History Comes Alive at Atlit Detention Center Heritage Site


In coordination with the Society for the Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites (SPIHS), and with a generous donation by the late Jack Greenberg — Jewish National Fund-USA proudly presents two new additions to the Atlit Detention Center Heritage Site; “The C-46 Airplane Experience,” and the “Exhibit Hall of Clandestine Immigration to Israel from Muslim Countries by Land & Air.”


Throughout the years, much attention has justifiably been paid to the Aliya, or Jewish immigration to Israel from European countries — primarily in the years leading up to and throughout WWII and the Holocaust. But hundreds of thousands of Jews similarly risked life and limb to flee Arab and Muslim states, and JNF-USA is keenly intent on retelling their rich histories as well.


“Our dream is to turn Atlit into a center that will illustrate and tell the story of all the aliyahs to Israel, the return journeys of the Jewish people, and the stories and histories that characterized all the immigrants and Aliyahs;” said Chief of Staff for JNF-USA in Israel, Tali Tzour, as she addressed the crowd at the exhibit’s opening ceremony. “As a descendant of families who immigrated from Islamic countries, I am proud to represent my grandparents, who came here even before the establishment of the state from Turkey, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria. On arduous foot journeys, they made their way to the only place that even then constituted a secure future for them and for generations to come. Thanks to my grandparents, I'm here. Jewish National Fund-USA considers SPIHS and its sites to be of paramount importance and provides a global platform for heritage, as we believe we must revive and present the journey we embarked on, the road to Israel's independence, not only for the Israeli audience but for all. The story must be told, the experience illustrated, and the history commemorated.”


As part of JNF-USA’s commemorative efforts, in 2017 a C-46 commando aircraft was brought to the Atlit Detention Camp and Heritage site from Alaska. The craft is the same model piloted in the brave and famous mission known as “Operation Michaelberg,” named for the two American WWII veterans who owned and piloted the plane. The mission was organized in 1947 by the late Shlomo Hillel — then a member of the Hagana’s Mossad LeAliyah Bet. During the operation, some 150 Jews from Iraq and Italy were airlifted from Baghdad into Mandatory Palestine under cover of darkness — the passengers paying their way in gold coins. And with Michaelberg’s success, two more similar operations were carried out. Now, with its interior retrofitted as an interactive exhibit, the plane retells these inspiring stories.


Tali Tzour speaks at the ceremony at Atlit


Before cutting the ribbon and officially opening the exhibit, Israeli President Isaac Herzog glowingly described the mission, as well as the bravery that inspired it. “This dream, Shlomo’s last, is being fulfilled today in his honor and memory. The story of the ‘illegal’ immigration to Israel, which occupied such a central position in the first years of the state, has no parallel in the history of nations. The secret mission that was imposed on Shlomo Hillel almost seventy-five years ago — to bring Jews from Iraq to Israel — is finally receiving the respect it deserves today.”


Meanwhile, the new “Exhibit Hall of Clandestine Immigration to Israel from Muslim Countries” tells the stories of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who made their way to Israel by every other conceivable land route — many of whom ended up in the Atlit detention site. Some 20% of the population of Israel fled persecution and pogroms in their countries of origin prior to Israel’s declaring independence. They dreamed of a better life in Israel — free to develop the land in line with the Zionist vision. But thousands were turned away or detained by the British, under pressure from Arab authorities to harshly limit Jewish arrivals.


A c46 plane at the Atlit Detention Camp


The exhibit features videos and stills, artifacts from early immigrants, and more. JNF-USA and its generous donors are committed to comprehensively preserving and presenting these stories and housing them at the Atlit Detention Camp and Heritage Site. In addition to the new exhibits, the Atlit detention camp today features the disinfection barrack, residential barracks, watchtowers, educational films on the immigrant’s traumatizing experiences, and a massive database identifying the 130,000 clandestine immigrants who were detained at the camp. It also features some 50,000 personal pages and testimonies which were processed and recorded. And similar to the C-46 experience, JNF-USA also provides the Galina Ship, another interactive exhibit describing the harrowing paths to liberation that the proto-Israelis endured.


Located some 20 kilometers south of Haifa, the 25-acre Atlit heritage site was originally a detention center built in the late 1930s by the British, in Mandatory Palestine. It was initially used to house illegal immigrants and convicts, but by 1945, nearly all the inmates were Holocaust survivors. Today, it is a monument to Jewish dedication to arriving in and building the land of Israel.


For mor information about Jewish National Fund-USA’s support for Israel’s heritage sites, click here.

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