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Emotional return to Cyprus for former Jewish camp detainees

Esther Yotvot (left) and Miriam Bisk, who was born at the British military hospital, were both held in Cyprus in the late 1940s. They returned this week for the 70th anniversary of the detention camps

“This is very, very emotional,” says 68-year-old retired city planner Pinchas Kahana, as he wanders around the dusty courtyard of what was once a hospital.

“For anyone to come to the place they were born is something, but this is history.”

Pinchas Kahana was born at the British military hospital
Pinchas Kahana was born at the British military hospital

Pinchas is one of 2,200 children born to Jewish detainees at the British Military Hospital in Nicosia in the late 1940s.

Now, 70 years on, he is back with several hundred former inmates visiting the island from Israel to mark the anniversary of the opening of the Jewish internment camps in Cyprus.

The camps were the grimmest of places, they were thrown together in the summer of 1946 and afterwards to hold Jews who attempted to immigrate from war ravaged Europe to Palestine, which was then under British rule. They remained in the camps until the State of Israel was declared in 1948. In all, some 52,000 Jews spent time in the detention camps.

For those returning this week – many probably for the last time – it turned out to be an emotional and highly charged reunion.

One of the British detention camp's for Jews in Cyprus
One of the British detention camp’s for Jews in Cyprus

Even though the Nissen huts, watch towers and barbed wire fences have long gone – the memories of Cyprus remain fresh for many.

Pinchas’ family miraculously managed to survive Auschwitz, but in a cruel twist of fate, ended up imprisoned at the Xylotymbou camp-which once stood on a parched and dusty plot of land close to where the Dhekelia power station now sits.

They, like thousands of others, travelled on a crowded migrant ship from Europe only to be turned back from their course to Palestine and escorted to Famagusta.

Palestine had been under British rule since 1917 and London was keen to protect its interests in the Middle East by restricting mass Jewish immigration.

On arrival in Cyprus, Pinchas father surveyed the scene: “For my parents to come again to a camp after Auschwitz – a camp with wires, with controls – made my father really mad.”

Nearly seventy years on –a lifetime later – Pinchas says he does not feel hatred for the British, but admits he still finds it hard to comprehend how this woeful chapter in 20th century history happened.

In an ironical twist of history, the camps were constructed by German prisoners of war who had been captured in North Africa. The design was symmetrically perfect – with rows of huts lining a main thoroughfare.

At 86 years-old, Esther Yotvot is one of the oldest former internees to return. She says it is important to preserve his memory of the camps, especially as the number of those that experienced them dwindles.

“It is good people are talking about these camps,” she says. “It reminds us again what we were. I was an orphan when I came here and I came here from hell.”

Esther was orphaned during the war and was lucky enough to end up at an Italian camp for Jewish children who had survived the war. From there they attempted to enter Palestine, but were refused entry and sent to the Caraolos camp near Famagusta.

Jewish detainees at a camp. Detainees says the conditions could be harsh
Jewish detainees at a camp. Detainees says the conditions could be harsh

She says life in the camps was harsh. The 52,000 people that were forced to live in them endured a poor diet, basic sanitation and were exposed to blistering heat and bitterly cold winters.

“We were a group of children and young people. We did our best; we occupied ourselves by studying Hebrew, reading, singing and learning. But we were happy, because we were with others. We were like brothers and sisters.”

On Thursday, the group paid a visit to the Peace Park at Xylotymbou, which was opened in 2014. Carved into a giant stone is the following inscription:

The inscription at the peace park at Xylotymbou to mark where one of the camps were built
The inscription at the peace park at Xylotymbou to mark where one of the camps were built

‘My half side, the left one, the side of the heart is Israeli. But the other half is Cypriot.’

The line refers to the many Cypriots that placed themselves in danger to help support Jewish detainees. It is estimated that around 2,500 locals worked in the camps as cooks, carpenters and as labourers.

“It is extremely important to keep the memory of the camps alive, as the young generation has no idea,” says Miriam Bisk, who was also born at the British Military Hospital.

“We have to tell the story – and we have to repeat it again and again,” she says, describing the camps as one of the forgotten tragedies of the last century.

“We are talking about people who went through hell for several years, had no vision of a future and finally were on their way to a place which they were hoping was going to be their own homeland and they were again deterred from their route and incarcerated again.”

Amir Roggel is here tracing his father Jacob’s footsteps.

“For me this event here is the closure of a circle,” he says. “I’ve never been before in Cyprus, but both my parents told me about their stay here. My father even wrote a book about this, describing the period he was here.”

His father escaped from Hungary – via Austria and Italy with his brother, two sisters and mother and they eventually found themselves in the Xylotymbou camp.

“My father and his brother became the document forgers of the camp. Some people managed to escape in tunnels and my father prepared documents so they could move around the island and make their way to the area that the ships were waiting for them.”

Amir Rogel, with the original cutters used in escape attempts from the camps
Amir Rogel, with the original cutters used in escape attempts from the camps

Holding a set of rusting cutters his father left him, Amir explained that there were other ways inmates escaped.

“They also cut the barbed wires – they watched the British guards patrolling – and discovered that there was 15 minutes between the patrols. They found that they could cut the wires, put them back and escape in that time.”

When they closed in 1949, the camps passed so quickly into history that they were virtually forgotten, but recently historians have shown increased interest in this extraordinary period.

For Pinchas, his visit to Cyprus has been a momentous personal journey.

“When we came to Israel from Cyprus, my parents started their life from the beginning. The only thing they had from that journey was a bible, which I still have.”

 

 

feature nathan - The group visit to the 'Peace Park' In Xylotymbou

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