PRAGUE, Nov. 26 (JTA) — Jiri Polacek was below deck on Nov. 25, 1940, supervising the cleanup of the Patria when a small explosion ripped into the ship´s hull. Within minutes the boat had sunk, killing 260 people. Exactly 61 years later, Polacek stands in Prague´s New Jewish Cemetery by a stone commemorating the tragedy, recalling the events in measured, hushed tones. "If you´ve seen the film ‘Titanic,´ you´ll have seen the panic and what people are capable of. In reality, it´s much worse," he almost whispers. In 1940, then-Cpl. Polacek, 27, was among 3,600 Jewish immigrants sailing to Palestine. Most had come from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary or Germany, traveling down the Danube River to the Romanian Black Sea port of Tulcea, where over 1,000 boarded a ship known as the Pacific. Another 1,900 went aboard the ship Atlantic, and 700 Czechoslovaks, including Polacek, boarded the Milos. British authorities, who had learned of the boats´ imminent arrival, regarded the refugees as illegal and banned them from Palestine. They chartered a French liner called the Patria to deport the Jews to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Polacek and about 100 other soldiers, however, negotiated with the British to allow them to disembark at Suez, where they would enlist in the Czechoslovak army and join the Allied forces. However, at about 10 o´clock on that morning of Nov. 25, 1940, an act of sabotage went horribly wrong. The underground Jewish army, the Haganah — which rejected the British policy of barring most Jewish refugees from entering Palestine — smuggled explosives aboard the Patria, hoping to cripple the ship in a desperate attempt to prevent its departure. But they miscalculated the force the explosion would have on an aging and rusting ship. Within 15 minutes, the 12,000-ton liner plunged to the bottom of Haifa Bay. "That day, in the morning, we had to clean the ship. I was supervising when suddenly the boat lurched to one side and things started falling off the shelves," recalls Polacek, now 88. "At first we didn´t really take much notice because we´d been used to the Milos, the ship we came to Palestine on, which would often lurch like that. The captain would say, ‘Everyone move to the other side, please,´ something we´d have to do to balance the ship," Polacek says with a quick laugh, before his face turns serious again. Polacek, who returned to Czechoslovakia after the war and received the rank of colonel, is speaking shortly after a memorial service with about 40 members of Prague´s Jewish community. The crowd includes the Czech minister for trade and industry, Miroslav Gregr, whose father, Capt. Emil Gregr, had been a passenger on the Milos and survived the Patria sinking. "From above, we suddenly heard shouts and screams and wondered what was going on. So we tried getting out," Polacek continues. "The gangways were jammed with people and there was a lot of pushing. There was great panic and chaos. More steps led to the deck, but people blocked these. Eventually we made it, I managed to grab onto the railings and from there it was pretty much a step into the water. "I swam the 500 meters ashore, stripped off and left all my clothes and documents on the pier, before swimming back to help," he says. "Later, when I returned to the pier, everything had been stolen and all I had on me were a pair of shorts." Many of the 260 who died, Polacek says, were killed when piles of timber with which refugees were expected to build their new settlements in Mauritius fell from the liner´s decks onto escaping swimmers. Those who survived — about 1,700 Jews — were interned in a detention camp at Atlit. They were permitted to stay in Palestine and were released in groups throughout 1941. Those who hadn´t yet been transferred to the Patria from the Atlantic and the Pacific — which had arrived only the night before the tragedy — were sent to Mauritius. "The Zionists that had smuggled the explosives aboard with the aim of ensuring that the refugees on the Patria stayed in Palestine had counted on most people being up on deck. But there was a general cleanup taking place, which meant many people were down in their cabins below," says Polacek, whose bunker was at the bottom of the ship, where the horses were kept. Polacek was released from the Atlit camp nine months after the Patria´s sinking. He then served in the 11th infantry battalion of the Czechoslovak army. He trained as an artilleryman and antiaircraft gunner in Palestine and served in Syria and northern Libya. Polacek later joined Britain´s Royal Air Force, where he served on the western front as a radio operator and gunner. After the war, a band of Czech veterans who survived the tragedy in Haifa Bay formed the Patria group and vowed to commemorate the sinking annually at Prague´s Jewish cemetery, which they do every year around the Nov. 25 anniversary. This year, Tomas Jelinek, the leader of Prague´s Jewish community, told the crowd that elements that helped create the Patria tragedy are still in place today. Whenever the Western powers attempt to create better relations with the Arab world, Israeli interests are neglected, leaving innocent Jews to suffer, he said. This was true when British interests in Palestine resulted in the forced repatriation of Jewish refugees to Mauritius, and it is true today with the U.S. fight against terrorism, Jelinek said.
ADVERTISEMENT: The transgender abba. The first female Hasidic judge. The Argentine-Brazilian-Israeli Jew living in Brooklyn. Help us tell these stories in our new series Chosen. We need your vote to make it happen. Vote today!