As Father's Day approaches, I am thinking not only of my dad, but of my grandfather, Ojzer Fränkel. Seventy-five years ago, he stood on a crowded dock in Constanza, Romania, with 1,000 other Jewish refugees from Hungary, Romania, Poland and Slovakia. Among them were 300 orphans. Ojzer was holding a ticket for the Mefkura, a small, rickety, wooden Turkish motor schooner bound for Palestine. Everyone was weary. Mossad agents and the Zionist Organization in Romania had done their best to organize the charter, which included two other ships, the merchant ship Bulbul, and the Morina. Various middlemen, from dockworkers to under-secretaries of the Romanian government, had been paid off. The vessels had been refitted and yet none had sextants. The condition of the Mefkura was so bad that an insurance company consented to cover it only for war risks, not for sea risks.
Next to my grandfather Ojzer stood a young woman with three children aged about five, seven, and nine. She was talking to her sister and evidently was one ticket short. The mother began to wail. Ojzer, father of three, offered her his ticket. Then somehow he wrangled a spot on the Bulbul, which lead the little flotilla toward the Bosphorus.
At midnight, an unknown vessel asked the Mefkura to halt and identify itself. It proceeded without responding. The vessel fired three times. The last blast split the burning Mefkura in two. Most of the passengers, who were asleep, were trapped in the ship's hold as she sank. Several dozen jumped overboard without lifejackets while the captain and his crew launched the ship's only lifeboat and saved themselves. The attacker machine-gunned the frantic passengers as they struggled in the frigid waters of the Black Sea.
The Bulbul returned to pick up survivors, but it was too late. She saved only 5 people. Five out of 379.
The next day the Bulbul sailed into the remote port of Igneada, Turkey. From there my grandfather Ojzer and 409 other passengers were transported by ox-cart and then trucks to Istanbul. He arrived in Palestine on August 14, 1944 where he was detained in Camp Atlit, a British-run holding pen for illegal refugees near Haifa.
My grandfather survived the Black Sea crossing by a fluke. He was one of 39,000 Jews to make Aliyah illegally on boats between 1939 and 1944, according to reports on activities presented to the 24th Zionist Congress. The total of those who made Alyah regardless of means of transportation was 69,000. The mother of three and her children were among the 1,393 who drowned, as reported by Dalia Offer in her book, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939 - 1944.
Their fates were the same as thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, and African refugees who recently have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. According to Missing Migrants, a project of the U.N.'s Migration Agency that tracks missing refugees, over 60,000 refugees have perished trying to reach asylum during the last 20 years. Since 2014, the Mediterranean has proved the most dangerous crossing; 8,000 souls were fatally shipwrecked on voyages from North Africa to Europe. The peak was 3,000 in 2016. So far this year, of the 1,055 who fled their countries and died, 540 died in the Mediterranean. That's a little over half. This year's number of refugees is much lower than in the past because European nations have closed their borders, but the percentage of fatalities is higher.
As one third of refugees that arrive in Europe are children, according to The New York TImes, it stands to reason that many of the shipwrecked dead were children and adolescents. There is no reason to believe that the fleeing adults were not upright and altruistic men and women like my grandfather and the mother he tried to help.