Aliyah Bet - Illegal immigration, also called Ha'apalah, conducted at the initiative of immigrant groups in Europe, the Jewish Agency and in some cases with the help of the United States and even the Nazis. In Palestine, Aliya Bet was organized beginning in 1939 by the "Mossad l'Aliya Bet" to bring immigrants to mandatory Palestine after immigration was restricted by the British White Paper of 1939.
Illegal immigration began on January 12, 1938, when the "Poseidon" brought 65 illegal immigrants who disembarked at Avihayil. At this time, the Jewish Agency operations were under the command of the Halutz department. Up to 1938, about 8,000 Jewish immigrants had entered Palestine illegally, to circumvent quotas that were already in effect under British emergency regulations before the White Paper of 1939.
Illegal immigration was organized by the "Mossad l'Aliya Bet" between 1939 and 1942, when a tightened British blockade and stricter controls in occupied Europe made it all but impossible, and again between 1945 and 1948. Even in the interim years, and especially in 1944, there were significant illegal immigration attempts.
It is a misconception to assume that the immigration was an initiative of the Zionist movement only, and it is certainly incorrect to say that the Zionist movement deliberately chartered bad ships to bring Jews to Palestine in unsafe conditions, when they could have been safe in Europe.
European Jews were desperate for ways to leave Europe, but for the most part there were few options. No country was willing to take Jewish immigrants. However, some countries would give them transit visas. In particular, Romania was an Axis ally, but had a relatively lenient policy toward Jews, and a bribable officialdom, until it was actually invaded by the Germans. Romanian Jews and those from all over Europe who could escape gathered in Black Sea ports of their own accord, and different agencies, including profiteers, offered transportation in overcrowded death traps to Istanbul. From there, it would presumably be possible to get to Palestine. The Jewish Agency could not stop this immigration, they could only facilitate it. This is how the Romanian illegal immigration is described by one source:
Before World War II, Romania's Jewish population was about 900,000. About half-a-million Jews perished in Romania during the war, some of them under the German occupation and in the territories ceded to Bulgaria and to the Soviet Union. Some of them were deported to Nazi death camps, but a large majority died in the pogroms organized by the State and the militia.
However, the persecution of the Jews in Romania began long before the war. Under the oppression of the Romanian Iron Guards (the equivalent of the German SS) the Jews began fleeing the country from the port of Constanza to Palestine in 1938. An Associated Press dispatch dated March 2, 1939 described the city of Constanza as a huge refugee camp with thousands of Palestine-bound Jews forming lines in front of travel agencies that sold tickets for fly-by-night shipping companies. This inaugurated an era of the so-called "coffin ships" as all the vessels chartered for this purpose were rickety, unseaworthy boats devoid of amenities, crammed 5 to 10 times their normal capacities, and their destination was, in most cases, fatal.
The Mossad L'Aliyah Bet was active in Romania too. The rickety, overcrowded, ancient boats full of refugees tried to reach Palestine. Many of the ships sank or were caught by the British or the Nazis and turned back, or shipped to Mauritius or other destinations for internment.
On May 28, 1939, the Haganah ship Atrato was captured by the British navy. At the time it had already brought 2,400 immigrants into Palestine in 7 trips. On August 22 the Betar (revisionist) ship "Parita" with 856 passengers arrived and successfully disembarked many of its passengers. About September 1, the Haganah's "Tiger Hill" likewise brought over 1,400 passengers. Each ship was greeted by a crowd of thousands, enabling many of the immigrants to lose themselves in the crowd. World War II had now started. Up to the beginning of the war, illegal immigration had rescued about 21,000 European Jews.
On January 23 and February 13, 1940, the British apprehended the ships Hilda and Sakaria and arrested and interned the immigrants.
In November, the British intercepted three ships sailing in convoy,: the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Milos, and transferred the passengers to the Patria, a captured French liner. To prevent the internment of the immigrants outside Palestine, the Haganah placed a small explosive charge on the ship on November 25, 1940. They thought the charge would damage the engines. Instead, the ship sank, and 252 lives were lost. A few weeks later, the SS Bulgaria docked in Haifa with 350 Jewish refugees and was ordered to return to Bulgaria. The Bulgaria capsized in the Turkish straits, killing 280.
The Salvador, another refugee ship out of Romania, sank in early December of 1940. According to one version of events, it went down in a storm. According to another version, it may have been torpedoed. Over 5,000 illegal immigrants entered Palestine in 1940, many more were caught and interned for the duration of the war.
During all of 1941, only about 4,000 Jews managed to enter Palestine. The Struma, a vessel that had left Constanta in Rumania with 769 refugees, got to Istanbul on December 16, 1941. There, it was forced to undergo repairs of its engine and leaking hull. The Turks would not grant the refugees sanctuary. The British would not approve transshipment to Mauritius or entry to Palestine. On February 24, 1942, the Turks ordered the Struma out of the harbor. It sank with the loss of 428 men, 269 women and 70 children. Apparently, it had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, either because it was mistaken for a Nazi ship, or more likely, because the Soviets had agreed to collaborate with the British in barring Jewish immigration. At this point, the Mossad l'Aliyah Bet apparently stopped its efforts. However, the illegal immigration efforts continued, including "private initiatives" and one by the US. Sometimes they met with success, and often they ended in internment or tragic failure. In early 1944, US President Roosevelt apparently authorized a cloak and dagger mission to rescue 50,000 Jews from Southern Europe. In fact, somewhat under 3,000 Jews in 8 ships under Turkish registry were rescued in this way, mostly from Romania. (see http://www.alpas.net/uli/struma/Ziarulturc.htm and www.jewishgen.org/romsig/New/Strumah.html. The ships docked in Istanbul, and the Turks provided rail passage to Syria. On August 5, 1944, however, the Mefkure, carrying 316 passengers and crew, and flying both a Turkish flag and a Red Cross banner, was torpedoed by Soviet submarine SC-215, in the Black Sea. Survivors were machine gunned while trying to escape.
Despite these setbacks, tens of thousands of Jews were saved by the illegal immigration. After World War II, illegal immigration efforts continued, in order to point out the inhumanity and senselessness of British policy, as well as to help displaced persons get out of Europe. American Machal volunteers bought and manned 10 of the 68 ships that participated in this rescue effort. These were the largest ships, and transported the most immigrants, bringing 32,000 out of over 70,000 immigrants who tried to come to Palestine after World War II. However, as they were the largest ships, they were also the most easily spotted, and this may explain why in all cases, the ships were intercepted and the passengers were generally interned abroad.
One of the Machal immigration ships was the Exodus (formerly "President Warfield"). In June of 1947, the British rammed the Exodus on the high seas. They towed it to Haifa where it was the subject of extensive publicity, generating public sympathy for the Zionist cause. The passengers were eventually disembarked in Hamburg. The incident set world opinion, and particularly US opinion against the British, and caused the British to intern illegal immigrants thereafter in Cyprus, rather than attempting to return them to Europe.