Youth Aliya and Illegal Immigration to Palestine

Teenagers eating ice cream in Geneva, Switzerland before departing for Palestine.

German Jewish refugee teenagers eating ice cream in Geneva, Switzerlandbefore departing for Palestine, May 1945.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Jewish youth sent from Palestine to serve as guides and organizers of illegal immigration activities, 1947.

Jewish youth sent from Palestine to serve as guides and organizers of illegal immigration activities, 1947.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Although the Zionist movement was not as popular in Germany as it was in Eastern Europe, Palestine became a popular destination for Jewish refugees once the Nazis came to power. This was particularly true among the youth, who saw a chance to create a new society that was free of antisemitism. The bulk of legal German immigration to Palestine occurred between 1933 and 1936. Many German children who came to Palestine during this period came as part of the Youth Aliya program. This program took unaccompanied German Jewish teenagers between the ages of fourteen and seventeen and resettled them in kibbutzim (i.e., communal farms) for two years. The immigrants would perform manual labor half of the day and spend the rest of their time engaged in educational endevours, particularly the study of the Hebrew language. After the two years period expired, the participants could choose to join the kibbutz or to pursue their own interests elsewhere in Palestine.

Photograph of Buchenwald survivors Yisrael Meir Lau (left) and Elazar Schiff (right) on board the Aliya Bet ship, Matarosa. July 15, 1945.

Photograph of Buchenwald
survivors Yisrael Meir Lau, later Chief Rabbi of Israel (left) and Elazar Schiff (right) on board the Aliya Bet ship, Matarosa. July 15, 1945.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As it was initally concieved, the youth aliya program would only accept certain types of individuals: members of Zionist youth groups who were as being the most physically and ideologically fit to build a new country. Later, as the Nazi regime became increasingly oppressive, the youth aliya accepted as many teenagers as possible, without regard for ideological purity. An estimated 4,800 Jewish children came to Palestine before 1938 through the Youth Aliya program, and an addition 12,000 immigrated during the war years.

While many young immigrants to Palestine were enthusistic about their new lives, others were appalled at how primitive conditions were when compared to Europe. Since many of the immigrants had originated from middle class homes, they found it difficult to adapt to a new society in which everything was common property. Little attention was paid to the emotional concerns of the refugees, most of whom had come to Palestine with no family, money, or knowledge of Hebrew. The youth aliya participants tended to be looked down upon by sabras (i.e., native-born Palestinian Zionists), who viewed their German peers as being too rigid and intellectual to be pioneers. Although most of the German Jews eventually left the kibbutzim, the majority stayed in Israel.

The Youth Aliya program was the only legal way for Jews of any age to enter Palestine after the war began; the refugee crisis had grown so large that the British closed Palestine to further immigration for the duration of the war. However, refugees continued to enter the country, albeit illegally, in a process known as the Aliya Bet. The Jewish Agency in Palestine set up an organization called Mosad l'Aliyah Bet to coordinate the attempts to bring refugees into the country. The primary method of doing this was by ship. More than 100,000 attempted to illegally enter Palestine from 1937 to 1944. More than half of these people were on ships that were intercepted by the British. After being arrested, the refugees were interred in camps on the island of Cyprus. About 1,600 Jews drowned when their ships sank. Only a handful were able to sucessfully reach Palestine. The Aliya Bet continued until the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Sources cited:

Edelheit, Abraham. The Yishuv in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Zionist Politics and Rescue Aliya, 1933-1939. New York: Westview Press, 1996.

Laqueur, Walter. Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2001.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Aliya Bet." Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005776 (accessed July 15, 2008).