The Nizkor Project

50 Years of Silence

History and Voices
of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria

The International Aspects of Jewish Emigration
From and Through Transnistria
1938 - 1947

Following is an abstract of the thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Dr. Arie Steinberg, University of Haifa, Faculty of Humanities, Department of General History, 1948.

The emigration of refugees from the occupied territories, as well as from Germany proper, was met with reluctance and resistance by the countries of the free world. The fleeing refugees were generally considered undesirable immigrants.

Attempts to solve the refugee problem in general, and that of the Jews in particular, consisted of international conferences like that in Evian, in 1938. These efforts repeatedly failed, proving the world's inability to help the millions of people who became displaced during the war.

The only natural haven to which the Jews could immigrate was Palestine. The "Yishuv" - the established Jewish communities of Palestine - was willing to absorb the Jewish refugees. However, immigration to Palestine was severely impeded by the restrictions of the British mandate.

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and occupied Czechoslovakia at the beginning of 1939, Romanian Jewry set out to help the Jewish refugees fleeing to Romania from these countries. The refugees were hoping to use Romania as a transit-point from where they would continue on their way to Eretz Israel (Palestine).

After the outbreak of World War II, the argument arose in the free-world countries that Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany and its occupied territories could bring 'spies from the Reich'. This argument, combined with these countries' respective brand of anti-Semitism, impeded Jewish immigration to the free world. The rescue of the Jews from Nazi-occupied territories became a matter of urgency.

In order to achieve this goal, illegal "Aliyah" (emigration to Palestine either by sea or by land) was organised. This could only be accomplished through European countries and ports, from where there was a possibility to reach Palestine or sail towards its shores.

When fascist Italy allied itself with Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940, Romania became almost the only gateway through which it was possible to leave eastern and central Europe, where Jews lived in the shadow of the approaching extermination.

The Zionist movement in Romania became involved in arranging illegal immigration to Palestine. It was working hand-in-hand with the immigration organizations of the Jewish communities in Palestine -- the Yishuv. The Zionist movement in Romania was fervently involved in preparations for such emigration. It looked after the transportation of Jews along the Danube River to the Port of Constanta and the purchasing of ships on the Black Sea. It established contacts with the Jewish residents of neighbouring countries to help the emigrants by providing clothes, food, forged documents and transportation.

In order to fulfil the slogan "Romania for Romanians", meaning to cleanse the country of Jews, the Romanian government allowed some Jews to leave the country even before the start of the war. Many Romanian Jews aspired to make Aliyah, and applications had to be organized according to the legal quota for emigration that they were granted. Even after Romania joined the Axis against the U.S.S.R, in June 1941, the government continued to allow Jewish emigration, in spite of its own anti-Semitic persecutions. It also closed an eye to the passage of refugees from neighbouring countries, en route to Palestine. Even when the Romanian Government officially disbanded the Zionist movement in 1942, it chose to ignore the underground activities, which continued to aid Jewish refugees who came to Romania in transit to Palestine.

This attitude of the Romanians was due to a complex set of dynamics: their own doubts about the final victory of Nazi Germany in the war; international pressures to permit passage through Romania; internal pressure from opposition factions; tension between Romania and Germany caused by their military failure at the front lines; the high financial benefits deposited into the country's treasury and given to private individuals through enormous bribes; concern about Romania's political future after the war; and, last but not least, the lobbying of the Jewish leadership in Romania in support of the emigration to Palestine.

However, the difficulties encountered in the process of organizing illegal emigration from Romania must not be underestimated. It was extremely difficult to get approval for the passage of Jews through countries like Bulgaria and Turkey, as they were being pressured by Britain to prohibit such transit in order to stem illegal emigration to Palestine.

In spite of the complexities of these circumstances, the underground Zionist movement continued its efforts to save Jews. Thus, by establishing contacts with members of the "Mossad"<47>, passage to Palestine through Romania was organized for Jewish children from Hungary, orphans and other deportees from Transnistria, and refugees from Poland.

Enormous efforts were made in raising the necessary funds to rent and prepare the ships. There were feverish activities to provide assistance to those ready to emigrate. They consisted of distributing immigration certificates, selecting the candidates for Aliya, and making contacts with international Jewish and non-Jewish organizations such as the International Red Cross, the Committee for War Refugees, and the Joint.

Thirty ships left Romania between 1938 and the end of 1941. They transported 23,000 illegal and about 3,300 legal emigrants.

In the midst of these intense activities, bitter arguments and disagreements arose between the members of the Mossad and the leaders of the Zionist organization in Romania headed by A. L. Sisso. The arguments pertained to the overwhelming responsibility of sending illegal immigrants into mined seas, on board of un-seaworthy ships, on which people lived in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, and were under the constant threat of being torpedoed.

Other arguments pertained to the selection of candidates for Aliya; who should have priority Zionists, orphans, youths, refugees, or any person who was Jewish. There were also disagreements concerning the "go-betweens", the greedy ship agents who were at the disposal of "Lishka" - the office linking the immigration organization from Palestine with the Zionist federation in Istanbul.

Up to 1942, there were eight more ships carrying 245 immigrants that sailed towards Palestine. Between March and August 1944 another nine ships left with over 300 immigrants. In addition, there were 500 to 1,000 Jews who managed to reach Palestine by land.

Upon joining the Allied Forces, the new authorities in Romania continued to overlook the Aliya in spite of the objections of western countries, especially Britain. In March 1945, there was a Communist government established in Romania. Hoping to weaken British imperialism and to strengthen Soviet influence in the region, this government continued to allow Jewish emigration to Palestine. The ulterior motive behind that was that the Romanians had no interest in the return of the Jews from concentration camps, as they would try to reclaim their properties, which had been confiscated by Antonescu's authorities. (E. N.: There was also a secret arrangement between Romania and Israel by which the later would pay for every Jew who received a travel certificate to leave Romania. More details on this in the chapter: "Jewish Emigration and The Gentlemen's Agreement.")

As a result of poor economic conditions, growing anti-Semitism in Romania, and the awakening of national Zionist feelings among the Jews, applications for Aliya certificates increased. The applicants consisted of Romanian Jews as well as thousands of refugees who fled to Romania aided by Brikha<48> between 1944 and the middle of 1947.

Finally, by the end of 1944, efforts to organize the transportation of emigrants met with more success, and two ships carrying 1,505 people sailed from Romania. Between 1946 and 1947, five more ships left its ports with 21,000 illegal and 6,000 legal emigrants on board.

Between 1938 and 1947, over 60,000 Jews emigrated from, or passed through Romania on their way to Palestine.

However, not all the ships succeeded in reaching the shores of Eretz Israel. The Salvador, Patria, Struma, and Mefkure sank with many emigrants on board.

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