I.F. Stone, the famed investigative journalist, probably took part in some interesting Passover seders in his time, but he never spent one with Jews who felt personally connected to the events in ancient Egypt — until 1947, when he was a guest at a remarkable seder with Holocaust survivors in a detention camp on the island of Cyprus.
“This is being written 3,000 feet up over the blue Mediterranean,” began Stone’s dramatic account in the pages of the New York City daily newspaper PM. “I am in a tiny four-passenger two-motored mosquito plane bound for Haifa from Nicosia in Cyprus, where I have just spent the first two days of Passover in camps established by the British to intern ‘illegal’ Jewish immigrants seized in Palestine.”
Those were turbulent times. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors crowded the Displaced Persons camps in Allied-occupied Europe, waiting for British permission to immigrate to Palestine. The British, bowing to Arab opposition, had almost completely shut the gates to the Holy Land. Palestine itself was in flames, as Jewish underground forces waged guerrilla warfare against the British authorities. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Truman administration wobbled back and forth on the controversial issues of Jewish immigration and statehood.
In a desperate race for the promised land, survivors were boarding aliyah bet (unauthorized immigration) ships bound for Palestine. More often than not, they were intercepted by British naval patrols and taken to Cyprus. That’s where I.F. Stone’s story began.
“There are two sets of camps on the sweet-smelling ancient Greek Isle of Cyprus for 11,300 refugees now held there,” Stone explained. “Both are being enlarged to meet the expected Spring rush of Aliyah Beth boats which will probably boost the Jewish population to 20,000 before the end of June.”
The detainees were living in Nissen huts, which Stone described as “the ugliest architecture known to mankind — a sort of tin igloo with cement flooring set in bleak rows on the level grassless plots near the sea, surrounded with barbed wire and a row of latrines.” A typical hut housed three families in three rooms.
“Unexpected and unannounced,” Stone and a friend, Alex Taylor of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, dropped in on the Efrati family on Passover eve. Moshe Efrati, 35, “a laundryman by trade”; his wife Rachel; and their children, 15-year-old Miriam and 12-year-old son Eliezer. Despite the lack of an invitation, the visitors “were at once made welcome.”
“Father Efrati sat at the head of the table, reclining on a pillow as is customary for the seder,” Stone’s account continued. “On his right, sat his bright-eyed son of 12, already a student in the yeshivah organized by religious Jews in the camp.” On the father’s left sat his good wife and daughter. Alex and I were given haggadas and the seder went on.”
“It was no hop-skip-and-jump affair, as is customary in most American Jewish homes,” Stone noted. “Efrati left nothing out. We rose to drink our wine with blessings, partook of the bitter herbs and first matzohs. Efrati sang the parts with relish and explained and translated as he went along.”
Stone, himself a secular Jew, was deeply moved by the warmth and religious devotion of the family, especially in the midst of such difficult surroundings. “The mother looked on as if she didn’t know how one man could be so bright,” he wrote, “and the daughter was fascinated while the son’s eyes shone.”
What struck Stone the most was the connection between past and present.
“The Passover has a deep personal meaning for these Jews,” he wrote. “For them the ancient cruel taskmasters were no fable: they had been in slave labor camps under German occupation. For them, the God who smote the Egyptians was the same God who brought the Third Reich low.”
As he strolled around the camp the next day, Stone was impressed by the vibrant life he encountered among the Cyprus exiles. “Life flows on strong, and vigorous babies are being born at the rate of 30 to 40 monthly,” he reported. “There have been almost 600 weddings since the camps were established last August, and there were 135 nuptials during the two weeks before Passover.
“There are schools and synagogues, camp newspapers, an art exhibition, and workshops,” not to mention “several soccer teams which often play the British guards and boast they have never been beaten.”
What did the future hold? The seder with the Efratis offered a clue.
“Were [the DPs in Cyprus] not like the Jews under Moses?” Stone asked. “Moses went through one kind of wilderness or another to the promised land. And as Efrati explained in his own running commentary to the service comfortingly, ‘We had to go down into Egypt for 400 years, but we need only be six months or so in Cyprus.’”
Stone thought Efrati’s prediction too optimistic. Given the severe British restrictions on Jewish immigration, “it will take 18 months before the latest arrivals get their chance to go to Palestine.”
But British rule in Palestine did not last another 18 months. That autumn, in the face of the Jewish underground’s military assaults and sharply escalating international pressure — generated in part by sympathetic journalists such as Stone — the British surrendered. Seven months after Stone’s Passover with the Efratis, London accepted the United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine and announced it would withdraw. Four months later, the first British troops began leaving, and two months after that, on May 15, 1948, the British withdrawal was completed.
For the Efratis and the thousands of other DPs whose plight I.F. Stone helped publicize with his impassioned prose, the exodus was over and homecoming was finally at hand.