Holocaust Remembrance Day – known in Hebrew officially as Yom Hazikaron La’Shoah V’Lagevurah (Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and of Heroism) and more commonly as Yom HaShoah – is marked annually on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. This year, observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day begins the evening of Wednesday, April 15 and ends after sundown on Thursday, April 16.
WHAT HE DID ON HIS SUMMER VACATION, 1948
A Brooklyn boy runs guns and survivors to British-Mandate Palestine
By Cindy Mindell
Martin Silver was a high school kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. when the U.S. entered World War II. In January 1946, he enrolled in the New York State Maritime Academy in the Bronx, with plans to graduate as an ensign and licensed officer in the Merchant Marine. Just two years later, his plans would take a sudden and unexpected turn, as he played a role in getting Holocaust survivors to the besieged Jewish homeland.
Silver will tell his story on Sunday, April 19 at Temple Beth El in Danielson.
The story starts at the academy, where Silver befriended fellow cadet and Brooklynite Angelo, who asked what Silver’s plans were after graduation.
“I said, ‘I’m going to work in the American Merchant Marine as an officer and make a lot of money,’” Silver recalls. “Angelo’s answer to me was, ‘How can you do that when your people are shedding blood on the sands of Palestine?’ I gave him a quizzical look and that was the end of the discussion.”
But it wasn’t the end of the issue. Several months later, Silver was called into the office of his physics professor, Meir Degani. “He began by saying that this conversation was not to be discussed with any other cadet or instructor at the academy,” Silver says. “He tells me that he has lived a major part of his life in Palestine and that there are about 800,000 survivors of the Holocaust and that many of them are stuck in Displaced Person camps in the south of Europe because they’re afraid to go back to their original homes. This may have been in the media, there may have been stories on the back pages of the New York Times, but it all came as news to me.”
Degani told Silver about Aliyah Bet, the code name given to illegal immigration into the British Mandate of Palestine via small ships – “old and often unseaworthy ships,” Silver says, to carry the survivors from ports in southern Europe through the British naval blockade and into Haifa. Most of the attempts failed, with survivors ending up in British-run DP camps in Cyprus.
“Then Degani comes to the main point,” Silver recalls. “People from the Haganah [the Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine] have sent representatives to the United States to do three things: raise money, usually from wealthy American Jews; buy ships, guns and ammunition; and the hardest thing of the three – find crews to man and sail these ships across the Atlantic to southern Europe and be used in Aliyah Bet. Dr. Degani said, ‘I invite you to participate. When you graduate, you’ll be a trained marine engineer, so you have the background to be an officer on one of these ships.’ I was the only one of the few Jewish cadets to say yes.”
What inspired Silver? “I don’t know the full answer to why I said yes, except maybe it was a sense of responsibility to peoplehood,” he says. “I was proud being Jewish as a Jewish cadet among [fellow] 18- and 19-year-olds, some of whom had never met or seen a Jew before they came to the academy and met someone like me. I felt I wanted to stand up for my people.”
So began Silver’s illicit affair with the USS Mayflower, a yacht built in 1895 for presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and their esteemed guests. By the end of World War I, the luxury vessel was a rusted hulk in the Hudson River, waiting to be dismantled for scrap. When the Haganah had scraped together enough money, the boat was towed to a Brooklyn shipyard and renamed the SS Mala. There, it was festooned with the Ecuadorian flag to dodge suspicion, stocked with supplies and weapons, and eventually restored to seaworthy condition by volunteers like Silver. Every Friday afternoon, the cadet would make his way to the shipyard, picking up instructions along the way from anonymous voices on the other end of a payphone. He told no one about his weekend whereabouts, except his mother, who was sworn to secrecy.
And it was his mother who ended up as the inadvertent archivist of the Mala’s journey. In June 1948, Silver and his fellow crewmembers sailed the yacht (not uneventfully) from Brooklyn to Marseille, where the hold was reconfigured from a 36-person capacity to accommodate 1,400 survivors and a hidden shipment of weapons for the fledgling Israeli army. From there, Silver and the Mala made two runs to the port of Haifa.
“I wrote letters to my mother, mailed from southern Europe, saying, ‘Mama, don’t worry, everything is OK,’” he recalls. “I enclosed pictures to prove it.”
Those photographs, now in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., provide the visuals for Silver’s talk: Sunday, April 19, 1 p.m., Temple Beth Israel, 19 Killingly Drive, Danielson. Reservations are required: visit www.templebethisraelct.info or email (860) 779-0349.