The Saga of Syrian Youth Aliyah

Some 1,300 Jewish children from Syria were secretly brought to Palestine from 1945 to 1946. One of them vividly recalls the man who was the driving force of the operation, Menachem Lozia.

Freda Ashkenazi remembers every detail of that day despite the fact that she was only ten years old at the time. "It was mid-May. My mother called me and started to pack clothes in a leather suitcase. She packed a red dress with green dots, a shirt and underwear. Then she had me put on a nice dress. I wore long socks and new red sandals. I remember those sandals until today."

Freda is recalling the final day in the home of her parents, Nazira and Avraham Jamal, in Halab, Syria. Her father worked in a textile factory owned by a Jewish businessman named Nassar, and the standard of living in their home of 11 children was high. "We had a housekeeper, someone who brought goods from the market, and someone who did our laundry," she recalls.

Menachem Lozia

"I was convinced that we were going out on a trip. My father took me and a brother, Yitzhak, who was 14, and we traveled by train to Beirut. My father didn't tell us what the trip was about, and we didn't ask. We had respect for our father, and when he chose not to speak, we wouldn't ask questions."

In Beirut, the three of us went to the city's largest synagogue. "Our father sat down with us until the evening, and then some youth leaders from Eretz Israel, who spoke Arabic, arrived. They told us that we would soon climb aboard a big truck, and from this point on we couldn't talk."

That was the beginning of Freda Jamal's journey to the land of Israel. Thousands of other children from Syria and Lebanon would embark on a similar journey during this period around 1945-1946. Eventually, Freda Jamal would set up a home in Israel and give birth to four children, one of whom, Gabi Ashkenazi, became the country's 19th IDF Chief of Staff.

Silent journey

Freda and Yitzhak climbed into a Dodge truck used by the British army, which was driven by Jews from the Yishuv in Eretz Israel. Freda recalls that other children, from Damascus and Halab, were huddled in the truck. "Around midnight, our father said good-bye to us, as though we would meet the next day, and the truck started to move. It was completely quiet. Nobody spoke and I was in shock; I didn't understand what was happening to me," she recalls. After a journey of about an hour, the group reached the Banias River.

"The water flowed very weakly, and we had to walk on stones along its banks. When I lifted up a leg, one of the sandals fell in; I was barefoot, on one foot, from that moment on. When we reached the border, we got into a truck, and were taken to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. I remember a tent with iron beds, scratchy blankets and dogs barking. I was scared, but I didn't cry. When dawn came, we were given black bread with margarine and jam, and a cup of scalding tea, which was completely unlike our tea at home," she says.

Freda Jamal, later Ashkenazi, is one of 1,300 Jewish youths from Syria who immigrated illegally to Israel in 1945-1946, in an operation called "the 1000 Aliyah." This ha'apalah immigration was organized by Palmach partisans and Zionist youth movement emissaries, with the help of Syrian Jews who were already in the Yishuv.

Another youngster who immigrated to Israel via this effort was Yehuda Danguri, later an IDF Lieutenant Colonel in intelligence. During his IDF service, Danguri took part in dangerous missions and underwent difficult experiences. But it is when he recalls the day he left his parents, Yosef and Ora, before his immigration to Eretz Israel, that his voice chokes with emotion. He was six years old.

"Fridays we'd have a bath," he recalls. "But that day I felt something different when my mother prepared the bath for me. I didn't understand why she was so emotional and why she made a special meal. When I got into the bath, my mother started to cry, and her tears mixed into the water." His brother Moshe, 10, joined him that night on his trip to Israel.

Danguri was born in the "Bottles Square," in Damascus' Jewish quarter, and grew up in a warm, loving home. His parents sent him to the "Alliance" elementary school in the city, and in the evenings he attended a Talmud Torah school, where he learned about Judaism and studied Hebrew. The Hebrew he learned at this religious school turned out to be an impediment when he arrived on kibbutz using formal phrases, such as "removing your hat."

Danguri was also dazed by the pace of his departure, and could not really fathom what was happening to him. "My father told my brother and me that we were going on a trip," he recalls. They, too, were told to keep quiet; Danguri violated this order around the border, so Palmach men taped his mouth shut.

Lozia was the prime mover

Yehoshua Lavi, another one of the children in this youth immigration operation, recalls that "Menachem Lozia was the prime mover of the secret immigration effort, and the absorption of new immigrants from Damascus, including children, in communal settlements of the Labor movement." Lozia (the grandfather of this writer ) compiled a notebook detailing each child who arrived in the country through the illegal immigration operation.

Each child received a line entry in the notebook that recorded his or her name, the father's name, the date of aliyah and the communal settlement to which the young immigrant was sent. Sometimes there was an explanatory comment, "fell ill," "returned to his parents," "moved to another kibbutz."

During World War One a group of "esteemed leaders," as Lozia described them, reached Damascus, after being deported to the city by the Turks. Lozia called them "the three lights of Damascus": the writer Yehuda Burla, Prof. Joseph-Joel Rivlin and the teacher Bezalel Basrawi.

Many young Damascus Jews were drafted into the Turkish army, and the streets were strewn with signs of poverty. The arrival of these three intellectuals, who established schools for boys and girls in the city, boosted the community's educational and cultural life. It also enhanced Zionist consciousness in the Jewish community; a branch of the Hehalutz youth movement was opened in Damascus, and Zionist leaders such as Berl Katznelson visited this branch, and helped cultivate links between it and Zionist institutions in Eretz Israel.

Lozia (who was born in Syria in 1910 ) and his wife immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1932, and eventually joined Kibbutz Afikim. By the mid thirties, a flourishing period for immigration from Syria, Hehalutz and various activists assisted in the departure of 1,500 Jews out of a total population of 6,000, according to Dr. Aryeh Cohen, who has researched the overland clandestine immigration of Jews from Syria and Lebanon during 1939-1949. In this period, Yishuv institutions did not help Syrian Jewry's immigration effort.

A change of attitude

Cohen explains that during World War II, the Yishuv's attitude changed, and it sent emissaries to help with the Syrian Jewish clandestine immigration. The Mossad L'Aliyah Beth, which was responsible for illegal immigration, began to take charge of the departure of Syrian and Lebanese Jews. At one stage, underground cells comprised of Jews who served in the British army became active, as part of British preparations for an expected German attack from the north.

Lozia implored Youth Aliyah director Henrietta Szold to arrange the absorption of Syrian Jewish youths. He brought the veteran Hadassah Zionist leader to meet some young people who had already settled at Afikim. In parallel, Palmach emissaries in Syria started to pressure Youth Aliyah to include Syrian Jewish youngsters in its absorption and settlement programs.

Between 1945-1946, 1,300 youths immigrated to Palestine, most of them on military trucks driven by Jewish soldiers from the Yishuv. Sometimes the cover story was that the trucks were supposedly being used for pleasure excursions by the soldiers; several times British soldiers stopped the vehicles before they passed through Rosh Pina, and brought the children to detention camps in Safed. Lavi recalls that he and friends were held in detention for two weeks; they were interrogated, but refused to provide names and information about their handlers.

Menachem Lozia would meet the children on the Israeli side of the border, jot down their details in his notebook, and help settle them among 61 kibbutzim and 21 moshavim. For years, Lozia would keep track of the youngsters' progress in Israel, and try to help them. Many stayed in contact with him for years.

Tragedy at sea

When Lozia passed away in 1997, two names were missing from his notebook: Eli and Regina Lozia, children of his brother Nissim, who drowned at sea in 1949, together with Menachem's mother, on a journey from Lebanon to the Israeli coast. Six others drowned with them. Lozia was on an Israeli beach with his brother David, waiting for a boat that never arrived.

"Lozia's great contribution was persuading Henrietta Szold to cooperate, and his knack for finding kibbutzim and moshavim for the children, so that they received food, clothing and schooling," Lavi says. "He also stayed in contact with the emissaries in Syria, with the Yishuv institutions, and with Palmach men who smuggled the children into the country. For us, Jews of Syria, this was our Exodus from Egypt. Later on I realized that I was part of a great operation."

Alienated and homesick

Small children who left their parents behind frequently encountered a tough reality. Freda Ashkenazi recalls "being constantly homesick. I used to sit under a tree in the schoolyard, and wonder about what was going on at home in Halab. Bulgarian Jews on the moshav would call me, behind my back, in Ladino, the 'Arab girl,' but I understood everything they were saying. There was alienation and embarrassment about [my] origins. One day an emissary from Damascus reached my brother, Yaakov, who was living in Tel Aviv, and brought a present from my parents for my Bat Mitzvah. There were sweets in a round wooden container, together with a clock and a dress. For the first time in two years, I released the pain, and burst into tears. I said that I would return to Halab with the emissary, but he wouldn't take me."

Danguri, who was sent to Kibbutz Ein Shemer, recalls having similar feelings and experiences. "Dealing with the loneliness and isolation, I would sit and wait for my father to come," he recalls. When kids on the kibbutz played war games, he would always choose to play the role of a leader of an Arab gang. Eventually Danguri proved his mettle, and a youth leader tapped him on the shoulder and made clear to the others that he was "the most courageous youth in the group;" he became a leader of the kibbutz youths.

'The land of Israel is like heaven'

Danguri admits that he was left with "a spiritual scar, stemming from the loss of my childhood, and the departure from my family home. Up until I enlisted in the army, I felt as though something had been taken away from me. Later I met children who survived the Holocaust in Europe, and I realized I had no cause for complaint." His parents subsequently told him that they shipped him away after an Aliyah emissary promised that "the land of Israel is like heaven."

Fourteen years passed before Ashkenazi (nee Jamal ) met her parents again, after they managed to escape from Syria. Her parents also had a hard time adjusting to life in the country. Avraham Jamal, the well-to-do merchant, fled Syria without property, and became a laborer in Kiryat Gat, and later a post officer worker. Yosef Danguri, Yehuda's father, whose family in Damascus owned a metals factory, worked as a laborer in a harbor.

Lavi recalls that "for years Menachem Lozia kept contact with me and other children. After Syria closed its gates of departure, he continued to fight for the rescue of Syrian Jewry. If you ask me who shaped my life, other than my parents, I would answer 'Menachem'; if you were to ask me about my first memory in Eretz Israel, I would give the same answer; so, too would I give the same answer were you to ask 'what, in your eyes, symbolizes the State of Israel?'"