Atlit is a town on the Mediterranean, twelve miles south of Haifa. Due to its natural large bay-second only to Haifa-the site was inhabited as early as the Canaanite and Israelite period. Later it was a Phoenician port and functioned as a port during the Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.
The Crusaders built a large castle at Atlit to protect the pilgrims’ road along the coast from Acre to Jerusalem. Atlit was the last remaining Crusader outpost in the Holy Land and after the Crusaders retreated in 1291 A.D., it was partially destroyed. The fortress was repaired and held by the Mamlukes. During Napoleon’s failed expedition to conquer Acre in 1799, Atlit served as a French navy port. During the 19th century, the fort was heavily damaged by an earthquake, and many of its stones were looted and reused by the Turks in other cities.
The modern town of Atlit was founded in 1903, under the auspices of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
As the 1930s drew to a close, the British, seeking to enforce the provisions of the various White Papers which severely limited Jewish immigration, built a detainment camp in Atlit to house refugees from Europe who attempted to violate their blockade of Palestine. The Atlit camp was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. When they entered the camp, the detainees were sprayed with DDT, then told to undress and enter the showers. Men were sent to one side, women to the other. Some of those interned remained as long as 23 months. From 1939 until 1948, the jailed immigrants were housed in eighty rectangular wooden huts, each containing 40 bunks.
When World War II came to an end, the Jews who survived the Holocaust had few options. The Zionists among them, as well as thousands of European Jews, who were rendered stateless, headed to Palestine defying the British blockade. These Jews were called Ma’apilim and their movement Ha’apala, meaning “ascending.” Many of the Ma’apilim came to Palestine on barely navigable ships that were often rammed, run aground and chased into stormy seas by the British. While the Haganah, Israel’s fledgling military force, was able to rescue many passengers, others were caught by the British and sent to Atlit.
There were horrific similarities between the Nazi concentration camps and Atlit Detention camp. For Holocaust survivors the showers, the disinfection process, the long barracks lined with cots, and the barbed wire were appalling reminders of what they had so recently experienced. Still, for the Ma’apilim even a detention camp in the land of Israel was a symbol of life and future in a Jewish state.
On October 10, 1945, the Haganah Special Forces unit Palmach broke into the camp and freed 200 detainees. Yitzchak Rabin planned the raid and Nachum Sarig commanded it. After this, the British began deporting Jewish illegal immigrants to internment camps in Cyprus which operated from 1946 until the establishment of the State of Israel.
My mother, Rachel Katz, was a member of the Hashomer Ha’tzair’s Zionist youth movement in Europe. From the age of 19 to 23 she worked in Nazi labor camps. At her release by the Russian army, she weighed 40 kilograms (85 Lbs) and was alone in the world.
Fluent in Polish, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, she obtained a job with one of the rescue and information centers in Poland established by the Jewish Agency. At the Center she met her future husband, my father, who had lived in Israel since 1942 and was a soldier in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade stationed in Belgium. He came to Poland seeking family survivors. He found none. But my dad found my mother.
In June 1946, my mother embarked on the ship “Biria” from Marseilles, heading for Palestine. The conditions aboard the ship were atrocious. The vessel began to keel over and transmitted S.O.S signals. The British answered the call and accompanied the vessel but would not give the Ma’apilim water or food, nor would they tow the ship into Haifa port. On July 1st Biria finally arrived at Haifa, where her passengers were arrested by the British. The Jewish Agency negotiated with the British who agreed to move the Ma’apilim to Atlit (rather than Cyprus). There my mother was detained until she was released to join her future husband, my dad. I was born in 1947, Israel was born in 1948 and the rest is part and parcel of modern Israel history, being written as I write.
After independence, Atlit became a transit center for immigrants, but stopped functioning within two years. It was eventually dismantled leaving only two of the original buildings. In 1987 Atlit was declared a National Heritage Site. Today the town’s population is 5,300 and the Atlit Detainee Camp is now a museum of the history of Ha’apala and a base for Israel’s Naval Command.