On the 27th of September 1997, a 78 year-old Israeli presented himself at the Clandestine Immigration & Naval Museum near Haifa, bearing a wreath and a simple poem he had penned:
Five decades after immigrating to Israel, Chanoch Touner, a Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust, had come to pay homage to the ship that had meant to bring him to the land of Israel fifty years earlier - the 42 meter-long vessel called the "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" (Despite it All).
The "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" – a World War II landing craft – is the only remnant of the 116 ships of all shapes and sizes that tried to run the British blockade in order to bring well over 100,000 Jewish refugees to the shores of Mandatory Palestine. The ship, retired from the Israeli navy, was scheduled to be sold for scrap in 1962 when Yosef Almog, a senior naval officer, realized that the "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" was nearly all that was left of a heroic episode in the history of the State of Israel.
The hulk was hauled up on shore, cut into sections and reassembled at the foot of Mount Carmel – a major engineering feat in the 1960s. By 1969, the "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" had become part of a museum under Almogs directorship, commemorating the protracted "battle of wills" waged with British authorities over the right to Jewish immigration. Part of the ship has been refitted with 50 cm. wide berths squeezed into the cramped belly of the ship; other parts of the ship, and the adjacent pavilion, display memorabilia from the period - ship models, historic photos, newspaper accounts and mementos from other "illegal" immigrant ships.
The section of the museum on clandestine immigration portrays the story of the fateful years 1933-1948 – the rise of Hitler to power, World War II, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel – a period when an "underground railroad" helped thousands of Jewish refugees reach the European Mediterranean coast, where fishing trawlers, river boats and former warships, secretly purchased by the Zionist movement, rendezvoused with the refugees and furtively sailed them across the Mediterranean towards British-controlled Palestine.
Some ships succeeded in slipping through the British naval blockade, unloading their human cargo on desolate beaches or in proximity to Jewish population centers, where the newcomers mixed with locals to prevent detection. Several ships sank in tragic circumstances. Many were apprehended and forcefully boarded by British sailors as they approached the coast of the Land of Israel – the ships impounded and the passengers sent to detention camps, first to Atlit south of Haifa, and, after the war, to Cyprus or Mauritius. Some were returned to Europe.
The museum graphically displays how, in the aftermath of the war, the confrontation between British soldiers and concentration camp survivors became a moral issue which influenced worldwide public opinion.
Af-Al-Pi-Chen was neither the first nor the last vessel to sail between 1934 and 1948. Nor was she the smallest or the largest. "Af-Al-Pi-Chen"s voyage was not marked by triumph like that of the Tiger Hill, run aground on the Tel Aviv beach – whose passengers mixed with the crowd on the beach and thus escaped detention. Nor was she stricken by tragedy like the Struma – torpedoed by a German U boat in 1942, with only one survivor and hundreds of casualties.
Nor was "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" the most famous ship. This distinction belongs to the Exodus 1947 – whose mid-summer voyage inspired author Leon Uris best selling historical novel and the 1960s Hollywood box office hit Exodus. In an attempt to break the spirit of those on board, the British sent the 4,530 Jewish DPs back to Europe. Press reports of the fate of the Exodus, however, dramatized the plight of the surviving European Jews. The passengers steadfastly resisted deportation and then adamantly refused to disembark in Europe. Within weeks of the Exodus passengers forced disembarkment in Germany after weeks in stifling holds, the "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" sailed from Italy down the Adriatic Sea with its 435 passengers - one of them Chanoch Touner – giving notice to the British that despite all obstacles, illegal immigration would continue.
Like many other ships, "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" was sighted by British vessels west of Port Said and was forcibly boarded by two British destroyers and sent to Cyprus. A British collaborator, Betty Fiedler – a beautiful woman who mixed among the immigrants – charmed both passengers and crew while signaling British navel vessels with a flashlight and identifying crew members for British authorities to arrest, before "disappearing into the bulwarks" during disembarkment. In the wake of her actions, the "Af-Al-Pi-Chen" suffered an armed attack by British seamen, and resisted with its only weapons – a barrage of tin cans. One of the refugees, Noach Goldfarb, was shot and killed, and seven others were injured.
Chanoch Touner arrived in Israel after almost a year in a internment camp in Cyprus.
Today, he lives in Kiryat Ata near Haifa. Although retired, Touner – a grandfather of three – is still active in the Civil Guard in his community and works part-time in R&D and quality control in a rubber factory in Haifa Bay. Like untold thousands of "illegal" immigrants, he has subsequently rebuilt his life in the State of Israel, becoming part to the mosaic of the nation he tried so hard to reach fifty years ago.
Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, January 1998, Israeli Foreign Ministry