“The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom after the Holocaust” by Rosie Whitehouse, Hurst Publishers, 416 pages, $25
Some historical stories don’t require sensational revelations or even controversial theses – only someone who knows how to listen and how to write proficiently. Rosie Whitehouse knows.
In Israel it’s often enough to ask someone, “Where are you from?” in order to elicit fascinating life stories, which, when woven together, comprise the great historical saga of the state. But frequently we are indifferent to such stories and they go by unheeded: Biographical drama is here considered part of our regular routine. Many stories have also lost their vitality because they were processed into mythological kitsch.
But then along comes Whitehouse and discovers “the people on the beach,” as she titles her new book, whom she approaches, as it were, with a seemingly random question, “Excuse me, where are you from?” And they tell her their life stories. Whitehouse hears it all for the first time. The result is a book that leaves one with a feeling of a big “Wow!” and has the aura of a detective story.
It started on the Italian Riviera. Whitehouse, a British journalist who calls herself a “road-trip historian,” knows the region well. She has published a number of guidebooks, including one about Liguria, on the northwest Italian coast. There’s a town there called Vado, with a population of about 8,000. The first edition of Whitehouse’s guidebook about the region made no mention of Vado, apparently with good reason. It’s nice, but there’s no special reason to linger there.
But while working on an updated edition, she came across an old press clipping that reported that a ship called the Wedgwood had sailed from Vado with Jewish passengers. Her husband being Jewish and a journalist, she thought he would know something about it, but he’d never head of the Wedgwood. The item surprised and intrigued her, not least because her father had represented Italian shipyards and the family was fond of vacationing on this particular coast. Whitehouse traveled to Vado to check out the story.
Most of the people she met on the beach just shrugged their shoulders when she asked them if they’d heard of the Wedgwood, but finally she met an 84-year-old man who was delighted to help. He remembered the Jews. It was in 1946 and they had left in two ships, one white and another whose color he couldn’t remember. It all happened very fast, he recalled: The Jews arrived and boarded the ships, which set sail without delay. It was a communist region and times were tough. “We traded salt and olive oil to get flour from the north,” the man told Whitehouse. He also remembered the presence of carabinieri, but when the police officers saw that those embarking on the ships were Jewish refugees, and not fascist criminals on the run, they left.
That is also more or less also the account that appears in the third volume of historian Yoav Gelber’s monumental history of Jewish volunteers from Palestine who operated among the Holocaust survivors in Europe. The ship was a corvette built in Canada, one of two ships carrying Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust that were dispatched from Vado at the time by the Mossad le’Aliyah Bet, a branch of the Haganah underground – the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews – which brought in illegal immigrants. On the high seas the Wedgwood was spotted by a British reconnaissance plane. Two destroyers escorted the ship to Haifa Bay; its passengers were incarcerated in the Atlit detention camp, on the coast south of Haifa.
The heroes of the story according to Wikipedia are those who carried out the operation and also “the people of the Zionist movement and the Yishuv” – a reference to the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. The commander is mentioned by name, as is the captain. They did all they could to evade the British. After the ship docked in Haifa there was talk of scuttling it, though in the end the ship was inducted into service with the Israel Navy.
The refugees who arrived on it remained nameless, categorized only by the generic term “illegal immigrants.” A privately run internet site dealing with Palyam, the naval unit of the Palmach, a division of the Haganah, does list the names of some 10 individuals who escorted the refugees on the Wedgwood; the memory of the commander and one of the American volunteers aboard are perpetuated in photographs. The administrator of the website requests that users not ask for specific information about any of the individual illegal immigrants: “The many requests we receive on this subject (which ship a person arrived on, the list of illegal immigrants on a particular voyage, etc.) are burdensome for us.”
Whitehouse set out to find them herself. She located 1,257 names in the Atlit archive. Her quest is no less important to her than the people themselves. She takes the readers with her, shares with them every twist and turn of her investigation, down to describing the hotels she stayed at. Occasionally the narrative morphs into a detective story. Usually she begins with an individual’s hometown: Rovno (today, Rivne) in Ukraine, Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania, Bucharest in Romania, Warsaw in Poland. This is a biographical decision with a message: namely, that the people she is searching for don’t interest her only as “illegal immigrants” and not even only as Jews, They interest her above all as human beings stricken by fate. They reached the Vado coast from Auschwitz, from Dachau and from other German camps.
She found most of them in Israel, in their 80s and 90s. Time and again she asks them why they decided to settle here. It’s ostensibly a subversive question, almost “post-Zionist.” Most Holocaust survivors indeed chose not to settle in Israel; they returned to their countries of origin or immigrated to other lands. Thus, the flight from Europe on illegal immigrant ships was not a self-evident choice.
This is the problem with the story of the Holocaust as it fades into history. It is so unfathomable that it can easily be disbelieved.Rosie Whitehouse
Richard Crossman, a member of the Anglo-American commission that visited the DP camps, noted in his memoir that the choice facing the displaced persons in question was between Palestine and returning to Eastern Europe, with its ruined economy, communist rule and rampant antisemitism. They weren’t offered a choice between Palestine and the United States, for example.
In this context, Whitehouse tells the story of an American army chaplain who was active among the DPs in the Dachau camp. His name was Abraham Judah Klausner, and he deserves a biography of his own. Wikipedia entries in English, German and also Arabic describe him as a father figure who was revered by the DPs. Wikipedia in Hebrew ignores him. After the war he served as a Reform rabbi in New York.
Some of Whitehouse’s interviewees told her that even before the war they viewed themselves as Zionists and planned to live in Palestine. Some discovered the Zionist option due to the powerful impact of the Holocaust; others arrived because they had no other choice. One survivor told her that upon being liberated he succeeded, with great effort, in returning to Warsaw. He went to his house and found Poles living there, who threw him out. He then learned that his parents had been murdered and that was his family’s sole survivor. At that point he decided to flee to one of Italy’s coasts. There were many like him.
Whitehouse links her interviewees’ fate to the debate over the Poles’ attitude toward the Holocaust. She suggests, rightly, that the question be considered also in light of the postwar antisemitism that flared up in Poland. But she also met a Jewish woman of 94 who told her why she remained in Poland: She was a communist and so was the fellow she fell in love with.
Some of the refugees from the Wedgwood did not remain in Israel. Their stories give rise to a question with no answer: What was the right decision? Judgment can be passed according to Zionist ideology, or one can focus on the question of where a person had a greater chance to find personal happiness. One of the passengers whom Whitehouse met found his in New York. But by the time she completed her book, he had been killed there in a road accident.
Whitehouse does not say who was right. Israel comes across in the book as an acceptable alternative, albeit not inevitable. Some of her interviewees forged a good life in Israel. Many also told her about their integration difficulties here – they were generally not welcomed fondly. Frequently people wanted them to explain why they didn’t rebel against the Germans and asked with suspicion how they survived. They were viewed as “human dust,” they said.
Documentation interviews with Holocaust survivors require high professional acumen. The use of such interviews for research purposes demands great caution. In addition, it’s necessary to know who the survivors were and who interviewed them, when they met, under what circumstances and for what reasons. Information is needed about the interviewees’ age and about their pre-Holocaust life, what they underwent afterward, their mental state and the power of their memory at the time the interview was conducted. Additionally, it’s necessary to know what training the interviewers had for the mission, the language in which they spoke to the interviewees, whether they wrote down what they said in the language in which they heard it, the duration of the interview, who was present and so forth.
The heart’s tendency is to believe the survivors – what they say is usually termed “testimony.” At the same time, it can’t be ruled out that a story told to an interviewer from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem in the 1960s will sound different when related before the camera of Steven Spielberg’s foundation three decades later, or when told to a British journalist in the past few years.
Skilled interviewers will be careful to avoid informing interviewees about mistakes and imprecisions they find in their stories. That’s the decent approach, and generally also the most effective one; excessive meticulousness by an interviewer is liable to spur an interviewee to escape into silence. But if left uncorrected, historical errors are liable to have an impact on the truth of all the testimony given.
One interviewee told Whitehouse that in March 1945 he was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Germany. He remembered being in line for the gas chamber, he even remembered the smell of scorched flesh that emanated from the nearby crematoria. At the last minute he was wrenched out of the line and sent to do labor, he related. However, that could not have happened anywhere in March 1945. Possibly it’s only a typo, but Holocaust deniers pounce on details like that.
“This is the problem with the story of the Holocaust as it fades into history. It is so unfathomable that it can easily be disbelieved,” Whitehouse writes. As it sinks into the recesses of history, it is liable to arouse disbelief. She is aware that Leon Uris already used stories like these before her. It’s clearly important for her not to have written another “Exodus.” None of her interviewees is the star of its film version, Paul Newman. She made an effort to visit them in their homes, met with their relatives, listened to them inquisitively and empathically. It wasn’t important for her that they burst into tears.
Whitehouse’s book radiates human understanding, warmth and above all restraint. She understood what many fail to grasp: The story of the Holocaust survivors needs no embellishment.