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Purity of Arms

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Yochanan Dreifuss  E-mail

In the winter of 1947/48 I was helping to build a new house at the Hechalutz farm in Hightstown, New Jersey, since the old one burned down. One day I received an invitation to come to some office in New York City, supposedly a part of the Jewish Agency, though that was never made clear. There I was told that I had just volunteered to sail on one of the ships. Since my only knowledge of sailing consisted of the certainty that I get violently seasick, a condition that had proved to be unavoidable on three previous Atlantic crossings, I was not exactly thrilled. But then, why not? It was something that needed to be done. They asked me about my profession and I told them I was a carpenter; that's what I did in Hightstown.

A couple of weeks later I saw the Mala for the first time in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She was a beautiful ship, about two thousand tons, with a soaring bow, built to leap through the waves. Well, she had been President Roosevelt's private yacht (Teddy's, not FDR's), and sailed as an ice-breaker in WW2, when her hull was strengthened. But except for the soaring bow, she was a mess. Nothing worked, not the engines, not the boilers; nothing seemed to be in shape except the hull, and that was rusty.

Together with some of the other "volunteers" from Hightstown, I was placed in the deck department, though a few of us were sent to the engine room. The deck department was headed by the boson, a professional sailor, but the only one on it. The rest of us were landlubbers, though perhaps I had more experience with mal-de-mer.

There were the officers, of course. Of these we had four: the captain, Danny Maltese (a very nice guy who could enjoy a relaxing drink), the first and second mates (whose names I forgot) and the third mate, Sy Weinstein, who'd been in the Merchant Marines. The captain and the first had fought in the Lincoln brigade in Spain and joined our ship for ideological reasons.

Since I'd been foolish enough to give my occupation as carpenter, I became the ship's carpenter. I didn't know then that this was a rank, one step above "common "seaman. But I spent the next few weeks chipping paint; there simply was no carpentry to do (and probably hadn't been since the days before the first iron-clads). Chipping away old paint and smearing on new. Actually, quite nice.

One day the bos'n quit. The ship was not up to his standards. And since I was next in rank, I became the new bos'n; everything else remained the same: Chipping and painting. At least for a while. But then someone made a bad mistake and decided we were ready to go.

On the windy and rainy evening of June 3rd, over two weeks after Ben Gurion had declared the state, we sailed out of New York harbor. Well almost, because we weren't out yet when something broke and the helmsman couldn't steer the ship anymore. So the first mate, two sailors and the bos'n, me, operated the "steering engine", the machine in a small cubicle at the rear of the ship, that actually turns the thing. The captain on the bridge would yell "Ten degrees port" into the speaking tube. I had my ear at the tube's other end and would sing out "Ten degrees port" (hoping I'd heard correctly, since the tube distorted sounds), the two sailors made the engine turn the rudder and the chief mate supervised. Perfect organization.

It would have been fine except that we moved up and down like a yo-yo, since this compartment was at the very end of the ship and it was windy outside,. Besides, there was no ventilation. The results need not be described in detail. Even the chief mate, this old sailor, got sick.

The next day he decided that, with so many urgent repairs necessary, he had no time to stand his watch. The captain must appoint someone as "junior third mate" to stand watches each day. And clearly, with all my experi¬ence and being the bos'n, therefore next in rank, that would be me. (I should explain that the three mates divided the day into six four-hour watches. The mate on watch was responsible for the ship, unless the captain was on the bridge, which was seldom).

So for the next few days, while the Mala started to steam across the ocean, I got a condensed course in naviga¬tion, the "rules of the road" and how to stand watch. Well, actually we didn't steam across the Atlantic, "staggered" would be more accurate. Things kept breaking down. Now, when the engine conked out in the 'middle of the ocean, the ship drifted helplessly with the wind and the waves. To signal to other ships that we couldn't get out of their way, we raised two large black balls as high as possible on the mast. I became very adept at this.

After two weeks we got to Gibraltar; and headed north towards Marseilles, hugging the Spanish coast. By this time I had found my sea legs, and though I still got sick, I'd learned how to deal with it: As soon as I was done "burping", I ate something. A dry piece of bread served the purpose admirably. It gave my stomach something to throw up the next time, much preferable to the "dry heaves". And so, a few nights later, in the bay of Biscay known for its stormy waters, a strange dance was enacted on the bridge of the Mala: My good friend Eddy (Abadi) had the wheel and I was on watch. We were the only ones on deck. Eddy would say: "Yochanan, take the wheel", then he'd run to the railing, burp and swallow some bread, by which time I was ready with: "Eddy, take the wheel". And so forth.

In Marseilles a tugboat towed us to our berth and a gang of carpenters, real ones, sawed and hammered and nailed from dawn to dusk. They filled all the holds with huge shelves, perhaps two feet apart, and also built a gallery of latrines lining the entire rear deck. This yacht was certainly evolving.

It took almost two weeks but we left one evening and sailed a few miles along the coast to La Ciotat, a pictur¬esque miniature fishing boat harbor. The fishermen were sipping their vin ordinaire in tiny cafes along the quay, as we slowly, ever so slowly, approached the pier. When he judged the time ripe, the captain ordered "full reverse", but we kept on moving forward, ever so slowly, and the pier came closer and closer. The captain yelled into the speaking tube, but the engineers were already doing their best. It just took a long time for these old engines to respond to such an upsetting command. We finally hit that pier with a roaring crash and I was most grateful for our reinforced, soaring bow.

When we were tied up, everything became quiet. The fishermen had gone to bed after laughing at our antics. It was close to midnight and I stood on the wing of the bridge when I saw a long, endless line of people slowly shuffling along the quay towards our lowered gangplank. There were women and men, seemingly of all ages. There were youths and children and mothers carrying babies. All carried something: old suitcases, a tattered rucksack, a few cardboard boxes or cloth bundles; everyone was burdened. They looked thin, some almost ema¬ciated, and so tired, so tired. Perhaps they also looked hopeful, but who is to say?

At first I couldn't hear them, but as they came nearer I made out soft rustling of clothes, a shoe scraping the ground here or there, a quiet admonishment to a child, the labored breathing of the worn-out.

And they came and they came. The head of the line had long since climbed the ladder and disappeared in the bowels of the ship, and still I couldn't see the end. We filled all the "beds", the rough shelves constructed in Marseilles, and people laid down on them next to each other, like sardines. There was little floor-space left in each hold, not enough for everyone, so a part of the shelves was always occupied. And, of course, with insufficient ventilation, the crowded holds soon began to smell. Eventually we took aboard some two thousand humans. When the last of the passengers had embarked, we cast off. It was dawn on July 4th, 1948.

Conditions on board were most primitive. There simply wasn't enough space for so many people. We were lucky and the weather was fine, so people stayed on deck to get out of the stinking holds. But there wasn't enough room, some always had to stay below. Yet I don't remember complaints; I think that people knew we were doing our best.

I do remember the lines: lines to get food, lines for the "toilets", for the wash troughs, or for the nurse. People moved from one line to another, in a strange rhythm. The ship also looked bizarre, with persons standing, squat¬ting, sitting on any available space topsides, Anything to get away from the holds. They sat on the winches, on the anchor-chain, on coils of rope, on the stanchions, or just on the deck. They observed everything we did, they watched the waves; sometimes they sang. We must have looked like a small, slowly moving island, covered with locusts.

We sailed along the Italian coast, through the straits of Messina, past smoking mount Vesuvius and into the Mediterranean sea. It took us seven days to reach Haifa. As we got closer we started to pay more attention to the news on the radio. It was almost two months after the state had been declared, and we knew of the heavy fighting. The British were still in Haifa Would they let us land? And what about Egyptian warships? We didn't even have a pistol on the ship.

I don't think that anyone on board slept during the last night. As dawn came up, we strained to see the coastline, as it rose slowly from the calm sea. And we made out a small ship, coming towards us. A warship? Egyptian?

There were some anxious minutes till we saw that it was indeed a warship, a small one, complete with a gun, but it was ours. It had come to escort us into the harbor. By 8:30 in the morning of July 11th we were tied up and began to discharge the happy passengers. Not so happy were a few UN officials trying to register new arrivals. This was during the first truce, when the UN wanted to control immigration, but they were simply inundated by an unstoppable stream.

We, the crew, took turns sightseeing and standing watches. I hitchhiked to Tel Aviv and to Ein Hashofet and was on watch one night when a lone Egyptian plane made the sirens scream. But a week later we left again, to pick up another load. Some of the crew stayed behind and we got a few newcomers. Otherwise things didn't change much. I still got lots of exercise raising those black balls. We had one close call when the steering engine broke down as we passed through the straits of Messina, a curved waterway with strong currents. I was on the bridge, taking bearings on buoys, enabling the captain to plot just exactly how near we were to the rocky shore. I didn't need to see the chart, I saw those black boulders getting bigger and bigger. But the crew managed to rig ropes to the rudder and steer the ship with winches. Not very elegant, but it got us out of there.

Again we stopped a few days in Marseilles (where we had a fire in the paint locker), visited the camps, took on provisions and stood watches. One day a delegation came on board to inspect our facilities. They'd been on the Exodus, were sent back to Germany by the British, drifted southward till they arrived in Marseilles once again. They had experienced the appalling passenger accommodations on Shooshoo cruise lines once and it took a lot of persuasion on our part before they agreed, reluctantly, to try again. But a few days later we returned to La Ciotat, and the night time boarding of another two thousand passengers was reenacted.

This time we were not so lucky with the weather and I never forgot a young woman lying on the bare deck, vio¬lently ill, with her unattended baby forgotten, crying and shivering near her in the wind and the rain. Yet even¬tually we all made it to Haifa

This time I left the ship and joined my kibbutz. The Mala returned to Europe with a skeleton crew, to be disman¬tled in some forgotten shipyard. She was the last of the post-State immigrant ships. Or perhaps the link between those and the next generation of true passenger vessels, who took the remaining refugees from the camps to Israel. In either case we, who sailed on her, remember her affectionately.

Machalniks who served on the “Calanit”

USA: Stanley Berger, Reuven Bondi; Yitzhak Calic; Yochanan Dreifuss, Irving Galil, David Goldsdtein, Bill Grivendi, Al Gossman (Haramati), Benjamin Halperin, Whitey Kritzberg, Eliezer Levine, Philip Levine, Dave Masey, Ben Newman, Sy Podolin, Leonard Prager, Abe Rotenberg, Martin Silver

Canada: Joe Liberson, Archie Taller, Yehuda Witenofff


Source: American Veterans of Israel newsletter, October 1997

Written by Yochanan Dreifus on 17th June, 1997

Addition: List of Machalniks who served on the “Calanit” by Machal researcher Joe