Archivist tracks down the 'lost babies' of Cyprus' Jewish refugee camps
The infants' parents had been on their way to Israel after World War II when the British seized their ships and sent them to Cyprus.
Yitzhak Teutsch, director of the American Joint Distribution Committee's archives in Jerusalem, is trying to document more than 2,000 babies born to Jewish refugees interned in Cypriot camps between 1946 and 1949.
The infants' parents had been on their way to Israel after World War II when the British seized their ships and sent them to Cyprus. Until now, around 65 years later, no comprehensive list of the children's names and other details has been found.
"My theory is that someone decided, for some reason, to throw that list away," says Teutsch. "Perhaps they thought it wasn't important, or maybe nobody knew the camps would be in operation for so long and consequently the relevant documentation wasn't saved."
The Joint's Jerusalem archives hold records of its activities to help Jews worldwide since its establishment at the beginning of the last century. But only a handful of portfolios relate to the Jews in Cyprus.
Two years ago, a Joint archivist cataloging the Joint's activities in Cyprus noticed there was no comprehensive list of babies born in the camps. Teutsch decided to research the matter, assuming he would find other papers in the archives to help him complete the list.
From 1946 to 1949, over a course of 30 months, some 53,000 Jews immigrating to Israel in 40 ships were deported to Cyprus and interned in 12 camps. Some 80 percent of them were between 13 and 25 years old and almost all had survived the Nazi extermination camps.
Teutsch found reports sent by the British military hospital in Cyprus to the Joint, listing the childbirths in the camps. "The British sent weekly lists of the births. We have about 20 such reports, consisting of about 600 names," he says.
Teutsch then had to widen his search for the remaining names. He first tried Britain's National Archives and its Imperial War Museum, but in vain. He asked for the British parliament's help and a parliamentary question is expected to be submitted soon, obliging the government to provide access to the information.
At this point, a librarian from the University of Southampton in England contacted Teutsch and said he had traced a birth ledger from the Cyprus camps, compiled by a local rabbi. The list consists of 400 names, some of them in Hebrew, with birth dates and the names of the father and mother. Most of the names did not appear on the lists Teutsch had already found.
Teutsch traced other important documents in the Atlit National Heritage Site, where an immigrant detention camp had been located, the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem and the International Tracing Service in Germany, operated under the administrative umbrella of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Only then did it occur to Teutsch to check the Israel State Archives, located a 10-minute drive away from the Joint's offices in Jerusalem. There he found 400 additional names, as well as British police reports.
"When the immigrants came to Israel they were considered illegal and the British police opened files on them [before deporting them]. It's amazing. You open them and see the pictures and fingerprints they took from them," he says. In some cases, the "identifying marks" section includes the numbers engraved on the Holocaust survivors' arms.
'Moved to tears'
So far Teutsch has contacted several dozens of the "Cyprus babies," today about 65 years old. He has met some of them personally. They were all excited and wanted to find their birth certificates, he says.
One of them, Zehavit Blumenfeld of Ramat Gan, found her own birth certificate a decade ago. Blumenfeld, who assists patients from Cyprus who come for medical treatments in Israel, met a Cypriot at Sheba Medical Center, in Tel Hashomer, who works in Cyprus' Interior Ministry. "He asked me why I was helping Cypriots, so I told him I was born there," she says.
The man invited Blumenfeld to visit the ministry in Cyprus, where she found her birth certificate. "It moved me to tears. It had all the details - the camp where I was born, details of my parents and my mother's maiden name," she says.
Blumenfeld's parents were born in Romania. The ship they had boarded was seized by the British on the way to Israel after World War II and they were taken to Cyprus on January 1, 1948. Four months later she was born in the British military hospital in Cyprus. After the State of Israel was established, the family immigrated to Israel.
"As a child I didn't want to hear that story, but today it burns in my bones," she says. "In old age, people's identity becomes very important to them and they start seeking it again."
Teutsch has exchanged emails with the Cyprus babies he has traced so far. He now has 1,700 names on his list, and is busy tracking down about 500 others. He believes most of them live in Israel, but that some are based in the United States and Europe.
He says the documents he has found describe a critical period in Israel's history, which nobody has bothered to check before. "These people are the only living connection we have to that period," he says. "The British soldiers are long gone, the fences were removed and the camps have disappeared. Only these people remain."