Illegal Jewish immigrants from Libya in Grottaferrata, Italy
Written by: Ya’akov Hajaj Liluf
Libyan Jews began immigrating to Eretz Israel as early as the 1920s. Notably, in 1923, Eliyahu Falah led a group of eleven youths to Mandatory Palestine. The Libyan immigration rate continued to rise throughout the 1930s. Due to the policies outlined in the British White Paper (1939), Jews had to be smuggled into the Land of Israel through Egypt. With the assistance of members of the armed Jewish organizations, the immigrants crossed borders illegally, forged documents and permits and set up sham weddings, all in a desperate effort to reach the Promised Land.
Following the Libyan anti-Jewish riots of 1945, illegal immigration sharply increased. This happened despite a rigid British policy, which disallowed the issuing of exit permits from Libya as well as entry permits into Palestine. Illegal immigration was a desperate answer to the uncompromising policy, and it was carried out through scorching deserts and on turbulent seas. Prospective illegal immigrants traversed Tunisia disguised as Arabs. With the assistance of Tunisian Jews, they passed into France or Italy, before continuing to Palestine. They navigated the Mediterranean to reach these countries using any means necessary, including forged medical, business, student or tourist visas. They often boarded commercial cargo vessels as stowaways or disguised themselves as crew members.
Illegal immigrants who were caught by the British on their way to to the Land of Israel were exiled to internment camps in Cyprus. Those who were able to reach the shores of the country immediately joined the armed organizations.
Members of the Zionist movements were sought out in Libya by Yisrael Gur (known as “The Uncle”), a representative of the “Mossad Le’Aliya Bet”, a branch of the Haganah dedicated to immigration.
While Gur handled much of the Libyan side of the operation, Haim Fadlon (Ciccio) and Klimo Adadi operated out of Italy and began organizing ships of immigrants to smuggle groups of youths (organized by Joseph Gueta) into the country. These Hebrew-speaking, military-trained Zionists, served as guides for the immigrants on their way to Mandatory Palestine.
Some 3,500 Libyan Jews reached the Land of Israel through illegal immigration, a number which constituted about 10 percent of the total Jewish population in Libya at the time. This phenomenon was unmatched in other Jewish communities.
The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy
Take a glimpse at the coded letters that expose a complex operation to smuggle Jewish women who were in danger out of Italy.
The following sentences appeared in a letter sent by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno of Livorno in 1858. Can you guess what the letter is referring to?
“Yesterday, three packages left the city… one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel. Off they went, on their way to a good peaceful life without harm. And may heaven have mercy on this merchandise.”
Let us explain.
A collection of letters donated to the National Library of Israel tells the story of secretive events that took place in Livorno in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters were written by Rabbi Avraham Baruch Piperno (1800-1863) of Livorno, in response to letters from Moise Uzzielli of Florence which are not in out possession. The correspondence between the two men discusses the smuggling of women and their children out of Italy via the port of Livorno to various destinations along the Mediterranean coast.
On the eve of Sukkot in the year 1858, Rabbi Piperno was in Pisa for a brit milah (otherwise known as a bris, a ritual circumcision), when he received an urgent letter from Livorno about a woman in danger in the city of Florence. The letter was from Moise Uzzielli who wrote in Italian and asked Piperno to help smuggle the woman out of Italy. Piperno hastened to reply and explained to Uzzielli that his request would not be easy to carry out, “because she is a woman, and because the matter occurred in our midst, and certainly they will search for her. We will risk ourselves fruitlessly, without achieving her salvation.”
Despite his discouraging response, Piperno suggested to wait a few days and see what could be done. He also added an important instruction in his letter of reply – telling Uzzielli that, for reasons of secrecy, he should henceforth write in Hebrew and use vague language when describing the matter.
In the following correspondence, Piperno reported on the progress of the smuggling process and the technical challenges involved, giving us a rare peek into this curious historical phenomenon of smuggling Jewish women through the port of Livorno. His writings detail the existence of an entire community network that set travel arrangements and maintained contact with various Jewish communities along the shores of the Mediterranean, that served as cities of refuge for fleeing women.
The event described in the document began on September 22, 1858, and was concluded over a month later on October 28. Piperno encountered many difficulties along the way, some of which we learn about in his letters.
The smuggling plan was laid out in three phases: hiding the woman in Livorno until the day of the journey; sending her by ship to a Jewish community in one of the cities along the Mediterranean coast; and finally finding her work and a place of residence in that community. Piperno utilized his connections in Livorno and various Jewish communities to execute his plan, but he needed money to finance the operation. He asked Uzzielli to urgently transfer the necessary funds to him. In one of the letters, Piperno explains why he could not finance the matter locally. He writes: “Here I cannot take even a pence for such a thing, because they do not wish to give anything, even for our own packages.”
In keeping with his need for secrecy, Piperno refers to the escaping woman as a “package”, a very common word in a bustling port town like Livorno. We can also infer from his words that Livorno already has too many “packages” to handle. In order to clarify the state of affairs in Livorno to Uzzielli, Piperno informs him that he is already caring for a recent arrival from Rome, waiting to be smuggled out. The woman was traveling with her children and was also pregnant with another. Piperno describes the condition of the runaway in his secret code: “one cask with a full barrel, a small jug, and yet another small jug suckling from the barrel.” We can, therefore, infer that the “packages” and “barrels” reached Livorno from many places and that Livorno served as a central smuggling depot for Italian Jews.
There was a brief debate about whether to send the woman to the Jewish community of Tunis or to that of Marseilles. The decision was ultimately made to send her to Marseilles “and to connect her with a single man who will attempt to accomodate her, ether in his home or in another home.” A ship would transport the woman to Marseilles. For this purpose, she would need to carry forged documents (a “transit pass” in the words of the letter). Placing a secret passenger on a ship was a very dangerous step in this process, and it was undertaken with the knowledge of the ship’s owner. In his fourth letter, Piperno reports, “Yesterday I spoke with the owner of the ship to hasten the delivery. He was waiting for a French captain to ensure that the delivery would be properly looked after.” We do not know whether the owner of the ship was a Jew who cooperated out of sympathy for his people, or whether his loyalty had been purchased by Piperno. In any event, these documents give us a better understanding of the complexity of the matter and the large number of external factors involved in the smuggling process.
After all the hardships and challenges Piperno faced in his efforts to help this particular woman, his last letter details her successful escape to safety. The echo of his sigh of relief can still be heard in his cheerful words: “Today I can say with joy and delight that yesterday evening, the package set out to the desired destination… and blessed be the Lord, who blessed us with such a great mitzvah, and may he bless all those who joined in this mitzvah with life and good tidings.”
Early evidence of a broader phenomenon
The phenomenon revealed here raises the question as to why the women were smuggled out of Italy, and if the phenomenon was unique to the period of the mid-19th century. A partial answer can be obtained from the London-Montefiore 467 manuscript, which includes copies of letters from the Jewish community of Livorno. Here we can see an excerpt of a letter sent to the community of Alexandria (around 1739-40), requesting help for a woman and her children who were whisked out of Italy for fear that their father would force them to convert:
“Our sources are speaking of a difficult and melancholy woman… She and her two sons spoke of her husband who entered into a spirit of folly and took his two sons with him in deceit and led them into the midst of the gentiles, subverting their honor without benefit, and they were almost lost… And because of the great miracle and effort of the leaders of the community… they were returned to us and he also returned with them, but there is no faith in his words…” The community acted quickly to send the children away for fear that the converters would try again.
Another letter sent to the community of Aleppo in 1754 deals with a girl who was pressured to “subvert her honor”- to convert to Christianity or to have sexual intercourse – or both. Subsequently, she was smuggled away in haste.
“She is a good girl as is her name… And she sits within the walls of her house with her mother…and the gentiles have laid their eyes on her on her to suvert her honor…She must be rushed out of this land.”
In both cases, we have no evidence as to whether the women’s trip was of a secret nature. These writings do however offer clues as to the circumstances that may have led to an urgent departure, as well as the existence of a network capable of providing immediate transport and maintening contact with various Jewish communities. Therefore, these other incidents may also be related to the smuggling of women out of Italy from the port of Livorno in the mid-19th century.
The Man Who Developed Krav Maga to Defend Against Anti-Semitic Attacks
Imre Lichtenfeld developed Krav Maga as a method of defensive street fighting against anti-Semitic attacks in the city formerly known as Pressburg.
Pressburg is the historical name of Bratislava, today the capital of Slovakia, a place with a rich Jewish history that was interrupted about 70 years ago. The city is unique in its location, sharing borders with two other countries – Hungary and Austria- which also used to have large Jewish populations. The famous Pressburg yeshiva no longer exists in the city but if you stroll through Jerusalem today, you may come across a yeshiva there named after the original one in Pressburg. You are also sure to see at least one street named in honor of the more famous residents of Pressburg, including the Chatam Sofer, a leading rabbi of European Jewry in the early 19th century, and Imre Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga.
There is still a Jewish presence maintained in Bratislava in modern times, despite the fact that the large and very impressive synagogue was destroyed due to the construction of a new bridge in the 1960s under communist rule. A tram line was also built through the former Jewish cemetery though several tombs were preserved, including that of Moshe Schreiber, otherwise known as the Chatam Sofer. Jews from all over the world who flock to Bratislava to visit his grave get off the tram at the stop named “Chatam Sofer.”
The memorial for the Chatam Sofer, the last remaining synagogue in the city and the Museum of Jewish Culture can be visited for free during the European Days of Jewish Culture festival, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of September. There is a temporary exhibition in the Museum dedicated to Imre Lichtenfeld or Imre Sde´Or, a founder of the Israeli self-defense art of Krav Maga, who spent an important and defining part of his life in Bratislava. Krav Maga has today become a popular sport but was originally taught for self-defense and survival in the streets of the Pressburg Jewish quarter.
Imre Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest in 1910 but spent his childhood in Bratislava. It was in the late 1930s, in reaction to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish riots in Bratislava, that he came up with the idea to transform street fighting into a proper style of self-defense. In May of 1940, following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the splitting up of the nation, Imre managed to escape the country and the hands of the Nazis on a steamboat called Pentcho headed for the Land of Israel. This river-boat was not built to be used on the open sea but those on board did not have any other option. The Pentcho shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands and Imri, along with several other survivors, were saved by the British. Imre ended up in Egypt which was under British control. After serving time in the Free Czech Legion, he was released and he was finally able to travel to the Land of Israel where he began training members of Haganah and the police force in 1944.
With the foundation of the State of Israel, Imre trained soldiers as the Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga in physical fitness, knife fighting, street fighting, and swimming. He served in the military for twenty years, always refining his methodologies for hand-to-hand combat. It was after his retirement that he developed the style of fighting for civilian use as well, and Krav Maga gained global popularity. Imre Lichtenfeld died in 1998 at the age of 88.
If you find yourself visiting Bratislava nowadays, you may have to look a little closer to find the Jewish presence but it certainly is alive and thriving. There are theological classes available and a renewal of Yiddish culture and music is also apparent, with bands reviving old Jewish songs from before the World War II era. While Jews no longer represent twelve percent of the population as they used to, a visit to the city will allow you to experience a still vibrant and lively Jewish culture.
This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.
The Hungarian Noble Family That Took in the Exiled Jews
The Hungarian noble Batthyány family claims to have roots reaching back to the founding of Hungary. The family is said to be descended from the famous chieftain Kővágó-Örs, first mentioned in a document from the year 970 AC.
Count Lajos Batthyány served as Hungary's first Prime Minister in 1848. His image here is from a portrait in the Hungarian National Museum.
The Batthyány Family was an aristocratic family that served as a meeting point of different social classes between the 16th and 20th centuries and contributed greatly to the continuity of the previously Turkish-splintered Hungary, not only with their private armies and bodies of governance, but also through their contributions to Hungarian cultural, educational, political and medical history. In 1848, Count Lajos Batthyány even served as the first Prime Minister of Hungary. Today, the famous “Batthyány tér,” a square in Budapest, preserves the family’s memory.
The Batthyány family’s existence is continuously verifiable from 1398 when the Esztergomer Captain György Kővágóörsi received the estate of Batthyán with the market town Polgárdi from King Sigismund for his services in the fight against the Turks. For hundreds of years, the coat of arms of the Batthyány family was a pelican feeding his chicks with his own blood and a sword carrying lion below it.
In the second half of the 17th century, when Emperor Leopold the First expelled the Jews from lower Austria and later forbade them from settling in the royal cities, the Batthyánys were among the major landowners, in addition to the noble Esterházy and Zichy families, who welcomed and accepted the Jews, allowing them to settle on their properties in the western part of Hungary as they saw a potential economic advantage in their presence in the local economic life. Typically, once the Jews settled down in the villages of the large estates and in the centers of the capital, they got actively involved in the economic life of the estate.
The first group of Jews came mainly from the Jewish communities of Nikolsburg and Uherský Brod (Magyarbród). The Jews were accommodated and resettled by Esterházy in Sopron county in the well-known “Seven Communities” (Sheva Kehilot) of the Eisenstadt (Kismarton) estate. In Rohonc (Rechnitz), on the Batthyánys estate was established in 1687 the first large Jewish community with more than 30 families. Their lives were governed by a letter of privilege received from the Batthyány landlords. The privileges provided by the Batthyány family, which laid down the duties and rights of Jews, were also used as a model for communities established in subsequent settlements.
Contrary to the seemingly positive attitude of the Batthyány family towards the Jews, the castle in Rohonc has a sad World War II history that is described in the British journalist David R. L. Litchtfield’s article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2007, as well in Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyany’s book “A Crime in the Family” that was published in 2017. Rohonc had been the property of the Batthyánys since the 16th century, but in the 19th-century, the property was transferred to the possession of the Thyssen family. In the 1930s, Count Iván Batthyány married the Rohonc born Margit Thyssen-Bornemisza and Rohonc returned to the Batthyány family.
In the spring of 1945, a party was held at the Castle of Rohonc on Palm Sunday evening (24th March). One hundred and eighty Jewish Hungarian forced laborers were murdered and buried in mass graves during the party. These 180 Jews were among the 600 Jews brought to the Burgenland settlement in Rohonc for the construction of the south-east rampart with the purpose of holding back the advancing Red Army. The mass shooting of 180 Jewish men who were found “unfit for work,” was ordered by Margit’s lover and Nazi sympathizer Joachim Oldenburg and by Franz Podezin, the NSDAP Commander of Rohonc, who freely and purposefully handed out guns to the partygoers. Fifteen of the Jewish prisoners were left alive and were tasked with digging the mass grave for the victims. After they completed their task, the fifteen survivors became victims and were murdered by Podezin and Oldenburg. With the completion of the shootings, the party guests went back to the castle to continue the celebrations with drink and dance. The otherwise immaculate name of the Batthyánys was disreputed following these events. Margit and her husband lived a long life in Bad Homburg in Germany. After their deaths in 1985 and 1989 respectively, the other members of the Batthyány family did not allow the couple to be buried in the family crypt.
The Batthyány Collection at the National Library of Israel
These files include about 200 records in Latin, German, Hungarian and Czech and include letters (correspondence), resolutions, orders, certificates and other administrative documents dealing with properties of all kind created by the Batthyány family members or other European medieval noblemen, kings, emperors and administrative workers between 1470 and 1868. It seems that none of these documents are connected to the Jews or their matters.
The Batthyány Family Collection includes documents from the second half of the 15th century issued by various kings and royal officials. The timeframe of the collection begins with this period and stretches all the way to the second half of the 19th century. The collection includes various paraphernalia, documents on heritage issues and other administrative documents that relate to the family’s elaborate mansions. The correspondence includes not only discussions with the most prominent personalities of the time but also communications with high official servants, domestic serfs and property governors who turned to the landlords during the course of their routine tasks, providing us with documentation of the problems of everyday life of that time. Among the administrative documentation from the 16th and 19th centuries are representations of the Ortenegg, Város-Szalónak, Rohonc, Németújvár, Körmend, Ördöglika, and Hidegkút estates. The documents issued in the 18th century have a political and military character and include several matters regarding the Batthyány family members who were prominent in their national positions.
The majority of the documents are clearly related to the Batthyánys and their affairs, however, there are also a number of private letters and official documents which could not be linked directly to the family. Their possible direct or indirect relation to the family has not been disproven but any attempt to reveal this connection may require a deeper knowledge of the Batthyány family tree and its history.
Despite their age, the documents, written on parchment and paper, are in relatively good shape but some of them will undergo special conservation treatment at the National Library in the near future. Because of the sensitivity of these archival materials to humidity and other climate conditions and because of their high historical value and importance, the Batthyány Family Collection is kept in the Library’s Rare Collections Department.
The collection now found in the National Library of Israel completes the archive of Batthyány family in Hungary, which is massive and well known, serving as a major source of information for many historians. Unfortunately, the archive suffered many misfortunes including damage caused by Soviet soldiers in Körmend during World War II and fire damage during the revolution of 1956 in Budapest. Today it is kept at the National Library of Hungary in Budapest (Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár) including almost 212 meters of archival material created between 1501-1944.
Here are some examples of the interesting historical documents of the Batthyány Family Collection at the National Library of Israel: