Irving Meltzer grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island, and served as a ship’s radio officer on Merchant Marine convoys through treacherous Nazi-held sea routes during World War II. He survived the toughest voyage a sailor could draw in the war: the Murmansk run, in which American ships braved Nazi submarines, air attacks and the weather to bring vital supplies to the Soviet Union via the Arctic Ocean port of Murmansk. During that period he got what he calls “his first smell of refugees,” Norwegian villagers being evacuated to Scotland.
When the war ended, he found himself at a Jewish community center in Bremen, Germany, where Holocaust survivors had gathered to search for surviving relatives. It was there that he quickly learned about the movement that sought to restore a Jewish state in what was then British-ruled Palestine.
“I asked them ‘what will you do next? Where will you go?’ They said ‘We’re going to Palestine. We will walk in the snow over the Alps to get there,” Meltzer recalls.
Back in New York, he quickly learned that American Jews were purchasing U.S. vessels from scrap heaps and manning them to transport refugees from Europe to Palestine. The transports were illegal and required running past British blockades. Irving wanted in on the action and soon was the radio officer on the “Northland,” a former Coast Guard ice-breaker, renamed the “Jewish State” (“Medinat Hayehudim”). Between 1946 and 1948 Meltzer and some 250 other North American volunteers transported 32,000 refugees to Palestine.
“We knew we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the blockade,” recalls Meltzer, who added that their British enemies could have blown them out of the water at any time. But it was exactly this British embarrassment at being forced to take action against Jewish survivors of the Holocaust that made blockade running an important political tool for the Zionists.
“Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, the British challenged the "Northland" to state its destination. Meltzer, who ran the radio and the signal lights and whose shipboard nickname was “Sparks” derisively flashed back that they were on their way “to see Naples and die.”
In Burgas, Bulgaria, the newly renamed “Jewish State” took on 2,664 immigrants for whom the Haganah was forced to pay a ransom to the Communist authorities. Having so many people crowded onto a ship that was built to hold less than a hundred crew members plus cargo, is something Meltzer will never forget, with sanitation a particular problem. But despite the problems, the rapport between the refugees and the sailors who had helped them was close. His fluent command of Yiddish was invaluable, and he befriended a young group of Rumanian Jewish orphan boys who were known on the ship as “vilde chayas” (wild animals). During the voyage, babies were born and one named for Meltzer’s father, an honor the mother insisted upon because “you have left a safe home and comfort to come and help us.”
Inevitably, as the ship approached the coast of Palestine, the British fleet closed in. They tried to sail as close as possible to the shore, but were blocked and then boarded by Royal Marines and sailors. As with other Aliyah Bet ships, the crew, their Haganah officers and the refugees put up stiff resistance. Meltzer was hit by a British bullet just as the engagement began. It passed through the back of his scalp, missing his brain by inches.
He awoke moments later lying in a pool of blood. One of his shipmates incredulously asked, “Sparks, are you dead?” “Not yet,” he replied and then stumbled over to join the refugees and to avoid being singled out as one of the American crewmen after capture.
He was taken with the refugees to Cyprus, where he was imprisoned behind barbed wire in a detention camp the British had set up for Jews caught trying to get to Palestine. Conditions there were tough; he lost 30 pounds weight in just over two months. Later, he escaped and went to Palestine before leaving again.
After an interval he returned to the fight and helped to crew another refugee ship which arrived in Israel shortly after the state was declared. He then joined Paul Shulman and the other North Americans staffing Israel’s fledgling navy.
Sources: New Haven Jewish Ledger, 10th February 1995 – by Jonathan S. Tobin, and “Veterans of Israel’s War of Independence,” by R.I. Felson, published in The New York Times on 26th April 1998.