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Larchmont Ex-Prisoner Returns to Famagusta

by Mark Schulman

(August 7, 2003) Well before the Mediterranean island of Cyprus became a tourist Mecca, it was a British colony and used as a site to intern Jewish refugees trying to immigrate to Palestine after World War II. Thousands of Holocaust survivors would find themselves once again behind barbed wires and armed guards, including one long-established Larchmont resident.

Prison Camp

“ It’s hard to believe I was here over 50 years ago,” said Sam Schulman as he overlooked Famagusta’s harbor on the Turkish-controlled side of Cyprus. “Other than the port and the Venetian walls of the old city I barely recognize the place. It feels like a lifetime ago.”

A lifetime ago it certainly was as Schulman, a French Holocaust survivor who went on to become a watchmaker in New York and then settle in Larchmont in 1976 with his family, spent six weeks here in the winter of 1948 as a prisoner of His Majesty King George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father. His crime: trying to help Jewish immigrants from war-torn Europe settle in Palestine.

Schulman

Sam Schulman (on the left in the photo above) was a member of the Aliya Bet, the clandestine Jewish organization for illegal immigration, sailing on the legendary Exodus made famous by the late American writer Leon Uris in his 1958 bestseller book of the same name and the 1960 Hollywood film version staring Paul Newman. He also sailed on other lesser known, but equally important, ships like the Pan Crescent and the Pan York.

Exodus

“The Exodus might have been the most famous of all the Aliya Bet ships, but the Pan Ships brought the largest number of refugees from Europe at one time,” Schulman proudly said.

Nicknamed the ‘pans’, the Pan Crescent and Pan York were old banana cargo ships purchased in the United States in the spring of 1947 and refitted by the Aliya Bet for transporting Jewish refugees to Palestine. The boats left from the port of Burgas, Bulgaria on December 27, 1947 with over 15,000 immigrants. Several days later they were stopped by British warships after passing through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles in Turkey into the Aegean Sea towards the Mediterranean. The boats were forced to anchor at Famagusta.

“We decided not to put up resistance considering the number of refugees we had on board,” Schulman said. “So, we followed the British ships to Cyprus where the refugees got off and consequently interned. As a crew member, I, as well as several other Aliya Bet members, were allowed to stay aboard ship, but under the watchful eye of a British garrison.”

From the end of World War II until the establishment of the State of Israel, ‘illegal’ immigration became the main way of getting around the strictly enforced British policy of allowing only several hundred Jewish refugees into Palestine a month. During these years (1946-48) over sixty Aliya Bet ships were organized, but only a few managed to penetrate the British blockade and bring their passengers ashore. Most were stopped off the waters of their destined Jewish homeland and sent to prison camps in Cyprus that had originally been built for German prisoners of war (All except the 4,515 passengers on the Exodus who rather than being sent to Cyprus were forced on to deportation ships in Haifa and sent back to Europe in an attempt by the British to discourage the increasing flow of Jewish immigrants).

There were two sets of camps recalls Schulman. “There were the ‘summer camps’ at Karaolos, located by the sea on the outskirts of the port city of Famagusta, and the ‘winter camps’ at Xylotymbou in the outlying hill country.”

Although they weren’t death camps like in Europe, they were constructed by the German prisoners of war in a similar fashion - surrounded by a double electric wire fence with spotlights and an observation point every 100 meters. British soldiers kept watch with Tommy guns with orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

“Although conditions were harsh, the Jewish refugees made the best of their situation,” Schulman remembers. “Morale was high and there was often singing and dancing on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath).”

In addition, Jewish aid organizations were allowed inside the camps to help organize nurseries, clinics, as well as cultural and educational programs, such as teaching Hebrew.

Schulman was just one of some 51,000 interned by the British authorities in Cyprus. Some were detained for only several months and entered Palestine on the limited monthly quota, while others were there as long as two years and admitted only after independence. The last group of prisoners left the island after the State of Israel was established in May 1948. According to records kept at the time, between 1946-1949, 1,916 babies were born in the camps, 126 people died in detention (due primarily to illness) and 1,573 people are believed to have escaped, many with help from local Cypriots and the Haganah (the pre-nascent Israeli Defense Forces), which had operators within the camps.

The Haganah got Schulman out on the Jewish passenger liner the Kedmah under the alias of one of the immigrants approved by the monthly British quota. The next morning he disembarked in Israeli port city of Haifa and headed south to help build a kibbutz (an agriculture collective) with friends he knew from his youth movement days in France. He would then fight in Israel’s War of Independence before deciding to get away from the horrors of war and the complexity of the Middle East. He came to New York in 1950 and started anew.

After training to be a watchmaker and jeweler in New York City, he set up a private business in the old Diamond Exchange on Canal Street, today the heart of Chinatown. He would marry Eileen Azif of Mt. Vernon and have two children, Alan and Mark – both who attended Murray Avenue School, Hommocks and Mamaroneck High School.

SchulmanAlthough Larchmont is about as far as one can get from the troubles of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, Schulman would find his way back to Cyprus some 50 years later, only this time as a tourist.

Taking advantage of a lull in tensions between the divided island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, Schulman traveled with his family only 40 kilometers from the resort town of Larnaca on the Greek side to Famagusta, or Gazimagusa as it is called on the Turkish side, to revisit an early part of his life.

“I didn’t think I would ever come back here,” he said. “Not only is it historical for the two sides to visit one another, but I’m glad I had a chance to show my family where I was so many years ago. It was a different world back then.”

Schulman didn’t find any remains of the British detention camps, but he did take in the sights, including the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, formerly the Cathedral of St. Nicholas that dates to the Lusignan period (1200 to 1489 CE) where many Cypriot kings were crowned, and the fortified Venetian walls that encircle the ancient city. And of course, he spent a lot of time looking out to the port where he spent time aboard the seized Pan Ships.

“I’m proud about the role I played,” Schulman said about his contribution to help Jewish immigrants get to Israel. “Those were important days of my life.” But, he added, “One must not dwell too much on the past.”


Mark Schulman grew up in Larchmont and is now a journalist living in Israel. He supplied the photographs for this article.

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