A tiny ship (279 tons) which made history in the chronicles of the illegal immigration. She began organizing in January 1939 in Czechoslovakia; sailed in May 1940 from Slovakia; wandered for 4 months along the Danube, mostly through Hungary and Yugoslavia. The same ship sailed out to sea from Rumania; was shipwrecked in the Aegean Sea and went down near an island between Greece and the Italian Dodekanesos. 514 passengers were saved and remained for 10 days on a Rock Island. The Italian Navy saved them and they were taken to Rhodes, from where they were taken, after 500 days, to the camp of Ferramonti in Calabria – and, after exactly 4 years, most of the passengers arrived in Eretz Israel – the first liberated Jews from Europe!
The task that “Pentcho” took upon herself – to transport hundreds of Jews by an impossible journey to safety – involved many great hardships. The convoy was supposed to set out in March 1939, but, at that precise time, Slovakia gained independence and contact with the head office in Prague was lost. We were forced to organize a separate immigration of 300 people – all of army age, if possible. The nerve-wrecking period of waiting was exacerbated by the outbreak of World War II; the ship which was purchased in France (“Saint Brieux”) was requisitioned because of the state of emergency; the money for the transport of 300 people remained in London and the center of the illegal immigration network moved to Bucharest in Rumania.
Our immigration office acquired a small fishing vessel by the name of “Stefano”, but its Italian owners refused to approve this name and one of the heads of our office, Reuben Franco, “donated” his nick-name of “Pentcho” to the ship which experts sarcastically called “a caricature of a submarine”. Meanwhile, there was somewhat of a let-up on the fronts, the Danube was ice-free, and it was decided to send the Pentcho to Bratislava in order to transport our group (which had meanwhile grown in numbers to 400 people) and to take them via the Danube to the port of Sulina and, from there, on - to our goal!
We started out, therefore, from the Port of Bratislava on the 18th May, 1940 with hope in our hearts that the journey would not take too much of our precious time and hoping that, in spite of the complicated international situation, we would get to our destination, although we were prepared for a difficult journey and the even more difficult conditions on the boat itself. We knew we would continue on the Pentcho to the sea but we did not know that on our way, in Yugoslavia, a group of a further 101 passengers would join us – people released from German concentration camps on the condition that they were never to return.
Pentcho, loaded down with 514 passengers, continued on her journey. The Rumanians refused to let her pass through the “Iron Gate”, using the excuse that she would endanger the passage and other things. With continued attempts, we wasted about 3 months on the Danube, most of these spent in the no-man’s land between Yugoslavia and Rumania, with the Jewish community of Belgrade supporting us with supplies and other necessities. Eventually, we passed through the Straits of Rumania, also with the help of the Jews of Yugoslavia who supplied two ships to pull us through. We wasted a further three weeks because the Bulgarians confiscated Pentcho’s Bulgarian flag and the Rumanians refused to let us enter port in order to buy food. We therefore hoisted the flag of the Red Cross and signs in all the languages of the area with the word “Starvation”.
Only on 21st September did the improved Pentcho (but without a radio, without a transmitter and without welding equipment, etc.) sail to the Black Sea. The Turkish, in Istanbul, didn’t even allow us to take on water and taught us our first “Moslem” word – “Yallah”. We left the Bosporous and decided to try in Piraeus. Even before we got to Greek waters, a warning shot was fired, as we were sailing without a flag. We overcame this minor incident and continued on, after an unsuccessful attempt to buy fuel in Mitilena-Lesbos.
In Piraeus we felt war first hand but, thanks to the intervention of the Greek Jews, we received supplies of food and fuel – enough to take us as far as Eretz Israel. We were also given a good piece of advise: to sail via the Dodekanesos islands opposite the Turkish shore and, from there, along the shoreline and southwards to Israel.
Feeling encouraged, also due to the fact that we had full fuel tanks and food enough for approximately two weeks, we set out towards the Dodekanesos islands. After three days we were sailing on the calm waters of the Aegean Sea. Pentcho was functioning perfectly when, on both sides of the ship, suddenly appeared two Italian Navy torpedo ships and they commanded us to enter the port of the island of Stampaglia. There, “everything” became clear; - and it caused us to catch our breath! We had passed through a magnetic minefield, but tiny Pentcho was not deep enough in the water to attract the magnetic mines and we had passed through the danger safely. Had we arrived an hour later, in darkness, we would have been sunk without prior warning. The bearded Italian officer, who inspected our engines and cabins and saw the children playing, summed up the situation thus; “We are at war and endangering our lives daily, but the true heroes are you who dared to sail here from Bratislava in this ship. May God watch over you…” and tears sparkled in his eyes. In this way we made our first acquaintance with the Italian people and they were never ever to disappoint us.
We were led through the minefields, and shown the way to the Mediterranean between Crete and Karpathos. It was already October and the sea was rough. We stopped a few times due to a problem in a pipe – actually a leak in the ship’s boiler – and we were without any welding equipment when we saw a Grey line on the horizon. We let down our only functioning lifeboat and five young men set out in the direction of land, in order to bring help. Meanwhile, the women collected enough sheets in order to make makeshift “sails” and we became a sailboat. All around us was endless sea with not another vessel in sight, and we were edging eastwards with our ineffective “sails”.
Evening fell, the winds became stronger, the ship was heaving from side to side, and so we tore down the sails in order to slow us down as we could see a faint light – a sign from our friends in the lifeboat. Suddenly, we felt a strong tremor; we had run onto the rocks near the shore. We let down the anchor and it gripped the ocean floor. We gave the order to everyone to dress, keep quiet and remain still. The ship slipped backwards and suddenly the anchor caught onto a crevice in a huge rock. The ship came to a standstill and rocked from side to side endlessly. We were only a few meters from the shore. We let our reserve mast down onto the shore and the athletes amongst us slid down it and tied it to the rocks. A surface made of planks became a bridge between the Pentcho and the unknown island. Here, in this dark and strange place, all the passengers left the ship in exemplary order and with no sign of panic, via the “bridge”, with the help of young men who stood on either side in the water. The women with children left first, then the rest of the women, the old people and, finally, the young men.
The water had already seeped into the engine room and the lower decks (nicknamed Acre and Ilava) by the break of dawn – but everyone was on safe ground. We were on a Rock Island with not a tree or a bush and without water - only rocks. It was the eve of Yom Kippur, 1940. As the ship continued to heave, but had not yet sunk, all the young people returned to the ship and began to collect every useful item, including water which was turning salty. We put everything on the headland. On Yom Kippur, minyans prayed, but the youngsters formed a human chain and, using buckets, removed all the fuel from the ship and stored it in the bottom of a pit in the rocks.
At the end of Yom Kippthe ship sank and her passengers remained on the island for the next ten days. We organized ourselves for “independent” living. The food, which we had saved from the sinking ship, was divided up and, once a day, we all had soup. We worked out ways of attracting world attention to our plight, but only on the tenth day – 19th October – did an Italian ship arrive. It was early evening and her captain asked us over the loudspeaker; “Do you want us to rescue you?” The answer was very clear: “Long live Italy”. That same night, the women, old men, children and sick people were transferred to the island of Rhodes and the remaining immigrants followed the next day. (The Italians sent another ship a few days later to pick up the five people who had fallen asleep in a cave on the island, together with all the suitcases and personal belongings that had also been left behind)
In the beginning, we were placed in a tent camp next to the sport’s stadium under harsh housing and food conditions, as the rainy season had started and Rhodes was suffering, due to the severe blockade of the Allies.
Life on Rhodes became harsher and often very boring. We spent 500 days on the island, at first in the tent camp next to the stadium, and after a month, moved to new barracks on a hilltop from where we could see the sea and all the way to the Turkish shoreline. The name of the camp was “Campo San-Giovani”. The Italians treated us fairly and carefully, even to the point of sympathy and even amicability. They did not interfere in our internal matters, or in our Jewish and Zionist activities. Food was sparse but no-one starved to death (the only deaths were of a few of our “partners in destiny”, who died of dysentery in the beginning) and, when many of the people began to receive money transfers from relatives and friends throughout the world, we managed to improve our simple diet, mainly by quantity.
We made many plans, including dreams about how to leave the island. Five young people especially wanted to get to Eretz Israel at any price and planned and carried out their escape to the Turkish shore in a small boat. But their attempt ended tragically when the boat sank and two of them were drowned. The British air raids were also quite regular and the 500 “ship-wrecked” were an extra burden on the island’s economy. The authorities, therefore, decided to transfer the “Pentcho” immigrants to Italy, to their largest “concentration” camp in Ferramonti. This transfer was also carried out in two sailing – in January and March of 1942.
If I placed the word “concentration” in inverted commas this was on purpose because Ferramonti, with its approximately 2,000 prisoners – the majority of them Jews – was only a “Campo di Concentramento” in name. Actually, our treatment was extremely humane and, in spite of the Fascist regime in the country, our treatment in most areas of life was really liberal. It is, therefore, totally unfair to compare an Italian camp to a German concentration camp. We chose our own hut leaders (Kapo), leaders of institutions and people who represented us with the authorities. There were internal cultural and educational institutions in the camp, a school for our children, synagogues for the religious, a drama company, a good choir, a football “league” and even - …cafes.
There were many many examples of Italian humanitarianism. They actually saved the Pentcho people four times: - when we were led out of the mine-fields; when we were rescued from the island of Kamila-Nisi, after the ship sank; when we were transferred to Ferramonti (because all the Jews of Rhodes, including one of our families who stayed there, were sent to Auschwitz); and their refusal to the Nazi Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, to give the Jews of Ferramonti (summer of 1942) over to the Germans.
Amongst all the really emotional details that prove the Italian fondness towards us, one single event stands out. - In mid-1943, a papal representative visited the camp – Cardinal Borgoncini Duca. He gave a speech in our synagogue and quoted Jeremiah – “by the rivers of Babylon where we sat down” and added: “Do not weep…you will reach your historic homeland and you will rejoice…”
We had the privilege of being the first liberated Jews in Europe (September 1943). When the Allies invaded southern Italy from Sicily, none of the inhabitants of the camp was harmed and, after a while, the Eretz Israel Hebrew units appeared and took us under their protection. In short: in June 1944, most of the Pentcho people emigrated to Eretz Israel with legal papers. A ship named the “Bathory”, sailed from Toronto, and, in Alexandria we boarded a train which took us straight to Atlit. From there, the Pentcho people were distributed throughout the country, set up home in Israel and took part in the War of Independence (two of our friends also fell in the war) – We are here!!!!