Return to Syrna Island

Return to Syrna Island

Survivor’s daughter from Edgewater traces her mother’s path from Auschwitz to a Greek island to Palestine

Kathy Hoffstadter-Thal is surrounded by the retired Israeli Navy Seals who helped her and her family get onto Syrna. (All photo courtesy Thal family)
Kathy Hoffstadter-Thal is surrounded by the retired Israeli Navy Seals who helped her and her family get onto Syrna. (All photo courtesy Thal family)

They’re so different, the places where Kathy Hoffstadter-Thal’s mother was captured and imprisoned and saw people die terrible and unnatural deaths, all for the crime of being Jewish.

Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were dark, iron and steel and flame, with those mocking gates lying about what awaited anyone unlucky enough to enter them. Work did not make them free. It killed them.

Syrna is a Greek island in the impossibly blue Aegean, under a differently but still impossibly blue sky, lit by gold; it’s guarded by rock formations that are breathtakingly, formidably odd. It’s sporadically home to goat herders. It doesn’t really support life, and it’s not the most welcoming of ports in a harsh storm.

Ms. Hoffstadter-Thal, a pediatric nurse practitioner who moved from Demarest to Edgewater with her family four years ago, has traced her mother’s path into horror and then back out, to safer haven first in Israel and then in the United States. This summer, she finally got to follow in the most elusive part of her mother’s trail.

The family — Molly Cohen, David Thal, Kathy Hoffstadter-Thal, and Jonathan, Gary, and Adam Thal — landed on the cliffs that defend Syrna.

She went to Syrna, where the ship Rafiah, with its cargo of 800 Holocaust survivors on its way to what then was Palestine, sank, and still lies at the bottom of the Aegean.

This is Luiza Rothfeld Hoffstadter’s story.

Luiza was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Hungary — she didn’t move, but the borders did — and then they did again. Now it’s Ukraine. Her papers gave her birth year as 1922 — “they had no birth certificates then,” Kathy said, “and even her Auschwitz papers said she was born in 1922, but she really was born on December 2, 1918. She lied about it a lot. A lot of people lied about when they were born.”

Her town was small, “just maybe four or five blocks,” so the Nazis, when they came, moved the family to the ghetto in Beregszasz, a larger town; they were stored in a brick factory, like factory-second merchandise, before being sent to Auschwitz, then Bergen-Belsen, and then an ammunition factory in Magdeburg. “She was in Auschwitz for 11 months, I believe,” Kathy said.

The world of Kathy Hoffstadter-Thal’s parents included this synagogue in Nagy Teteny where her father’s father was the cantor.

Luiza was one of eight siblings; their father had died before the war. “Her youngest sibling, a brother, was 17 years old, and supposedly he was responsible for shoveling bodies out of the ovens,” Kathy said. He did not survive; nor did their mother, who was separated out into the immediate death line when she got there. Luiza remembered that her mother watched, crying, as her children were put in another line. “They had to live with these memories their whole lives,” Kathy said.

Luiza and two of her sisters, all still together, were sent on a death march. One of them was too sick to walk. She was put on a wagon; the wagon went in one direction, and the other sisters in the other. “They never saw her again,” Kathy said. “My mother always felt guilty about that,” as if she could have saved her.

“Five of the siblings survived, and they went back to their town,” Kathy said. “Everything was gone.” But she’s gone there, and “the town is pretty nice. The people there don’t deny the Holocaust. I was there maybe three years ago, and I met with a 90-year-old woman who remembered everything. They tried to hide my mother’s brother.

“My father’s town near Budapest was different,” she added. “They denied the Holocaust. But these people, in my mother’s town, they are simple people — it’s farm country. They’re simple but compassionate.”

Like so many other young Holocaust survivors in the immediate postwar period, Luiza was at loose ends. Europe was a mess, her family and community were gone, and she had to make a life for herself. She became a Zionist, got herself to Yugoslavia — her surviving family members all stayed in Hungary — and decided to go to Palestine, become part of Aliyah Bet, the movement to get Jews to Palestine that began before World War II and ended with the end of the British mandate there. The Mossad, the Haganah, and most specifically the Palmach’s sea arm, the Palyam, organized and staffed the ships that evaded the British to get its passengers — illegal aliens, to use today’s incendiary language — to Palestine.

In Yugoslavia, Luiza boarded the Rafiah, a ship with its own long history.

The Athina, as the Rafiah first was called, was built in 1893 as a passenger ship. It was an iron steamboat, the first of its kind to be built in Greece, and for a long time it did its job well. But it finally was taken out of operation in 1930, and in 1939 it sank. “She remained submerged for the duration of World War II and the condition of the vessel was such that even the German occupying forces did not deem her fit for salvage and repair,” an internet story about the Athina said. After the war, however, in 1946, the boat was surfaced. It was to be sold for scrap.

The Haganah had other ideas.

The Athina was within its budget, and because it couldn’t be traced to any place other than the bottom of the sea, the British wouldn’t have kept an eye out for it. “Because the Mossad had all these secret missions, they wanted something that couldn’t be tracked,” Kathy said. “This was a ship already considered to be junk, so nobody had a record of it.”

The ship was renamed — it became the Rafiah — and refurnished, and in December 1946, in the middle of the night, 800 passengers, Holocaust survivors desperate for a new life in their ancient new land, boarded it.

The trip was to take 12 days — “I realize that my mother celebrated — well, maybe not celebrated. Marked? — her 28th birthday on the Rafiah,” Kathy said. It steamed into a bay near Syrna Island to pick up a new captain — who never showed. Instead, “there was a storm that supposedly was the worst in a decade.” The captain on board tried to turn the boat around, but “it didn’t have enough of a radius, and it hit a rock, and it started to sink. Everybody had to jump off.

“The water was 50 feet deep, there were sharp rocks, and nothing to stand on, but people had to jump, and they jumped.”

The passengers tried to be strategic about it. “They had to time it, to jump when the waves pushed the boat closer to shore. My mother couldn’t swim.” Probably many of the 800 passengers couldn’t swim. “My mother thinks she jumped onto a mattress,” Kathy said. By the time they made it up the rocks and onto the island, she reported, some of the people no longer had their clothes on.

The ship sank in 38 minutes, she said. Somehow, miraculously, only eight people died, crushed between the ship and the rocks.

One terrible story from that time was that there was a baby on the ship. A newborn. “Somehow the parents left the baby — supposedly the mother was sick and couldn’t breastfeed. Somebody saw something on a shelf, and took it. It was a baby, wrapped in a blanket. He was able to throw the baby to someone on the island, and the baby survived. His mother ended up committing suicide.

The baby, now a man of 73, lives in Israel. “He is pretty psychologically damaged,” Kathy said.

The island was empty except for goats. And snails. “My mother said that the only thing to eat was snails, but that she wouldn’t eat them. She said that they were all over the place, that the first thing she saw on the island was the snails. (Did they eat goats? No, Kathy said, her mother never hinted at anything like that. But like the snails they were all over the island.)

The island of Syrna

The shipwrecked Holocaust survivors had no idea how long they’d be stuck on Syrna, but as it turns out, the British Royal Air Force knew all about them. The Athina/Rafiah hadn’t been a ghost ship to them after all. The RAF dropped them some food — chocolate from a kibbutz, among other items, although Kathy reports that her mother never saw any of it. “They were spread out on the island,” she said.

After four days, the RAF removed them from the island — the Mossad leaders who’d been in charge hid among the other passengers and weren’t detected, Kathy said.

They’d hoped to be taken to Palestine, but instead they were taken to a detention camp in Cyprus. “I heard stories about hunger strikes and tear gas,” she said, but she doesn’t know the details. “Then they let them go to a detention camp in Palestine, women and children first.” There is a story online about the shipwreck and the rescue that fleshes out the story Kathy’s been told. The daughter of a survivor wrote to the son of one of the British soldiers, who also had been shaken by the experience.

Two sailors accompanied two family members on the dinghy over to the island. Here, from left, Kathy, Omri, Jonathan, and Dan, one of the Navy seals.

This is what the daughter wrote:

“My father said it wasn’t easy for the young British sailors to stand against the Holocaust survivors, especially old people, mothers and children. He told me the sailors were honest, with a lot of empathy toward the illegal immigrants. I guess it was very hard for sailors like your Father, as the Jews were desperate and saw the British as their enemy. The survivors refused to leave the ship when they reached Cyprus. The terrifying memories of concentration camps were still fresh in their minds. They fought against the sailors and soldiers, and had to be forced ashore by tear gas. Then they stood in rows, tears streaming down their cheeks, singing ‘Hatikva’, our national anthem, with the British soldiers standing respectfully to attention. Later, in the refugee camp on Cyprus, a lot of friendships were made with the British. Our people were well treated, clothed and fed and provided with medical care. What a strange situation it must have been for them.”

In Israel, she was detained in Kiryat Shmuel from February to May of 1947.

Luiza was 28, but she’d told people she was 23 or 23, so she went to a girls’ home in Petach Tikvah when she finally was let out of detention.

“Then she met my father, and they got married,” Kathy said.

Kathy’s father, Laszlo Hoffstadter, was “a brilliant guy, from a brilliant family, but he was really damaged,” she said, and her parents’ marriage was not a happy one. Her father came from a small town in Hungary called Magtedeny; his father was a cantor, and the rabbi with whom he worked, Reuben Ungar, was the father of Rabbi Andre Ungar, the beloved and respected rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

Kathy was born in Israel; her parents moved their family — she has a sister and had a brother, who died two years ago — to Borough Park in Brooklyn when she was 5, in 1963. They had a complicated relationship to Judaism. The Hoffstadters had family in Brooklyn, who all were Orthodox, but “my father tried to deny that he was Jewish,” she said. “He said that he had converted to become a Hungarian Protestant.” That, like so many of her father’s stories, was not true. “That lie didn’t last long,” she said. But while “all of my cousins went to yeshiva, my father used to send us to the local Protestant summer camp.”

Throughout her life, Kathy has been intensely interested in her mother’s story. She has been to Central and Eastern Europe, tracing her path, and she goes to Israel often, but she never had been able to figure out how to get to Syrna — but not through lack of trying. (It’s not easy to figure out how to get to remote, uninhabited, small Greek islands.) “I have always had the dream of going to the island,” she said. “I never told my mother. She would have thought I was out of my mind.

Kathy’s father died in 1993, and her mother died in 2000.

“But for my 60th birthday” — this year — “I really wanted to go.”

She wrote to everyone who possibly could help — travel agents, Greek neighbors, historians, Palmach veterans she’d met in Israel.

She hit pay dirt at the Atlit Detainee Camp Museum outside Haifa.

Rina Offenbach is a scholar at the Atlit museum. “She said she knew someone who could take us there,” Kathy said.

It turns out that divers found the ship in 2000. “Rina works with a guy named Omri Ben-Eliyah, who works in the Aviation High School in Haifa.” Students from that school were in the group that found the wreck. “He knew all about it,” Kathy said. “There have been maybe four trips there. And he arranged it for us.

Rina Offenbach, left, a scholar at the Atlit museum, joined Kathy and her family on the visit to Syrna.

“Rina’s brother, Yoav, is a captain” — a ship’s captain, that is — “and he has a fairly nice-size ship,” she said. “He keeps it in Crete. Rina asked him, and he agreed to take us there. They took the ship from Crete to the island where we were staying, and met us there.

“It turns out that her brother is an Israeli Navy Seal. He said that he would bring some friends with him, and he came with four of his Navy Seal buddies.” (That’s Israel’s Shayetet 13.)

Kathy came with her husband, Gary; their three sons, Adam, David, and Jonathan, and Adam’s wife, Molly Cohen. Nobody is allowed to get too near to the wreck — the Greek government is vigilant about trespasses — so scuba diving was out, but they snorkeled nearby. They saw rough outlines. “It looked fuzzy, but we could see it,” she said.

They took the boat out to the island, and then “they took us in a dinghy, two at a time, and we climbed up to the island.”

It was hard, she said. “We wanted to re-enact what had happened. We got onto the island going most of the way in a dinghy, in perfect conditions, on flat water. And still, my husband got all cut up.”

The Israeli government had left a plaque commemorating the shipwreck and the eventual rescue in 1970. Kathy added to the plaque, “and I added a rock with my mother’s picture on it,” she said. “I wrote ‘Survivor of Auschwitz, survivor of the Rafiah’ on the rock.”

This memorial and the plaques attached to it stand on Syrna.

Next, recreating the survivors’ route, the family walked across the island, from where they’d hoisted themselves up to the rocks to the less threatening side. That’s where the British soldiers met them, on their way to the detention camp in Cyprus.

Then they went to do some tourists things, which they all enjoyed, but “at the end of the trip, everyone said that the best day was when we went to the island.”

What did the experience feel like?

“I was always very close to my mother,” Kathy said. “To be able to see and feel a little bit of what she had experienced was beyond belief. It was a very special connection to my mother. Getting a sense of how difficult it was, and then being able to put a plaque there with her name on it — it was such an honor.

“I realize that my mother always downplayed things,” she continued. “She made it seem as if it hadn’t been such a big deal. But I realize now that she was such a bigger hero than I’d realized.

“My kids saw it. They saw this history. They knew my mother — she lived with us for three years, until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2002 — so they realized how heroic she was, how much she’d been through, and how much she’d survived.

“I am so passionate about it,” she concluded. “I can’t believe it was possible to do it.”

She put her mother’s experience in historical context. “It was the sinking of this ship, and the story of the Exodus,” she said. (The Exodus was the ship that carried Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947; the British refused to let the passengers land, forced them back to Europe, and eventually into DP camps. The public relations disaster that followed is thought to have influenced the eventual British decision to leave Palestine.) “It was those stories that pushed the British to end the mandate. People know about the Exodus, but they really don’t know about the Rafiah.”

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