This year marks the 70th anniversary since the Cyprus internment camps for Jews opened their barbed wire gates. One Cypriot historian wants to know more
By Nathan Morley
A HISTORY scholar is searching for anyone in Cyprus who has memories of the Jewish internment camps from the 1940s.
Eliana Hadjisavvas, a final year Ph.D. candidate in Modern History at the UK’s University of Birmingham and Library of Congress Kluge Centre fellow, has spent years researching Jewish displaced persons at the end of the Second World War, with a specific focus on the Cypriot camps.
The camps – in Xylotymbou, east of Larnaca, and Famagusta in the north – were commissioned by the British to detain thousands of Jews who were caught attempting to enter Palestine after fleeing war-ruined Europe.
This year marks the 70th anniversary since the camps opened.
“Oral history testimonies have provided a vital source of information in helping to assist my construction of the Cyprus narrative,” Hadjisavvas told the Sunday Mail.
“I am currently looking to interview people who have memories from this period, either first hand accounts or those passed down from relatives.”
Inhabitants of the camps were held after strict immigration quotas for Jews allowed to settle in Palestine were imposed by the British government.
The story of their plight was captured in the 1960 Hollywood epic Exodus, which was filmed in Cyprus and starred Paul Newman.
“In 1946, Britain implemented a policy which saw visa-less Jewish refugees attempting to enter the British Mandate of Palestine, denied entry and detained in camps in the towns of Xylotymbou and Caraolos,” Hadjisavvas added.
Palestine had been administered by the British mandatory government since 1917 and it was keen to protect its interests in the Middle East by restricting mass Jewish immigration
All kinds of boats were used for the illegal immigration, most of them highly over-crowded and in frail unsafe condition.
“Previous studies on the camps have been limited, often relegating the Cyprus story to footnotes within wider texts on the post-Holocaust period or national narratives of Israel and Cyprus. My research seeks to fill this void, by analysing the history of the camps and broad range of themes it speaks to, from Anglo-American relations to post-war relief and immigration.”
There has been growing interest in the story of the Jewish internees in Cyprus, with Hadjisavvas delivering a presentation to an audience at the embassy of Cyprus in Washington last month and contributing items to Time Magazine on the subject.
In 2014 a ‘Garden of Peace’ to commemorate the plight of thousands of refugees was opened by President Nicos Anastasiades. The event was organised by the Embassy of Israel and the Xylotymbou community council.
Most of those in the camps had witnessed first-hand the horror of the Holocaust and were again held behind barbed wire. In all 39 ships trying to reach the Holy Land were intercepted and diverted to Famagusta port.
Hadjisavvas said life in Cyprus was tough for the internees, with a lack of food and water, coupled with boredom from ongoing detention.
Food was mostly tinned, with inmates complaining of always feeling hungry because of the low quality of provisions and primitive cooking conditions.
During their four years of existence over 52,000 people were forced into the camps and nearly 2,000 babies were born in them. The facilities were constructed by over 1,000 German prisoners of war who were captured in North Africa.
The fact that Germans prisoners had been brought in to build some of the detention camps seems unthinkable. Even worse was the fact that their design was modelled on German concentration camps.
In a 2011 Cyprus Mail interview, the late Jimmy Malian, spoke of how he was employed at the Xylotymbou camp and made a protest to the British about German soldiers.
“They told me to mind my own bloody business when I objected,” he recalled.
“Whilst the Germans were building the camp, the Jews were arriving to see another concentration camp. It was the biggest blunder the British could have made.”
“On the first day the Jewish detainees started to stone the Germans, then shooting started, people were killed. Most of these Germans who had been brought over had never seen a concentration camp, because they had been held in Libya and Egypt since the end of the war.”
Around 2,500 locals worked in the camps as cooks, carpenters and as labourers. The camps closed in January 1949 and virtually all evidence of their existence appears to have been completely erased from history.
If you can help, Eliana Hadjisavvas can be contacted on (+357) 99 – 655655 or email [email protected]