By Susan J. Drucker and Gary Gumpert
On July 9 the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, went to Xylotymbou in the Larnaca District to unveil a plaque in the village’s “Garden of Peace” honoring the Cypriots who helped the Jewish people detained by the British in camps on Cyprus after the end of WWII. The event was brought about by the collaborative work of the Community Council of Xylotymbou and the Embassy of Israel.
The commemoration was long in coming since it was sixty-eight years ago two camps were constructed on Cyprus, the first not far from Famagusta and the second near the village of Xylotymbou. The Xylotymbou camps were on what is now the Sovereign British Base of Dhekelia. Over a period of nearly three years, approximately 53,000 Jews seeking asylum in the future nation of Israel and fleeing from the ravages of war torn Europe, would be interned by British military forces in those camps – against their will.
Zehavit Blumenfeld, born in the British Military Hospital in Nicosia during her parent’s incarceration in Cyprus, spoke at the event. Her words are featured on the memorial that reads:
“My half side, the left one, the side of the heart, is Israel.
But the other half, is Cypriot.“
One of the 2200 babies born at the Jewish Detention Camps in Cyprus
This event adds a significant, public, sign of what transpired nearby long ago. In the long tumultuous and dramatic history of Cyprus those years of imprisonment represent a mere moment in time, a blink of the eye, quickly forgotten – particularly because of the Turkish invasion of the island forty years ago.
With the closing of the camps in 1949 almost all physical traces of the camps disappeared. In the sixty-five years since the closing of the camps one of the attempts to commemorate the camps and their close link to the surrounding villages of Cyprus never materialized because the Caraolos camps just outside of Famagusta were severed by the Turkish invasion.
The only other memorial in the Republic of Cyprus was presented in 1998 by the philanthropic Jewish group, Keren Hayesod, that had raised funds to help Jews overcome the British immigration restrictions. This plaque was dedicated to the people of Cyprus, and remains out of sight on the wall of the marine passenger terminal building, inaccessible to all but those who pass through ord countordport security.
The moment of honoring the Cypriots of Xylotymbou is an important testament to memories lost in the mind of the many. Ambassador of Israel to Cyprus Michael Harari pointed out how little is known or recalled about the events of this era other than the story told in the 1960 film Exodus.
Particularly important in this quest for long awaited recognition is Poly Spyrou, who has acted as a village historian and whose family was closely connected to aid those Jews seeking to escape from their terms of imprisonment.
The story of the camps and the heart wrenching tale of incarceration and agony, is told in an upcoming documentary film it has taken over 15 years to research and produce. Memories in Cypriot Soil (produced by the authors of this article, Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker) tells the story of the camps and explores the degree of public knowledge about the post WWII British Detention camps. The film includes interviews with citizens of Xylotymbou. Public remembrance and forgetting is at the heart of the storyline of the documentary, currently in postproduction. The filmmakers anticipate a premiere of the film late this year. Director Nektarios Vilanides in attendance at the Xylotymbou event said: “I as a Cypriot knew nothing of these events before beginning to work on this film. I have been fascinated learning about this and how it is really a story of Cyprus history as well as Israeli history. It is important we learn about this time from various perspectives and our film will let the voices of Cypriots be heard along with voices of Israelis, British and others who experienced those dramatic times.”
Sixty five years after the closing of the camps President Anastadiades presence underscores the historical significance of those camps and the relationship between Cypriots and those Jews who would become Israeli citizens. The commemoration was sponsored by the Community Council of Xylotymbou and the Embassy of Israel. Ambassador Harari has noted “In those years, close ties with the Cypriots were established, as the latter showed their solidarity to these Jews by offering their help in any way possible.” With increasing bilateral relations between Israel and the Republic of Cyprus, particularly as a result of the development of the energy fields and hydrocarbon development, Ambassador Harari emphasized that “knowing our history is extremely relevant to the way we cooperate both now at present and in the future.” President Anastasiades echoed this theme in his remarks in which he spoke of historic and current relations between Cyprus and Israel. “Cyprus and Israel share a common vision; to effectively and strategically upgrade our relations in every possible field of mutual interest”.
The commemoration takes place at a time of remembrance of the history of the area around Xylotymbou which housed Jewish refugees in the 1940s as well as Cypriots refugees who lost their homes in the wake of the Turkish invasion 40 years ago this month.