Most schoolchildren in Israel make a field trip to see the Atlit Detention Camp on the Northern Israeli coast, south of Haifa, and so should you! It’s an absolutely amazing piece of history that is rarely told. While many of the attributes of the British-run detention camps are close to those of Nazi concentration camps, no one was sent to the detention camp to die, just to be warehoused. Here’s the intriguing story; seeing the camp itself, now a museum, is even better than merely learning about it.
You need to reserve a place for your visit. If you can, ask for the tour guide named Efraim Cohen, a former diplomat for the U.S. Embassy in Israel, now retired in Israel and an Israeli citizen. He speaks perfect English, of course, and weaves a great story of the history of the camp.
You can also learn about the history surrounding the camp from watching a Kirk Douglas movie, “Cast a Giant Shadow,” that tells the story, or by reading a marvelous book, Day After Night by Anita Diamant.
Following World War II, there were many displaced persons, many of whom were Jews released by the Allies from concentration camps. They had nowhere to call home, nowhere to go; refugees all. Many of them headed to Israel to seek a new home. You probably know the story of the ship Exodus that sailed from Europe with a boatload of Jews and was turned away by many countries including the U.S. when it sought to dock and offload its refugee passengers.
The current land that is Israel was under the control of the British after the war. The British sought to limit the number of Jews that could enter Israel to a quota of 48,000 annually, far less than sought entry. They came by boats under the cover of night. Many were stopped at sea and turned back by the British Navy. But the ones that got through, by nook or cranny, were detained in detention camps, including this one, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
Men and women were housed separately in cabins with bunk beds that looked similar to the concentration camp bunks, except the beds were not double decker. They were told to strip, their clothes were steam cleaned in huge steamers, they were sprayed with DDT (the now-banned carcinogenic insecticide), and then they were forced to shower before entering the camp, just like in the concentration camps. Many of them had heard rumors of what happened in the concentration camps when the showers sprayed deadly gas instead of water. Their clothes came back shrunk from the steam. Instead of their clothes, they took whatever clothes fit from the pile. No wonder they always look disheveled in photos.
The camps started operating when Jews started to flee Europe during the war, beginning in 1939, through 1942 when the camp was shut down. The camp reopened in 1945 following the war and stayed open until 1948 when Israel declared independence from Britain. More than 10,000 detainees were housed here.
In 1945, the Special Forces unit of the underground Israeli armed forces, the Haganah, broke into the camp and released 200 detainees who escaped to kibbutzim in the nearby mountains. Yitzhak Rabin, later Prime Minister of Israel, planned and led that mission. After this raid, the British stopped sending detainees to Atlit, instead sending them to detention camps on Cyprus.
Visiting the camp you get to see how the detainees lived. Also, one of the ships used to clandestinely transport refugees to Israel is on display. Inside the boat, Israel has created a great movie exhibit that re-creates the harrowing journey the refugees took.
The camp is an interesting part of the history of the Jews of Europe in their search for a safe place after World War II. Don’t miss this intriguing part of history when visiting Israel.