Ben Weiss Discovers Jewish Life in Cyprus

December 7, 2010 by Ben Weiss
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It was a late November afternoon, a plan was hatched over a telephone call with my Cypriot born friend, Anthony.  A Roman Orthodox, the son of a father of Armenian descent who fled his native Jerusalem in 1948, he strangely felt a kindred spirit towards me, a secular Jew with a European parentage.

Our plan was to jointly discover the fragments of Jewish life in Cyprus.

We were aware that Jewish life had existed on this ancient Mediterranean island for over 2000 years tracing back to the Roman and Greek empires. However, it was the arrival of the 50,000+ European Jews to Cyprus during the period 1945 to 1949 which drew our joint fascination.

Detained by the British in 2 internment camps at Kraolos and Dhekelia, the conditions in these “tent cities” were alarmingly poor, lacking the most basic of necessities such as running water and soap, traumatising the inmates, many of whom had just survived the Holocaust.   The existence of these camps has been well documented, including in the Otto Preminger film “Exodus” which starred Paul Newman and was partly set in Cyprus.  But what was left of those camps, those now ubiquitous images of Jewish prisoners standing in front of the corrugated “Nissen Huts”? Were all remnants of these camps destroyed by the British to hide evidence of their capricious actions during their Colonial rule of Palestine of Cyprus?

Our mission was to find physical evidence of their existence, and to see whether Jewish life still existed on this tiny island.  Would we succeed?

Crossing the Green Line into Northern Cyprus

Our journey was to begin at Kraolos in Northern Cyprus, but this meant crossing the United Nations Buffer Zone, the 180km border that has divided this diminutive island since 1974, when the Turkish and Greek Cypriots had a coup d’état.

The United Nations checkpoint at Nicosia

Having reopened in 2003 after Cyprus joined the European Union, I was able to cross with relative ease and my driver, Mustafa, was waiting on the other side.  Recognised by no government outside of Turkey, the border towns in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are a startling contrast from the modern, vibrant metropolis just a stone’s throw away in Nicosia.   An early sighting of an imitation McDonalds, comically named “Big Mac”, provided confirmation of Tom Friedman’s “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, observing that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise had ever gone to war with one another.

The imitation McDonalds in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus

We arrived at Kraolos, the historical location of the larger of the 2 internment camps, now sitting inside a Turkish military base. Unfortunately, neither Mustafa nor I could charm our way past the 15 dour looking Turkish military personnel into the base, but we did manage to learn that any remnants of the internment camp had been destroyed many years earlier.

An early setback, relief was soon to come with Mustafa offering to drive me to nearby Famagusta, an ancient city, but also the best vantage point to take photos of the infamous “ghost town” of Varosha, a city without any inhabitants.

Famagusta; the setting for Shakespeare’s Othello

The 2300 year old city of Famagusta hosted a legendary battle between the Venetians and the Ottomans in 1571, which caught the eye of one William Shakespeare.  The Venetians were defeated, but their fortress and walls remain until this day.  A walk through the old Venetian Royal Palace, takes you to a most surreal sight, the 700 year old Saint Nicolas Cathedral, equipped with tombs of Bishops, but today a converted mosque (see the minaret on the top left hand corner).  The sound of Berlin’s “Take my Breath Away” blaring out of the speakers of the nearby coffee shop provided an even more compelling juxtaposition.

The 700 year old Saint Nicolas Cathedral in Famagusta, with added minaret

The old Venetian walls in Famagusta

The “Ghost Town” of Varosha

A famous seaside town that once drew the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot, its inhabitants fled the area during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and it has been abandoned ever since.  The once luxury beach hotels on JFK Boulevard are falling apart, car dealerships are still holding cars from 1974 (now vintage ofcourse).  Today, it is a Turkish military zone, with only stray cats, snakes and rats risking prosecution to take up residence there.

The memorial plaque at Larnaca port

The memorial plaque at Larnaca Port Departure Terminal

Having failed to find signs of any Jewish life in Northern Cyprus, I returned to Nicosia with Anthony ready to make the journey to test our fortunes in the south.    Our first stop was at the Larnaca Port because we had heard anecdotal evidence of a memorial plaque that was laid by the Israeli based Keren Hayesod in 1998.

We arrived at the desolate departure terminal at Larnaca Port, but were swiftly denied entry by the local officials.  We were informed that the ferry services were stopped a long time ago with cruise liners only using the port during the summer months.   Our persistence soon paid off and the gentleman agreed to accompany us into the terminal to see if such a memorial plaque existed.

Success at last, as our eyes locked on the plaque outside one of the entry doors to the terminal. With such an important part of history now eternalised in stone, our minds turned to the obvious question; where was the foot traffic of Israeli and Cypriot tourists passing by the plaque to be reminded of this important chapter in their respective histories?   Unfortunately, with the flotilla episode still raw in the minds of Turkey and Israel, I imagine these tenuous Mediterranean waters will remain unchartered for the foreseeable future.

Entering the labyrinth of Dhekelia

With a spring in our step, we entered the nearby British Army Base at Dhekelia.  Our initial self-navigated drive along the perimeter of the base proved uneventful.  We soon realised that it would be an impossible challenge to locate anything inside this 7 square kilometre labyrinth of army barracks, warehouses and buildings without assistance, so we stopped at the military police station to make enquiries. Unfortunately, the local officer was quick to confirm that all traces of the internment camps had been destroyed.    With a forlorn look on our faces, we decided it was almost time to give up.

The eye-witnesses sipping coffee at the Kimon Athletic Club

As dusk approached, we saw a flicker of light in an old coffee house in the adjacent town of Xylotymbou.   Climbing the stairs, we approached a table of village elders.  In Greek, Anthony asked the oldest looking gentleman whether he had heard of an internment camp that once housed Jewish people.  “Heard of it” the man replied, “I worked there”, he exclaimed.  My legs raised on the ledge of the chair, sipping my coffee Cypriot style, I heard 3 gentleman recount their own eye witness stories ranging from “smuggling dozens of eggs under a pile of laundry” into the camp, another whose family opened their doors to Jewish escapees and directed them to Famagusta port and on to Haganah ships bound for their “homeland” in modern day Israel.

When we explained our disappointment to learn that the traces of the camps had been destroyed, the tallest in the group, Demetrios Kryiacou immediately interjected and explained that the concrete foundations which housed the “Nissen Huts” were still in existence, and can be seen on either side of the Fire Station on the British Army Base.  We exchanged contact details and after the warmest of embraces, we agreed to return to Xylotymbou soon and to have a first-hand tour of the remains of the internment camp.   Perhaps a few well-placed diplomatic calls ahead of time could even twist the (still wounded and deeply embarrassed) British to erect a plaque on this hallowed ground.

Anthony and I together with 3 elder residents of Xylotymbou who assisted the Jewish prisoners in the internment camp at Dhekelia.

Today, Cyprus is home to a Synagogue, a Mikvah and about 350 Jewish families.  Signs of Jewish life in Cyprus are omnipresent;

A Channukiah burning brightly outside the police station in Nicosia

Mendy handing out donuts to Jacob and I at the check-in counter at Larnaca airport

the Channukiah burning brightly in Nicosia, the fleet of Chabad cars at Larnaca airport and the sufganiyot (donuts) handed out to arriving and departing pssengers.The Channukah Candles burning brightly in CyprusAlthough I merely scratched the surface of Jewish life in Cyprus, in many ways I feel like I tugged at its inner core.  United by an ancient and chequered history, today Israel and Cyprus are the closest of allies, a shining example of togetherness and a beacon of hope in an otherwise divided region.

Happy Channukah and Seasons Greetings to all

Ben Weiss hails from Sydney

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