This post originally appeared on TIME.com on December 1, 2015. Read it here.
Eliana Hadjisavvas is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Birmingham and a current Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center. She sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss her research project, “Jewish Displaced Persons and the Case of the Cypriot Internment Camps: The Role of the United States 1945-1950.”
Hi, Eliana. You’re research focuses on an aspect of World War II that is of great interest to me personally. Could you briefly describe your project?
My research focuses on Jewish displacement at the end of the Second World War and specifically the internment of Jewish refugees in British-run camps in colonial Cyprus. For many Holocaust survivors, desperate to flee the horrors of Nazism and threat of further persecution, the yearning for a future in Palestine was great. Since 1917, Palestine had been administered by the British mandatory government that was keen to protect its interests in the Middle East by restricting mass-Jewish immigration, which was opposed by Arab states.
What was official British policy towards Jewish emigration to Palestine?
In 1939 Britain implemented a ‘White Paper’ that capped the rate of Jewish immigration to Palestine at 75,000 over the next five years, with further admissions subject to Arab acquiescence. At the end of the war, Britain continued to uphold its immigration measures by barring the overwhelming number of Holocaust survivors that sought entry visas for Palestine. This led to many embarking on clandestine passages, with thousands of Jewish refugees crammed on small, unseaworthy vessels braving the journey across the Mediterranean, often from ports in Italy, in an attempt to enter Palestine covertly. In August 1946, the British government responded to such movements by establishing internment camps in Cyprus. The erection of twelve distinct campsites in the villages of Caraolos and Xylotymbou collectively housed over 52,000 people and witnessed the births of over 2,000 children until the camps dissolution in February 1949.
What were the conditions of the British internment camps on Cyprus?
Life in Cyprus was tough. A lack of food and water, coupled with boredom from ongoing detention behind barbed wire, prolonged the time waiting for Palestine. Britain’s decision to use German Prisoners of War to construct the camps caused further discontent, whilst the erection of watchtowers with armed British guards to prevent people from escaping, was disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi camps, where many of the refugees had been liberated. Signs emblazoned with ‘From Dachau to Cyprus’ reiterated the refugees’ opposition to their imprisonment. The use of German POWs and armed guards was highly insensitive, but it must of course be stressed that these were certainly not death camps. Therefore, whilst the refugees loathed their detention, internment in Cyprus was often viewed as the ‘last stretch’ in the long journey to freedom. In order to provide the refugees with a sense of normalcy, the work of the American Joint Distribution Committee on the island provided the camps with vital relief services from schooling and health care to vocational training and workshops, helping to prepare the internees for life in Palestine.
How did American and Canadian Jews and servicemen figure into this story?
The role played by young American and Canadian men in the story of Cyprus is particularly noteworthy. As Jews, some of whom had fought for the Allies during the war, the need to head to Europe to help their coreligionists in their pursuit of sanctuary was significant. Working with Palestinian aides these men helped equip ships to transport refugees from Europe by sailing them to Palestine. Once boarded by the British, the Americans’ disguised themselves amongst the immigrants to evade detection, which lead to their subsequent internment as refugees themselves in Cyprus. Once they had escaped and returned to the U.S., some would then head back to Europe for a second time, sailing refugees to Palestine and once again winding up in Cyprus. However, not all volunteers had Jewish roots. Inspired by the sense of adventure and the idea of ‘taking-on’ the British in the Mediterranean, helping Europe’s refugees was also an exciting escapade for sprightly young men from secular backgrounds.
The interview concludes on The John W. Kluge Center blog.