Cyprus - Eretz Israel Museum

The Art of Life - The Detention Camps, 1946-1949

The exhibit reveals a fascinating picture of the past life of thousands of illegal immigrants, Holocaust survivors, who left Europe on their way to Palestine, but were detained by the British authorities in camps in Cyprus. As the result of the White Paper, only a small number (some 2,500) of the 70,000 illegal immigrants who sailed for Palestine between August 1945 and May 1948, managed to break through the British blockage. When illegal immigration intensified in the summer of 1946, the British cabinet decided to deport the immigrants to Cyprus, and over a two and a half year period, 39 ships were caught and sent to Cyprus. Over 52,000 illegal immigrants were imprisoned in the detention camps until they were freed; the camps closed down in February 1949.

The camps were set up in two areas; the “summer camps” in Karaols, which primarily comprised tents, and the “winter camps’ in Dhekelia and Ksilotimbu, with tin shacks and a few tents. The camps were enclosed by double barbed wire fences which were lit up, and British sentries stood on guard night and day. The feeling in the camp was onerous, as the memory of the camps in Europe was still painful. The prisoners were detained as if they were prisoners of war under crowded conditions. They suffered from a lack of privacy in the tattered tents and in the stifling shacks during the summer months, a water shortage, restricted food rations, a shortage of clothing and shoes, restrictions on movement, and they had nothing to do.

The resilience of the immigrants enabled them to overcome the hardships of imprisonment, and even initiate a special kind reality, “freedom within slavery.” The internal organization, alongside the help they received from the Yishuv in Palestine and from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, eased their suffering, and with the support of emissaries who came from Palestine, they conducted activities such as professional and military training, sports and education, culture, art, and more.

The exhibition presents the immigrants diverse creative activities, and their social life in the detention camps; their creative activities comprise printing, aquarelle paintings and drawings, cartoons, textiles, and decorative objects made from assorted materials. In addition, newspaper clippings, photographs and interviews depict the fabric of life in the camps that involved cultural life, theatrical performances, sport competitions, social events and study groups.

Some of the works were displayed in an exhibition that took place in October 1947 in Cypus, and several months later in Tel Aviv. Most of the work was later transferred to Hashomer Hatzair Archives in Givat Haviva, where they were kept until they were displayed again in 2014, in an exhibition in Cyprus. The current exhibition offers us a fresh view of a significant chapter in the building of the nascent state.