The Captain Who Broke the British Blockade

David Maimon, who grew up in Tel Aviv, fell in the love with the sea and eventually found a way to smuggle illegal immigrants into Palestine

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The illegal immigrant ship Shabtay Luzinsky.
The illegal immigrant ship Shabtay Luzinsky.Credit: Wikipedia

David Maimon’s original surname reflects his profession: Wasserman – a German name meaning “water man.” The family changed it to Maimon when he was a child, to include the Hebrew word for water, mayim, and commemorate Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, the Rambam.

David Maimon during his time at Kibbutz Sedot Yam.Credit: Wikipedia

Water would play a central role in his life. Maiman worked at the Tel Aviv Port before World War II erupted, served in the Palyam (the “navy” of the Palmach forces that predated the Israeli army) and in the Israeli Navy. He also served as a captain in civilian life. He died in August at the age of 95.

Born in 1922 in Tel Aviv, he was the eldest son of Sara and Yakov Wasserman, who came to Israel from Kamenets-Podilsky, Ukraine. The family lived in a wooden cabin on a sandstone hill in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Makhlul. He remembered oil lamps, carriages and a single water tap serving the whole neighborhood.

David Maimon.Credit: Courtesy of the family

It was when the family moved to the neighborhood of Hapoalim Gimel, today the site of the Metzitzim Beach, that he began his relationship with the sea. He learned rowing and seamanship from the people smuggling Jews into Israel, including Katriel Yaffe, who would later become the captain of the 23 Yordei Hasira, whose boat would be lost at sea in 1941; and Shmuel Tankus, who would command the Israeli Navy. He admired the sailors anchored near his home bringing immigrants to Israel.

Later, with the Hashomer Hatsair movement, he was sent to Kibbutz Merhavia, but yearning for the sea brought him back to the shore. In his memoirs, he recalls how the whistle of the Jordan Valley train passing by the kibbutz each morning reminded him of ships blowing their horns in the port.

His next port of call was Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where he worked as a fisherman.

He joined Palyam in 1946 and later commanded three ships bringing in immigrants. The first, the Shabtay Luzinsky (originaly named the “Suzanna”) sailed in March 1947 from Italy, with 660 people on board. In Turkey it added 173 more, from another ship and some days later, broke through the British barricade and anchored at Nitzanim. Some of the immigrants managed to make it to shore; others were arrested by the British and expelled to Cyprus.

In July he commanded the Shivat Zion, which sailed from France, picked up more people in Algiers and docked in Haifa – from where they were all, including Maimon, deported by the British to Cyprus.

The last immigrants’ ship he commanded was called the United Nations. It sailed from Italy in late December with 537 immigrants on board. Maimon got them safely to Nahariya, taking advantage of the British relaxing vigilance for Christmas.

With the establishment of the Israeli navy, he transported supplies, food, and weapons to besieged Nahariya. Later he was appointed captain of the Hatikvah and Haganah battleships. A team under his command also towed the Altalena from the beach in front of Tel Aviv and scuttled it in the middle of the sea, “so that it would not become a pilgrimage site for Etzel members.”

Later he would be named head of Navy ops. He was demobilized in 1953 with the rank of colonel.

In the decades to come, he worked as sea captain with the kibbutz shipping company and Zim, and ran the marine officers’ school in Acre. He lived at Kibbutz Ein Harod. His wife, Drora, died 20 years ago and his eldest daughter recently died as well. He is survived by two sons, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.