Wikipedia Finds Mysterious Typo That Created a Clandestine Jewish Immigrant Ship

A tiny decades-old typographical error that snowballed into a historical inaccuracy is discovered by a Wikipedia editor.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A tiny typographical error from 74 years ago made it into the history books, creating out of thin air a clandestine Jewish immigrant ship with 699 passengers that never existed. That, at least, is the claim of the Israeli editors of the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia Wikipedia. A lively discussion among the editors over the past month ended recently in a bit of real and rare drama: the deletion of an entry.

“The tiny error of a [Hebrew letter] heh instead of a reish grew and grew until becoming, in dozens of publications, an entire ship carrying 699 passengers − simply shocking,” wrote Wikipedia editor 158a, who was credited with the discovery.

It all began back in March 1939. The illegal immigrant ship Astir, which was organized by the Betar youth movement, anchored at the port of Reni, in Romania. Of the 724 immigrants who boarded around 470 were from Danzig, 250 were from Romania and the remainder were refugees from Austria and from Germany. On March 6, in highly crowded conditions and with many quarrels onboard the ship weighed anchor and began a long and eventful journey to Mandatory Palestine.

Ten days later the Astir reached the shores of Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv, but was forced to turn back. After approaching the shore again the ship was stopped by the British coast guard on April 2, one day before Passover, and brought to the port of Haifa. A few ill passengers were taken off.

Four days later the ship and its passengers was sent back out to sea. It reached Greece, where it sailed along the coast before finally setting out from the port of Piraeus on June 13. On June 28 the Astir approached the Ashkelon shore. After immigrants came ashore, in a sailboat and other small boats, they were arrested by the British police and taken to detention camps in Bat Galim and in Tzrifin before being released a few days later.

The Astir’s crew members were tried and given prison sentences. “Shake yourselves, for today you are born!” ran the headline of the Davar Hebrew daily reporting the arrival of some of the ship’s passengers to Tel Aviv in early July.

The Astir became part of the history of the clandestine immigration enterprise, and appears under its rightful name in the academic literature. But somehow the name Astia, crept into the records as that of a separate, additional immigrant ship. As early as April 1939, in newspaper reports of the Astir’s anchoring in Haifa, the name appeared as Astia − the difference of two similarly shaped Hebrew letters. In subsequent reports of the ship’s landing at Ashkelon, also known then as al-Majdal, it appeared under its rightful name, the Astir.

This period was the genesis of a confusion that is only being cleared up now. “Later lists and tables that were composed in summary of the clandestine immigrant ship enterprise and published over the years were arranged in chronological order of the ships’ arrival in Eretz Yisrael. In many lists the Astir appears twice − once when it anchored in Haifa, in April, as the Astia, and [again] when it discharged its passengers off the coast of Majdal, in June, under the name Astir,” the page editors wrote by way of explanation in the newly updated entry for the Astir.

Over time these lists were also copied into official documents and publications such as the atlas of Haganah history and the website of the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, in Haifa, which still refer to the Astir and the Astia as two separate ships.

And so, on account of a typographical error the Astia was born. Over time a historical story also accreted to it, presumably in all innocence as a result of the long-running confusion, that was remarkably similar to that of the Astir.

How did Wikipedia discover the mistake? Wiki editor 158a’s research was serious and thorough, and included an examination of newspapers from the time, as well as British government documents and other sources. He relied heavily on The Historical Jewish Press, a joint project of Tel Aviv University and the National Library of Israel’s Digital Library,  which lets users browse and search newspapers from the period that were not previously easily accessible.

“The logical conclusion: That chupchik [colloquial Hebrew for any tiny object] got into a list by mistake, and Astia is an official fiction,” editor 158a wrote in his summation of the discussion among Hebrew Wikipedia editors of the subject. The chupchik, in this instance, is the tiny line that can turn a heh into a reish, or Astir into Astia.

A ship carrying Jews to pre-state Israel in 1948.Credit: GPO
Credit: Wikipedia

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