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And The Ship Sails On...

Updated: Feb 22

This post was first published in Hebrew on the “Zman-Israel” website at the following link:

On April 17, 1936, dressed in a blue sailor suit with a white collar and shorts, long socks and his Shabbat shoes, my father, Azariahu, accompanied by his parents, and Noah, his father's cousin, arrived at the Passengers’ terminal in the port of Haifa. With great excitement they said goodbye to mom and dad and walked to the departure hall with Noah holding the two passports and dad carrying the small suitcase with his personal belongings.

The ship they boarded was the first Hebrew ship, on its side was emblazoned in Hebrew letters the name "Tel Aviv", a medium size cargo ship converted to carry about 300 passengers and 130 crew members. A Jewish ship with a synagogue and a kosher dining room! The first ship with the flag of Zion flying on the mast - sailing from Haifa to the port of Trieste in Italy.

Noah and dad were set out to complete the trip to Kovno, Lita, by a 1500 kilometers by train, through Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Kovno was home of Uncle Shmuel, my grandfather's cousin and Fania his wife. The couple did not have any kids, and when my grandparents wanted to send my dad away from the Middle East - Shmuel & Fannie offered to host him in their spacious home.

What the hell brought my grandparents, or rather - my grandma Yocheved, to send her eldest son so far away from home, ignoring the evil spirits of Nazi ideology, racial laws and an atmosphere of fear and terror which were already blowing over centeral Europe.

Yocheved immigrated to Israel from that country only 13 years earlier, after being victimized by racial antisemite disturbances between the Russian Revolution of 1905 as a child, and the First World War, as a teenage girl.

Yocheved who graduated a Russian college in Kremenchug with honors, brought Lermontov and Pushkin with her - but had to leave them bundled in a bundle, in the wooden box that her Eliyahu had put in the tent they shared.

The Russian culture could wait for better times my grandfather’s colleagues explained to her...

Maybe it was the traumatic memories she could not delete from childhood days that kept coming back to her and scared her so much she felt she had to send her son away from the growing tension in Palestine and the Muslims threat to destroy the Jewish community.

Yocheved, who carried the memories of the pogroms back home, in Bialystok and Ukraine, wanted to save her beloved son from the danger which was present on the streets of Tel-Aviv.

And so did Yocheved sent her beloved son Azariahu, who was almost 12-year-old to Lithuania, far away from her Zionist dream.

Uncle Shmuel, the richest of my grandfather’s ten brothers, promised to look after the boy, make sure he eats well, rests, travels, spends time with the family, the uncle and aunt will get him the best private tutors in Kovno, and maybe, in the end, he would chose to stay in Kovno at least until the end School.

No one foresaw the possibility that within a year the pro-Nazi demonstrations would increase in Lithuania, and that three years later, the Lithuanians, the Russians and the Nazis would begin a campaign of systematic murder of the Jews after they established ghettos in which they concentrated the Jews and then shot, strangled, burned and buried in mass graves about two hundred thousand of the Jews of the small country .

To the sound of "Hatikva" played by the orchestra on the platform, the ship raised anchor and set off.

Dad sent the first letter he wrote while on board the Tel-Aviv, only after the ship docked in the port of Trieste and before leaving for the two-day train ride all the way to to Kovno.

April 21, 1936 Palestine Shipping Co. Ltd. On board the ship "Tel Aviv" "Tel-Aviv".

My dear parents First, I came to inform you that I am healthy and strong. And [then] I ask your forgiveness for not writing to you before, because so-and-so would not have received him before, because the ship is not docked anywhere but Trieste.

I am very satisfied with the trip. I especially liked the ceremony of the ship sailing. The orchestra started playing. First "HaTikva", then "Teheksana" and more. They also handed out flags. And after that, when I approached the railing, I saw that the ship was already far from the shore.

Slowly we sailed. [It was] already four and we got tea and cakes. I forgot to say that when we boarded the ship we were given sandwiches. After that we changed clothes and went out on deck, already at five o'clock Haifa and the Carmel mountain disappeared behind the horizon.

"I thought now that I had left the country where I was born and raised. But my only consolation was that I would return to her after my visit to the wider world. I will also return to live there."

"Even on Saturday the weather was excellent, a light breeze blew, and I spent most of the day on deck. I liked the food very much. Together with the letter I should send you some of the menus of the excellent meals.

But already on Saturday at noon the sea started to get rough. And I was so scared. A strong wind arose and the ship traveled at a speed of more than nine - ten kilometers per hour, after that it normally travels 23 - 25 kilometers per hour."

"But thanks to God I felt myself very agile and very well. In the evening there was a dance ball, and I ate, I went to bed at 10. But Noah, went to bed at two past midnight. In the morning when he got up, he had a headache, but I felt very well and everyone was very surprised, saying that I was qualified to be a sailor! More than thirty people were sick, many had a headache, but I didn't feel anything, as if I was at home. "

On Sunday [the sea] was already very calm, but many of the passengers suffered from headaches. We passed many islands. On the right side was the island of Crete. We passed an ancient city surrounded by a wall with a magnificent 1553-year-old palace. Two people stood and waved handkerchiefs. The ship blew its horn. This is how the morning of the second day passed, but in the afternoon we began to pass through a mountain landscape very similar to the Jerusalem landscape. The same mountains and the same vegetation. The water was wonderful, and the boat traveled fast, but carefully, about twenty-eight to thirty kilometers per hour.

In the evening at seven o’clock we arrived in Ithaca, an ancient city on top of the high mountains. The ship honked, many honks, while the echo from the mountains, answering in return. Red lights illuminated the houses, a rocket was fired. In the evening there was a ball for the Jewish National Fund. I went to bed at eleven. Noah went to bed at one past midnight.

And now my dear parents, write to me too.

We wanted to send you a telegram, but each word costs 80 cents and it's not worth it.'

"How are you and dear Lilinka? Are you all healthy. I imagine her great sorrow. Say hello to her and kiss her a lot. Greetings to Aunt Chaya [Noach's mother] and to everyone.

Please tell Grandfather Zvi on my behalf, that I am very happy that I traveled on the "Tel Aviv" ship because there is a very beautiful synagogue there and everything is kosher. Please don’t forget to tell him that I promise one more time, not to forget to pray, and also the Hebrew language.

I will write to grandfather Zalman separately. And yes, also to Aunt Hana and the friends.

Lots of kisses and blessings. From me your son, who loves cherishes you, Azariahu.

Faithful greetings to all.'

My dad wrote the letter while the ship was making its way to Italy. They heard no news and received no letters or newspapers from home. They didn't know that two days after they sailed, while he and Noah were having a great time on the ship, listening to the ship's orchestra playing Jazz while Five O’clock tea and cakes were served in the big dining hall, riots broke out in Tel Aviv.

They didn’t know that forty-eight hours after they left Haifa port - 23 years old Yitzchak, Noah's brother, was murdered by Arab rioters.

Yitzchak, his friend said, he rushed to help fellow Jews who were attacked in the Shapiro neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv was attacked by Arab rioters. He was seriously injured in the head by a large stone that smashed his skull.

Yitzhak suffered from a blood loss and died the next day on the operating table.

While dad and Noah prepared for the ship's arrival in Trieste, hundreds of Tel Aviv residents accompanied Yitzchak on his last journey. Noach's younger brother was buried in a mass grave at Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv...

Chaya, his mother, packed everything she had here and together with the dreams she once had - returned to Riga to her old house where now Noah was living with his wife and baby.

The Zeitlins tried to re-start their life keeping a 24/7 memorial candle lit in the kitchen in memory of the son she lost to the Zionist dream.

Chaya, her daughter-in-law and Isaiah her little grandson, were murdered in Riga in 1941... Noah was sent to Buchenwald and was murdered there in 1942...

And my father......?

About that in the next chapter...


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