For­get thee not, Cyprus

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIONS - BAR­BARA SOFER The writer is the Is­rael direc­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions at Hadas­sah, the Women’s Zion­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ica. Her lat­est book is A Daugh­ter of Many Moth­ers.

Mar­galit Fried says the message felt like a knock on her head. “If I were still re­li­gious, I’d say it was a sum­mons from God,” she says. “I sud­denly knew I had to go to Cyprus.”

Slim and el­e­gant in a tai­lored blouse, pants and heeled pumps, Fried is speak­ing from the stage of Yad Izhak Ben Tzvi, Jerusalem’s em­i­nent his­tor­i­cal re­search cen­ter. She is the fi­nal speaker in a day de­voted to the Cyprus de­ten­tion camps. Ev­ery seat of the large au­di­to­rium is filled, some sit on the steps. Among the more than 300 his­tory buffs are members of the Legacy of the Cyprus Camp De­tainees Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Dif­fer­ent from most or­ga­ni­za­tions of Jewish im­mi­grants who came from the same towns in Europe – these men and women share the ex­pe­ri­ence of fam­ily members be­ing im­pris­oned on an is­land a mere 472 kilo­me­ters from the shores of Is­rael.

When her epiphany struck, Fried was an ex­hausted new nurse in need of va­ca­tion. In­stead, she flew to Cyprus where 2,200 ba­bies were be­ing born to post-Holo­caust Jewish de­tainees. The year was 1947. Fried was 21.

I do the math. Amaz­ingly, she is 92. The or­ga­niz­ers from the De­tainees or­ga­ni­za­tion hope that the event will help per­pet­u­ate the fad­ing mem­ory of the Cyprus in­tern­ment camps. Zion­ists like me read Leon Uris’s in­flu­en­tial his­tor­i­cal novel Ex­o­dus, with its vivid de­scrip­tion of Cyprus. The pop­u­lar 1960 epony­mous movie, di­rected by Otto Preminger, scripted by Dal­ton Trumbo, star­ring Paul New­man as the dash­ing Is­raeli Ari Ben Canaan, im­pacted not only us, but world un­der­stand­ing and sym­pa­thy for Is­rael, just as the orig­i­nal im­ages of Bri­tish soldiers putting Holo­caust sur­vivors be­hind barbed wire con­cretized the need for a Jewish state.

From Au­gust 1946 to May 1948, Bri­tish war­ships cap­tured more than 52,000 Jews who sailed with­out per­mis­sion to Is­rael. To dis­cour­age Holo­caust sur­vivors from try­ing again, they were con­fined in a pris­oner-of-war camp, liv­ing in leaky tents and sti­fling tin huts, sur­rounded by barbed wire and watch tow­ers. They lived with no elec­tric light­ing, lim­ited wa­ter, and de­spi­ca­ble san­i­tary con­di­tions. Like the fic­tional Ben Canaan, Fried came to Cyprus from Is­rael, be­fore it was a state.

Al­though the de­ci­sion struck her like a thun­der­bolt, Fried’s back­ground pre­pared her to tol­er­ate such de­pri­va­tion. One of five sib­lings, her mother fled Ger­many with the chil­dren when her fa­ther was ar­rested. He died in the tor­ture camp in Saar­brücken. With the help of Hen­ri­etta Szold, Fried and her sib­lings es­caped one by one to Is­rael through Youth Aliyah. Mar­galit spent her child­hood at the Ahava Youth Vil­lage near Haifa, where the artis­tic girl was of­ten asked to make hand­i­crafts – wall hang­ings, em­broi­dery and let­ter hold­ers – used as vil­lage Hanukkah presents. Af­ter study­ing nurs­ing, she worked in the ma­ter­nity ward of Hadas­sah Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Jerusalem. Nurses were also sent to care for ba­bies at home, and with her tal­ents and in­tu­ition, Fried took care of two very sick in­fants her­self.

Ar­riv­ing in Cyprus, Fried dropped her bag in her tent and hur­ried to the baby house. “At Hadas­sah, ev­ery­thing was ster­ile. Here 60 ba­bies and their par­ents were in such a small room and it was dark. I ran back to my tent. It took me a while to pull my­self to­gether and to re­mem­ber my mis­sion. That in­ter­val meant that when I ar­rived back to the Baby House, I was just in time to over­hear a con­ver­sa­tion by a nurse and doctor who were in an of­fice near the en­trance. They were sure a new­born was dy­ing and wanted to call an am­bu­lance so the baby would die in the am­bu­lance and not in the camp, which might cause a riot. I saw the very young and fright­ened cou­ple and the sick baby. I boldly of­fered to take care of him, and the doctor had no choice but to agree. The par­ents were from Hun­gary and didn’t speak Yid­dish. Through the many vol­un­teer trans­la­tors I asked the young cou­ple to en­trust their son to my care. There wasn’t a minute to waste.

“At first they re­fused, but they gave in. There were no bot­tles. I could see he was de­hy­drated. I took him into a store­room and with a tea­spoon, I fed him drops of wa­ter. For two days and nights I gave him wa­ter. I washed him. I found him a car­ton for a baby bed. Three days later, he stopped throw­ing up. The baby house was noisy, but when peo­ple came near that room they whis­pered. Ev­ery­one knew some­thing holy was go­ing on. Two weeks later, I re­turned that baby to his mother. An­other cou­ple slipped a baby into my arms.”

Sev­eral months later, Nurse Fried was asked to sail with the 500 ba­bies and their par­ents in the famous “Ba­bies’ Ship” to Is­rael.

Par­ents car­ried ba­bies in tin wash­tubs, to­gether with their mea­ger pos­ses­sions. They handed their ba­bies to Fried in the trans­port truck be­fore climb­ing in them­selves. At the port, they trans­ferred to a dinghy, and again moved to a ship at sea.

“I had to go up and down the rope lad­der to carry the ba­bies up. Look­ing back, it didn’t oc­cur to me that I might fall. Six­teen hours later, we landed in Haifa. It was the Novem­ber 29, 1948 – the day the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly voted to al­low us to es­tab­lish a state. Ri­ots broke out, so I never got to go back to Cyprus. Soon we were at war and I be­came an Is­raeli army nurse.”

Af­ter the War of In­de­pen­dence, Fried worked for many years in pub­lic health nurs­ing, mar­ried and brought up her two chil­dren. She never for­got Cyprus.

And what hap­pened to that first baby she saved? Fried shrugs. She doesn’t even know his name.

Clearly some­thing is afoot. The crowd stirs rest­lessly. Among the or­ga­niz­ers of the event is a for­mer In­tel com­puter ex­pert, Amir Ro­gel, whose par­ents were both in­terned in Cyprus. Ro­gel’s fa­ther, a Holo­caust sur­vivor from Hun­gary, was the camp forger, pro­vid­ing papers for Palmah fight­ers who es­caped through the tun­nels to join forces in the War of In­de­pen­dence. Ro­gel in­her­ited his in­tu­ition. In­stead of pen and pa­per, he used his com­puter, de­vel­oped an al­go­rithm and cre­ated a Python code, an ad­vanced pro­gram­ming lan­guage, which was de­signed to search for the mys­te­ri­ous baby. At last, he found a prob­a­ble name: Meir Weiss. There were 30 per­sons named Meir Weiss listed in the Is­raeli phone book. Elim­i­nat­ing 29 was a long process.

A week be­fore the event, he found the man. Meir Weiss, now 71, is a fa­ther of three and the re­tired baker of Her­zliya’s “Con­di­to­ria Weiss,” famous for its cheese­cake, frosted rum cakes, and its Hanukkah donuts.

The odyssey that be­gan seven decades ago with a di­vine voice in her ear came to a happy end­ing this year on the eve of Novem­ber 29, when Meir Weiss wrapped petite nurse Mar­galit in his stocky baker’s arms. He, and the rest of us, wept like a baby that an au­da­cious young nurse had once brought him back to life.

Hanukkah sameah!

The baby house was noisy, but when peo­ple came near that room they whis­pered. Ev­ery­one knew some­thing holy was go­ing on


MAR­GALIT FRIED holds a denizen of the Baby House.

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