tried to resist, but their efforts were in vain. Daniel Doron, another passenger (and a great-grandson of Zerah Barnett, co-founder of the city of Petah Tikva). testified:

“Most of the ship’s crew were black. We made friends with them. We would sing with them, drink with them and eat with them. They refused to leave Beirut. They said, ‘We are not leaving, not moving the ship. We are not leaving Beirut without the Israelis.’ It was only when the ambassador convinced them that the incident would be resolved within a week that they agreed to continue on their way.”

The detainees were taken by truck to the city of Baalbek, where they were held in an abandoned French military camp.

The detainees were taken by truck to the city of Baalbek, where they were held in an abandoned French military camp. Daniel Doron reflected on the drive to the camp:

“We drove all night. We departed at 10 o’clock or 12 o’clock at night. That was the most dangerous part because the trucks – Lebanese military trucks – were in bad shape. The brakes did not work very well. They bounced up and down, you know…”

Some of the passengers complained about how the U.S. was handling their detention, and even accused the U.S. consulate in Beirut of anti-Semitism. The United States condemned the refusal of the Lebanese to release the detainees, causing a minor diplomatic incident between the two countries.

So, what was the catalyst that eventually led to the liberation of the captive Jews? What finally contributed to stepping up U.S. efforts to end the affair? The official answer has never been revealed.

According to testimony from Daniel Doron, a family member was able to speak to then-US President Harry Truman about the issue. Truman was, apparently, able to find a solution to the crisis over the course of the two weeks that followed the meeting.

“Truman said, ‘What?!’ Then he told him the story. Truman fumed and went to the red phone. He picked it up, and the head of covert services was on the other end. He said, ‘Listen, my friend, either you free these people within two weeks or you can look for another job.’”

The American detainees refused to accept the release that had been arranged for them without their Israeli counterparts. Lebanese attempts to separate the populations had failed. Finally, on June 30th, almost a month and a half after the incident, the Lebanese agreed to release all of the detainees. They were sent back to New York, but many of them were unable to obtain a visa and were forced to stay on Ellis Island. From there, they again departed with the Marine Carp. Some of the passengers, anxious to return to Israel, had not waited to arrive on American shores. They chose to hop off the ship at other ports and found creative ways to get back to Israel.
Some details are filled in by a passenger on the ship,  Elihu King, including the antisemitism of the US Consul in Beirut:
The Marine Carp was a semi-converted Liberty ship, and accommodation was frugal. The women were bunked six to a cabin, two tiers of three bunks. The men slept in huge bays with racks of pipemetal framed steel spring bunks five high. By tacit understanding or something, we Jewish men, about 75 of us, were given one bay to ourselves though it was not full. Some were Israelis going home. A few were from Canada, Mexico and elsewhere, off to fight in Palestine. There were some old religious Jews. About 24 of us were native born US citizens fully covered with passports, visas, and blue jeans. Oded Bourla was the designated commander of us Americans including 5 of the women in the "first class" cabins.

The Atlantic was very rough and most of us on board were badly sea sick. I avoided being sick by sleeping on deck and never going below until I got my sea legs. There were some deck chairs lashed to a rail on a hatch cover and that was my place for the first three days and nights.

While cruising through a now calm Mediterranean we got the news on the ship's radio that the STATE OF ISRAEL had been declared. Somehow the Arab passengers on the "Marine Carp" disappeared, maybe they moved away from where we were. Us Jews gathered in the dining hall and roared out our joy and pride. We sang "Hatikvah" and a thousand other anthems and songs, danced the hora until we dropped, cried, laughed, and carried on. The fears and doubts were kept inside, for that evening.

The crew joined us. Their union was Communist led and they were radicals all, and they were very much on our side.

...

The captain of the "Marine Carp" (we later learned) was concerned about the well being of his Jewish passengers when the ship called in at Beirut on its way to Haifa. It was an American ship and so we were unlikely to be bothered, but still...... He contacted the US Consul General in Beirut by radiotelephone and asked for instructions. The story I heard, from good sources, is that the Consul told him that there would be no trouble, he was to bring the ship in.

At 5 in the morning we pulled into the harbor at Beirut and tied up alongside a pier. The US Consul was there to greet us. So were about 400 Lebanese Marines, in tight uniforms of blue wool - must have been awfully hot for them, when the sun came out fully. The Marines came up the gangplank and set up machine gun posts in the main corridors. An announcement was made on the loudspeakers: all Jewish passengers were to assemble in the main lounge.

We didn't do that. We bunched up in little groups throughout the ship talking and trying to work out what to do. My group crowded around Oded Bourla in the shower room next to our sleeping bay. Some of the wild ones said we should fight. Two of them had pistols. We gabbled like a bunch of geese. There were an awful lot of the Lebanese. Then another announcement on the PA system: if the Jewish men would come along and be "interned" in Lebanon, the Jewish women would be allowed to continue their voyage to Haifa unmolested. The women were under Lebanese guard while we decided. This was clearly a serious threat. Most of the women were wives of husbands on the ship; couples had been separated because of the barracks-like sleeping arrangements.

We decided to submit. The Israelis among us were fearful but they led in that decision. Us Americans felt confident we'd be repatriated in a few days at most.

The two guns were stripped down to small parts and hidden on (in, actually) the bodies of a number of the men, as was ammunition. Somebody had a compass. Each took from his bags what he thought best. And so we slowly shambled up to the main lounge. The US Consul was there, and he collected the passports of the US citizens (and, it transpired, turned them over to the Lebanese commander). Some of us passed notes to the crew, for our families. In glum, defeated dribs and drabs we went down the gangplank and climbed onto Lebanese Army trucks. The Lebanese left behind some old, sick men, but 69 of us were taken away. The Jewish women waved and called to us as the trucks drove away from the pier.

The trucks drove through the city of Beirut and out through its suburbs. Through small towns and valleys and villages we drove, until the pressure on my bladder became extreme and I pissed off the rear of my truck after getting sign-langauge permission from the Marines who guarded us. After what seemed like about four hours, the last parts climbing high into the cool hills, we arrived at Baalbek. We were taken to what had once been a French Foreign Legion barracks, a handsome building with large rooms opening out onto a long balcony on the second floor. At the head of the stairs, a washroom with a water tap, a pissing trough, and an Arab squat latrine.

In the three large barracks rooms were piles of boards of nice, soft pine. Three of these for a sleeping pallet and a thin blanket, a tin bowl and a spoon - these were issued to each of us. The guards turned out to be Palestinians, refugees. The Lebanese themselves acted frightened of us, very nervous. Some of the Palestinians were allright, some were sadistic bastards.

We were given a meal: a small cube of goats' milk cheese, a radish, a green onion, two pitas (the large flat kind, not the pocket kind). We could get water from the tap. That's what we got every day for our three meals though sometimes we each got a large spoonful of beans in tomato sauce for dinner instead of the cheese. I weighed 150 lbs when I got there, and 110 lbs when we got out six weeks later.

And so to bed, worried and fearful about what tomorrow would bring.

The morning brought the US Consul, all the way from Beirut. We all gathered together to meet with him. He told us that were a real nuisance, that the Lebanese were treating us very well, and that the families of the Americans were working for our release. He heard our requests for medicine for the two of us who were down with severe measles, and agreed to get us what we needed, we could give him the money now.

We had elected some leaders from among us, and they mentioned that the last time an American citizen had been taken by force from a ship (not even a US flag ship, at that) the US Navy had a cruiser in the harbor the next day and the citizen was released under the threat of our guns. The Consul assured us that there was no danger of that happening now. The Consul showed a marked distaste for Jews; of course he was accredited to an Arab state, so that would explain it.

(It was not until the 1960s when I subpoenaed my files from the US State Department in connection with my citizenship case that I felt the reality of the discrimination. The important document about me started out thus: "This obstreperous member of a despised race.......". The US Consul in Beirut had endorsed it thus: "Right!"). So much for the Consul. When we read in the local French language newspaper that he had been on the podium at an anti Israel rally at the American University of Beirut and had seen fit to stay there while a resolution calling for our (the US prisoners) death was passed by acclamation, we were not really surprised.)

The next big event for us was the Selection. (That term refers to the procedure in the concentration camps in Europe, where those who were to be killed that day were separated from the rest). We had contacts with some of the guards, who would bring us news and stuff for money, so we were prepared. The camp commander showed up with a specially big and tough retinue of guards, and called us all together. He had all our passports before him, and told us that the Israelis would be taken to a different location. We had discussed this possibility and it seemed to us that this would enable the Lebanese to kill the Israelis without risking the consequences of killing citizens of the USA or Canada. So the night before we had all - Americans, Canadians, the two with Argentinian passports, and the Israelis (who had British passports) - shaved our heads so we would not be easily identified from our passport photographs.

The first man was called forward and asked his name. "Yisrael ben Yisrael", he said, "Israel son of Israel". And so said the second shaven-headed man, and the third, and the Selection was called off.

After we'd been there for a month, and our families' efforts to get the US State Department to move on our case seemed to be stuck despite the best efforts of then-Congressman Jacob Javits of New York, we started to plan an escape. We had some Israelis among us who knew the topography pretty well, and they worked out a route to Israel (though we had no idea where the actual front line might be). We had the weapons we'd smuggled in, and accepted the fact that we would have casualties. We were tired now from poor nourishment, and dispirited from being prisoners, but we felt we had to do it.

Just as we were getting ourselves ready, storing food at the expense of eating it and so on, we got some hints that we might be released. Then the US Consul came to visit. The Lebanese offered to release us and let us go back to the USA, providing we would each swear never to attempt to go to Israel. That included the Israelis. We agreed. An oath under duress is okay.

Then we waited some more.

One morning, the Lebanese Army trucks came grinding into the courtyard. We needed no further notice, put our belongings into our pockets and lined up with the weakest and sick ones at the head of the line....just in case. But no, they took us all. Huddled together in heaps at the bottom of the truck, we were too weak to sit upright and too scared that it might not be for real to sing or joke around. But yes, they took us to the pier, and there was the same "Marine Carp", this time on its way back to the USA on another round trip.

Weakly, still very fearful that the ordeal was not really over, we climbed up the gangplank. Crew members helped us on board and down to the sleeping bay and up onto the bunks. Later they gave us a festive meal of turkey and all the trimmings, ice cream, the lot. We gorged ourselves and soon returned the goodies, which our shrunken and tender tummies refused to hold.

The ship now carried many refugees from the war zone, Americans going home, many of them Jews. I met some politicals who told me with great excitement that they had a message for us from Haganah!!! Special arrangements had been made, they said, and the ship would make an unscheduled call at Palermo where Haganah awaited us and would take us off and on to Israel! Huzzah!

As they say in Israel, "Lo dubim v'lo yaar", "No bears and no forest".

Yes, we did pull in at Palermo. But nobody, it seemed, awaited us. Of those who decided to make a break for it anyway, some bought their crew papers from crew members, some went over the side and swam ashore. Three of us, lacking in funds or anyway experience or imagination, pried fillings out of our teeth and went to the captain and begged to see a dentist. The captain agreed, and called an escort of eighteen Carabinieri to take us to the dentist. Foiled!

The three of us, scrawny young Dave from Montreal, hulking Big Joe ("Gonna kill me a thousand Ayrabs!") from New York, and scrawny young me. We were taken in a truck to the center of town. Off we got and went upstairs to the dentist's office leaving two Carabinieri to guard the downstairs entrance. Once inside, Joe offered to go first. Dave and I sat in the waiting room, with two Carabinieri guarding the door and the rest sitting around in the room with us.

What the hell, I thought, what the hell. I can't get out of this. But I can give it a try, and then won't be so ashamed when they drag me back to the ship. I had stuffed my pockets with packs of American cigarettes before I left the ship, primo currency in Europe in those days. I stood up, walked briskly to the door, handed a pack of cigarettes to each of the guards, said "Vino, vino" with great brio, and walked out. To my surprise, nobody stopped me. (Why did I say "Vino"? Well, I couldn't think of anything else, that's why). I walked briskly down the stairs. The guards at the street door barred my way with their carbines. I handed them each a pack of cigarettes and said my magic "Vino" at them. They seemed confused but did not stop me. I marched down the main street of Palermo with calm and confidence until after a minute I heard them yelling and their pounding feet behind me so I picked mine up and ran like hell.

I ducked into a shop, a pharmacy, and the woman behind the counter, quickly seeing that I was running from the police, grabbed my arm and pulled me down to a crouch behind a counter where I couldn't be seen from the street. After a minute the chase seemed to have passed me by so I got up, said "Grazie" to the woman, and walked out of the shop.

Turns out that all the Carabinieri ran down the street after me, so Dave Sidorsky, finding himself all alone in the waiting room, stuck his head into the dentist's office and told Joe Nagdimon and then he walked out and down the stairs and out the front door and away. Nagdimon chose to stay and be taken back to the ship.

There were over twenty of us who got off the ship in Palermo, but ten went back to the ship before it sailed. The rest of us were rounded up into a cheap restaurant by street urchins who seemed to understand what was going on. We had a meal, and decided to look for Jews to help us. In Palermo there were none left so we took a train up to Naples where we found some but they wanted nothing to do with us because the police were after us and sent us up to the Jewish Agency in Rome where we finally found people to take care of us.

After some more adventures in a DP camp near Rome, I was assigned to lead a bunch of sturdy young Bulgarian Jews on their way to Israel in a chartered airplane. This was about 9 July.
Later trips of the Marine Carp avoided stopping in Beirut and Alexandria as a result of this incident.

(h/t Irene)




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