Avigur (Meirov), Shaul

(b. 1899)
   Haganah leader. Avigur came to Palestine from Russia at the age of thirteen, and later was a member of Kibbutz Kinneret on the shore of Lake Tiberias. He joined the Haganah when it was founded in 1920 and within a couple of years was a member of its national committee. With the rise of Hitler in Europe in 1938, the Haganah set up an organization for Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration), and appointed Avigur its head. The Mosad, as it was later known, acquired old ships to smuggle Jewish refugees from European Mediterranean ports to Palestine. A number of these ships were intercepted and boarded by the Royal Navy, and the refugees on them interned in the Athlit camp south of Haifa. In 1940 the authorities decided to deport captured refugees to Mauritius for internment. The Haganah tried to sabotage three transport ships before they could sail. In one of them, the Patria, a Haganah explosive charge blew a larger hole in the hull than had been planned, and the ship sank in Haifa harbour, drowning two hundred refugees. Avigur had to explain and defend the orders before an internal enquiry committee set up by the Jewish Agency.
   During World War II, the transfer of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe came to a standstill. The Mosad then turned to smuggling Jews into Palestine from neighbouring Arab countries, bringing them by land across the borders. With the war over, and the British White Paper policy still enforced by the Labour government, the operations by sea across the Mediterranean were resumed. Inside liberated Europe, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust started to move across national borders in an effort to get to Palestine. This Bericha (Escape) developed into a large-scale migration, with a number of elements involved in organizing and helping it: local Zionist and partisan leaders in different countries; the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade; schlichim (‘emissaries’) sent especially from Palestine; and funds from the American Joint Distribution Committee. Certain governments, such as that of Poland, co-operated with or acquiesced at the Bericha, not being averse to getting rid of the remnants of their slaughtered Jewish communities. The American military authorities showed a degree of goodwill, and allowed Jews to gather temporarily in Displaced Persons (DP) camps, or to move southwards through the US occupation zones in Germany and Austria. Within three years, a quarter of a million Jews had moved through in this way.
   The Mosad was closely involved with the Bericha, and channelled it towards the small Mediterranean ports of France and Italy, where the refugees would embark secretly at night on the Aliyah Bet ships. Avigur moved his headquarters to Paris, and directed a ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ operation on a grand scale, pitted against all the diplomatic, naval and intelligence resources that Britain could muster. Aliyah Bet had become the focus of a growing Jewish challenge in Palestine.
   Between 1944 and 1948 sixty-three shiploads of ‘illegals’ sailed for the forbidden shores of the Promised Land. Only a few slipped through the naval blockade and reached deserted beaches at night, where the refugees were carried ashore through the surf and disappeared into kibbutzim in the area. All the rest were shadowed by naval units till they neared the Palestine coast, then were boarded and in some cases rammed, causing a number of casualties. They were then escorted to Haifa, and their passengers transferred to British prison ships waiting to take them to detention camps in Cyprus. Waves of anguish and bitterness swept through the yishuv and the Jewish world at the picture of these hapless survivors, men, women and children, being forcibly marched across the quay and then pushed out to sea again, while their weeping relatives were kept outside the barbed wire fence round the harbour. More than fifty thousand refugees accumulated in the Cyprus camps.
   The tension reached its climax over Exodus 1947, an old American riverboat that came limping into Haifa harbour, having been rammed at sea. It carried 4, 500 refugees crammed into its hold. The British foreign secretary, Ernest BEVIN, incensed and frustrated at Jewish resistance to his Palestine policy, decided to make an example of this boat. He ordered the passengers to be loaded onto three prison-ships and brought back to Port Du Buc in France, from where the Exodus had set sail. But in spite of the oppressive heat, the overcrowding, and the shortage of food and water, the Jews refused to come ashore, while the French authorities refused to allow them to be disembarked by force. After three weeks, with the story holding world attention, the ships were ordered to continue their sorry voyage through the English Channel to Hamburg, in the British occupation zone. Here the people of the Exodus were dragged ashore and put back into a DP camp on German soil. No single episode brought the Mandatory policy to greater disrepute than this one. Before long, Mosad men had contacted the refugees concerned, and many of them were on the move again towards the Mediterranean.
   The last major exploit was at the end of 1947, with the bringing of two large transports, the Pan-York and the Pan-Crescent, with 15,000 people on board, from Romania through the Black Sea and the Dardanelles. On the proclamation of Israel’s independence, 14 May 1948, all restrictions on Jewish immigration were scrapped, and the Bericha and Aliyah Bet came to an end.
   During the War of Independence, Avigur was occupied with arms purchases in Europe. He then served for a while as a senior official in the Ministry of Defence. After that he devoted himself to co-editing a voluminous history of the Haganah and writing a volume of memoirs, Im Dor ha-Haganah (‘With the Haganah Generation’, 1962). He remained active on matters concerning the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

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