Israel's Good Name

Castra & the Atlit ”Illegal” Immigration Camp

In Coastal Plain, Haifa, Israel on April 2, 2013 at 6:10 AM

On the second day of Chol HaMoed, somewhat well-rested from the previous day’s trip to Tel Dan, we headed out in the very opposite direction, destination: Castra and Atlit (just south of Haifa). First site, coming out of the Carmel Tunnels (which feel way longer in a car than in a bus) was the Castra museums. Located within a mall, there are two “museums”: a Doll Museum which, in many display cases, recite the history of the Jewish people, and the Archaeological Museum which showcases the finds of Khirbet Castra’s excavations. Khirbet Castra lays on the western slopes of Mount Carmel and was an important settlement during the Byzantine period. Artefacts found in the area can be traced back to all different periods, due to the great location of the area.

Old ceramic piece from Castra

Old ceramic piece from Castra

Rather small museums, but free of charge, there isn’t too much to share but here is a nice scene from the Doll Museum – the 1967 recapture of the Kotel, a great time in recent Jewish history:

Doll depiction of the 1967 recapture of the Kotel

Doll depiction of the 1967 recapture of the Kotel

After the Castra Mall museums we continued south and took a little stop at my base. We weren’t allowed in, well I was, but it gave my family a glimpse of what some of the army life is like – a glimpse. After the base, we continued on south to Atlit, on a road that I’ve driven on so many times. At the entrance to Atlit, just across from the gas station we fill our trucks up at, is the Atlit “Illegal” Immigration Camp. Being that I pass it so often while army driving, I’ve been waiting and waiting to get inside. With the tour starting shortly, we hopped on in. The first site on the tour, a prisoner transport bus with a British army guard:

Transport bus and guard

Transport bus and guard

To relay a brief overview of the site, the Atlit camp was built in the late 1930s by the British to hold the refugees flooding in from Europe, before, during and especially after the war. After stopping the clandestine immigration ships out at sea, the British would often detain the wannabe immigrants and so the camp at Atlit began its years of service. With new people continuously coming, the British would let people go from time to time. Here is a aerial model of the camp and the train tracks, with the guard towers on the low sandy hill in between:

Model of the camp

Model of the camp

One famous incident took place at the camp. One night, after two days deliberation, the Palmach sent fighters into the camp to release everyone. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated, was one of the commanders of the Palmach strike force that liberated the camp. With the operation a success, the British devised a detaining method out of the Palmach’s reach – detainment camps in Cyprus. An island off the coast of Turkey and Syria, the British opened up camps and brought the wannabe immigrants in by the thousands. But before the opening of the Cyprus camps, the Jewish immigrants were brought, often by train, to the camp at Atlit. Here is a photograph of children who survived the Holocaust being “transferred” from German camps to British camps in 1945:

Children that survived the Holocaust...

Children who survived the Holocaust…

First thing first when entering the camp. Segregation, showering and delousing with DDT in the shower house:

The shower house

The shower house

An interesting fact, which I learned on Wikipedia, is that some of the German Templars from Haifa (from the German Colony), who supported the Nazis, were detained in the Atlit camp before being deported. I cannot imagine it was very nice for the Templars and the immigrant Jews living together in the camp. Speaking of living, here is one of the surviving buildings from the living quarters:

Exterior of the living quarters

Exterior of the living quarters

And inside the living quarters. In the photo, the restoration attempts, there are just 20 beds, usually there were about 40 and in times of maximum capacity there were 70 beds per building!

Living quarters

Living quarters

And in the corner of the living quarters, an area dedicated to teaching. Mostly there were impromptu instructors teaching the Hebrew language to the immigrants but I’m sure other subjects were thrown in as well.

The teaching corner

The teaching corner

The tour guide took us next to a room with a screen. We all sat down and she stood at a podium and asked us as a group if we knew anyone that spent time in the camp. A woman, sitting beside my mother, spoke up and told the guide to search for a “Shimon Gelles” on the computer. When the search was complete, and Gelles’ face was staring down at us from the screen, the woman announced that Shimon Gelles was none other than her father. There was a murmur in the air and she told us a little bit about his trip, adding that she hadn’t known what month he arrived on the shores of the Holy Land, but now did due to the scraps of info beside Shimon’s face on the screen. When she was done the guide told us the story of one man, a book illustrator, who drew scenes from his trip across Europe, down to the bottom of Italy and onto a clandestine immigration ship. Then there were drawings of the British warships stopping them and then being sent off to be detained. Next site on the tour, the “Galina”, a small ship carrying “illegal” immigrants:

The ''Galina''

The ”Galina”

The rescue story of the ship, if I understood it correctly, was a tale unto its own. In the late 90s the ship was brought from Latvia to England, where it sat for some time doing restorations to make it seaworthy again. Then, in 2006, the “Galina” was towed by a Dutch fishing ship all the way from England to the coast of Israel. It sat in the Tel Aviv port area for a while whilst the Second Lebanon War broke out. A missile struck the factory commissioned to turn the old ship into what we see today and therefore work was delayed. Finally, a few years ago, the finished ship was laid to rest in the Atlit camp. The insides of the ship have been reconstructed into a display piece including screens, models and effects – with very special attention to detail! Here are two nice rooms, the communications room and the bridge:

Communications room on the ''Galina''

Communications room on the ”Galina”

The bridge on the ''Galina''

The bridge on the ”Galina”

At the end of the tour I broke free from the group and took photographs of the guard towers and train cars. Here is one beautiful pictorial representation of both tower and train:

Guard tower and train

Guard tower and train

After leaving the site we drove to the coast, attempting to visit the Atlit Fortress (also known as Chateau Perelin). We got as close as the Shayetet 13 base entrance, where the guards told us that the fortress was inside the base and that we were not allowed in. Being that Shayetet 13 is the Israeli version of Navy SEALs, that makes sense – if we weren’t all allowed into my base, all the more so… So, we stopped at the beach area and spent a few minutes in the chilling winds and the waning sun, the Atlit Fortress silhouetted in the background:

Sunset at the coast in Atlit

Sunset at the coast in Atlit

Well, this may be my last post for a spell. Vacation ends when Pesach does, so it’s in the hands of the army to provide me with blogging content!

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  1. […] the Carmel Coast. There, we disembarked at the paintballing place outside the Congress Centre, near Castra. I had never been paintballing, so I was justifiably looking forward – itchy trigger finger […]

  2. […] British to transport Jewish refugees from the ports and beaches where they landed from sea to the Atlit “Illegal” Immigration Camp. Once independence was established, the train lines were restricted to just safe Israeli stations […]

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