My parents wanted to leave Communist Poland because they felt their sons would have a better life in a Western country. After the war, from 1946, they tried to get a visa to immigrate to the United States – America, the land of the free and unlimited opportunities. The quota system took a very long time and in 1956, when Poland opened its borders for a few months and allowed anyone of Jewish descent to leave the country, my parents jumped on that opportunity.
Once my parents knew that they were leaving Poland, they started getting ready in earnest. It involved mostly selling things that would not be useful in Israel, like fur coats. They started buying goods that they could sell at a profit once arrived in the new country. Based on rumors, they bought crystal objects, a bicycle, and a moped, supposedly highly praised in Israel. Around March 1957 a couple of huge wooden crates appeared in the apartment and slowly filled up with goods and furniture. It was all shipped out to Haifa before May 1st. The moped was actually sold at a high profit after we settled in Israel. My dad kept the bicycle and used it sometimes to go to work. When I could reach the pedals, I used it to run away from home, again, but that is another story.
I was very excited about the trip. I heard of warm weather, the sea and beaches, palm trees and huge orange groves. I did not realize that I would have to learn a new language. And there was a lot of talk about – the land of the Jews.
We took a taxi to the train station and left for the Port of Szczecin on the Baltic Sea. All of our fellow travelers were new immigrants, families headed for Israel. We filled up an old passenger ship (it was not cruise ship, believe me) and set out for to Le Havre in France. We followed the German coast west to the Kiel Canal that took us to the English Chanel. We crossed from the Baltic to the Nord Sea following the canal, the German and Dutch coasts.
Before we reached the canal, the seas were quite rough and the weather miserable. Everyone was sick – I really mean everyone – except the crew. I was one of the lucky ones – in spite of the heaving and rolling ship I did not get sick. I refused to stay in the small cabin with my parents and my brother. Like everybody else, they were vomiting, their faces were pale green, and they laid in bed moaning. I spent a lot of time on the bow of the ship with the cool wing blowing in my face; maybe that’s what helped me not to get seasick.
After a day or so following the Kiel Canal, we arrived to the English Channel, which the French call “La Manche” or the sleeve. From Le Havre in the north of France, we were bussed to Paris, and arrived at the Gare de Lyon train station. We took the train to the outskirts of the beautiful city of Montpellier in the south of France and ended up in a layover camp. On the train, we discovered French food – baguettes, cheeses, sausages, pâté, and fresh fruit. I spent most of the time standing in the corridor and looking out of the window on the French countryside. It was beautiful.
We stayed in Montpellier for about four weeks and the weather was great. I met several kids on the ship from Poland and we explored the surrounding fields and small villages. It’s the first time that I tasted licorice.
I am trying to rake my brain and remember more details about what we did in Montpellier. I was only 11 years old and I simply don’t have any other memories of what we did, except to visit the near-by countryside.
The day finally arrived when we were loaded on busses and driven to Marseille. We boarded an Italian ship – much nicer than the one we took from Poland. When we finally boarded the Italian ship, it was really like being on a beautiful cruise ship. All of the crew were young Italians not only handsome and tanned but also dressed in beautiful white uniforms and always smiling. The meals were great – we never had such good food in my memory. Of course, there was a lot of pasta and good meats and we all just loved it. The weather on the Mediterranean was mild and sunny – what a difference from the Baltic and the English Channel.
A few days later (maybe 12? 14?) we saw the Port of Haifa.
In Haifa, after we went through the customs and immigration, we met my father’s cousin Havek and his family. It was all new to all of us – different continent, different country, different language, different weather, different people, and different architecture. Walking in the street in Haifa, I saw a stray cat and said to my father, “Dad look – a Jewish cat.” Shows how much I understood about religions and nationalities in those days. Many people around me spoke Polish and I could easily communicate with them. After a couple of days we were driven to my uncle Shabtai’s house in the town of Rishon Letzion, one of the first Jewish settlements in Israel.