The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Gidon Ramati and his wife Aliza, sat down with Paul Calvert of Bethlehem Voice for an exclusive interview to share his fascinating story of survival and hope in the face of war.
Ramati’s story begins on Sept. 1, 1940, when as an infant, he and his family escaped Nazi Czechoslovakia along with some 3,800 other refugees, to Romania, in order to eventually make their way to Haifa, which was then under the authority of the British Mandate.
“We received permission from the Nazi authorities that we were going to be allowed to go out to the land of Israel,” Ramati began, sharing his story, while a British friend translated into English.
His parents, his aunt and baby cousin (six months old), sailed down the Danube River and arrived at a port in Romania after three days, where three ships were waiting – the SS Milos, SS Pacific and SS Atlantic.
Ramati’s family sailed on the largest of the three vessels, the Atlantic, which was built to safely transport about 300 people. However, many Jews were trying to escape Czechoslovakia, and there were 1,800 refugees, six times the number the ship was supposed to transport, on board. “The conditions were very bad on the ship,” Ramati recalled.
After passing the Bosphorus and reaching the Mediterranean Sea, the ship encountered stormy conditions, Ramati explained. The combination of bad weather with the extra load of passengers forced the Atlantic to travel at very low speeds.
“About halfway there, the fuel ran out on the ship. So we started to cut up anything made of wood on the ship: the beds, the cupboards, closets, everything that we could use as fuel. And slowly, slowly we progressed,” Ramati said, arriving a long, three months later.
During the interview, he explained that there had been an outbreak of Typhus during the journey, and a number of people died during the voyage. The contaminated corpses were wrapped in tallit prayer shawls and simply left behind in the sea.
Upon arrival in Haifa, on Nov. 25, the British informed the crew and passengers that they would not be allowed to enter their ancestral homeland, but that they would be transferred on to another, “very ancient” ship, the Patria, and taken to the island of Mauritius. There were already 2,000 people ready to sail, passengers who had sailed from Romania on the SS Pacific and SS Milos.
The next morning, Ramati, along with his mother, boarded the ship to the island of Mauritius without his father, who was supposed to travel separately. A British officer took them down to the lower decks. “You wait here until the others come and bring the luggage,” he said.
“My mother was there with her friend Hannah, and we sat down and waited,” Ramati told Calvert, “and after about half an hour we heard suddenly a big explosion.”
The blast was caused by commanders of the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary organization, which planted an explosive device on the ship in a desperate attempt to prevent the deportation of Jews. Their intention was to slightly damage the ship with a small blow to earn some time for the repairs, and stop the ship from sailing to Mauritius.
However, Ramati explained that the explosion, which later became known infamously as the Patria Disaster, was much larger than intended and caused much more damage than expected, ultimately leading to the deaths of 270 European Jews who had been trying to emigrate to Israel, along with members of the crew.
Ramati described the panic and fear of the passengers as water began pouring into the ship.
“My mother's legs were in the water. She saw that people were running to get to the steps to climb up to the higher decks. So my mother said to her friend Hannah, who also had a small baby, a few months old: ‘We have to go up with everybody else; we can't stay down here!’ Hannah said, ‘I don't have strength for that.’ And she stayed and we never saw her again - or her baby.”
Ramati’s mother managed to eventually climb up to a higher deck, where she saw people jumping into the water in a panic, injuring themselves by breaking their arms or legs. But she didn’t know how to swim and also needed to hold on to him, he explained.
Eventually his mother grabbed a young boy and told him: “Take my baby and jump into the water and I will jump in after you.”
The boy took Ramati under his armpit and jumped, and his mother jumped in after him. Somehow his mother was rescued into a small boat that immediately sailed toward the landing stage of the port.
From there, British policemen transported the survivors into buses and trucks. Without the baby, his mother but taken to the barbed wire surrounded Atlit camp, about 12 miles south of Haifa.
Ramati described an ordeal involving a mandatory disinfectant procedure for Patria ship survivors. As soon as she could, his mother ran to the gate to see if somebody was coming with her baby.
“And this baby didn't arrive,” Ramati said. “And it got to the evening, and the last of the survivors from the Patria sinking arrived… and her baby didn't arrive. She turned to one of the British officers and explained to him what had happened to her. And the British officer said to her, ‘Tomorrow morning I will come to find you. Be ready for me, and I will take you to Haifa to look for your baby.”
Thankfully, the officer did come the next morning, and together they looked through all the hospitals, orphanages and other rescue places where the baby might have been taken, but they didn't find the little Gidi.
Back at the Atlit camp, Ramati’s mother was in great pain because she couldn’t breastfeed the little one. Thankfully, as she ran around the camp, she found some other babies she could nurse, which helped relieve the pain.
After three or four days, the British officer came again and said he had received a phone call from an army camp on the Carmel. In the army clinic, miraculously, they were actually caring for several babies who had not been claimed. So the officer took his mother to this place.
“They went into the clinic and the nurse took them to a room,” Ramati explained. “There were eight babies lying there. They had all been injured. They were not in a good condition in one way or another. She goes looking at the babies. She doesn't recognize anybody. And then she saw one of the babies had a pacifier on a shoelace around its neck, and she recognized the shoelace. She said it had belonged to her husband. And she said to the nurse, ‘Please take the bandage off the baby’s eyes.’ The bandage is taken off the baby’s eyes and she cries out, ‘This is my baby!’”
Baby Ramati had become very sick with a high fever, so he was only released to go back to the Atlit camp a few days later, where he and his mother lived for about nine months.
“This is where I learned to sit and to walk, and went through all these developmental stages, in the camp at Atlit,” the now healthy pensioner told Calvert.
Ramati’s father survived his long journey and was eventually reunited with the family more than two years later.
“He had been in a small boat on his way to board the Patria,” Ramati explained, sharing his father’s story. “He saw what happened. He heard the explosion and, of course, they turned around all the small boats and took them straight back to the Atlantic ship.”
A few days later, Ramati said, all those who were still left on SS Atlantic were brought to the Atlit camp, but kept separate from the other refugees. A short time later, his father was sent to the island of Mauritius on another ship, a two-weeks total journey.
While in Mauritius, the men were separated from women and children in a camp, Ramati explained. The men were initially prisoned and the women and children lived in nearby huts. A few weeks later, the men were given some additional freedoms. Ramati’s father, his uncle, his maternal aunt and her husband, and another baby, remained in Mauritius for about a year and a half.
“Unfortunately, there was a very bad outbreak of malaria in the camp. And my father also became ill. There were about 60 people who died of malaria. So, after about a year and a half, the British said to the male prisoners, they said: ‘Any young men who are willing to to join and fight with the British Army in the war, they can get out of here.’”
Ramati’s father (along with his brother and his sister-in-law’s husband) was one of 300 volunteers sent to an army camp in South Africa, and from there they joined a unit to fight in Arab lands for the British army. His father had many adventures, including being sent to the Alexandria port in Egypt to join the fight against German and Italian planes, which were bombing the port.
After some weeks, Ramati explained, Germany and Italy began bombing Haifa port, including the refineries. That is when his father was sent back to Haifa with other Jewish fighters.
At that time, Ramati said that he and his mother were living in Israel on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha. By that time, young Ramati was three years old and it was the first time he had seen his father since fleeing Czechoslovakia. “Who is this soldier?” he had asked his mother.
After sharing his story with Calvert, Ramati reflected on the current rise in global antisemitism, as well as the current war Israel is fighting against Hamas terrorists and their allies in Gaza.
He recalled the similarities to his own experience as a young person in 1948, during Israel’s Independence War. Ramati and his family were living on a kibbutz near the southern city of Ashkelon, which borders Gaza.
“The Egyptian army was approaching the kibbutz, and after a few weeks, the government of Israel decided to remove all the women and children from the kibbutz and just leave the men still living there,” Ramati shared.
“This is exactly what's happening today to the kibbutzes, the villages near to us and to Gaza. And we were taken to Rishon Letzion, which is further north, and they created a kindergarten for us. And they put mattresses down on the floor, and that's where we slept. And they went into the synagogue and took out all the benches and put some mattresses down there. So there was more place for people to sleep. And we were there for two weeks. There – was a very hard time.”
After about two weeks there were attacks on Rishon LeZion, where they were staying, he explained, and they were moved to a hotel in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, for about nine months.
“And this is exactly what's happening to the people from the border community,” Ramati said, referring to Israeli citizens who live near the border with Gaza today.
“And after nine months they took us back to see what will remain of our kibbutz after the war. It was completely destroyed,” Ramati shared.
Today, about 75 years later, Ramati’s grandchildren now serve in the Israeli military, defending the State of Israel, in Gaza, against terrorists.
He said he is very proud of them, but added: “I don't envy them. They've been there three months.”
Ramati recalled his own experience in 1948, when Israel was fighting for its freedom.
“We were 10 months away from our home because of what was going on. It's very, very difficult. And for 10 months I was without my father, again, separated from my father,” he recalled.
Ramati’s complete story is recounted in his wife's book: "Where Are You My Child?"
Click below to listen to the interview in its entirety.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.