Film screening and panel discussion
Film screening and panel discussion with the filmmaker and scholars
By Stefano Cattini
Produced by Sonne Film, Mosaic Film, RAI Cinema, Emilia Romagna Film Commission.
Between the years 1934 and 1939, illegal immigration to Palestine grew in response of the increasingly oppressive measure against German and Eastern European Jewry, the restrictions imposed by the British Government through the Jewish Agency and eventually, the outbreak of the war.
One of the main groups organizing illegal ships was the Betar, Ze’ev Jabotisnky’s Revisionist Zionist movement that functioned through loosely interconnected units throughout Europe. Betar openly opposed the Zionist Organization’s and the Jewish Agency’s views on immigration and tended to attract among its leaders independent individuals, with a streak for adventure and improvisation as well as inclination to challenge international impositions. While this profile proved to be quite effective as the persecution worsened, by 1938-39, conflicts among organizers, lack of communication and feuds over the distribution of funding became more frequent. In spite of public criticism from European Jewish circles, Betar remained the only options for many Jews seeking to leave Europe who, for one reason or the other, did not qualify or were unable to apply for assistance from the Jewish Agency. Many of them, were Jews who had been released from concentration camps, especially Buchenwald and Dachau, under payment of ransom and on the condition of leaving.
In the spring of 1939, the Italian regime unleashed its final attack on the Betar cells operating in Fiume, Trieste, and Rhodes, shutting them down for good. At that point, operations moved almost exclusively to the Danube, where dangers were greater but where Betar’s leaders had succeeded in reaching favorable agreements with the Rumanian regime. Even though, until the beginning of the war, Rumania facilitated the lucrative refugee voyages, each transport required complex negotiations, fund-raising, ship repairs, visas, hiring, and stocking. Over a dozen ships were organized by Betar members and reached either Palestine or were derailed to Cyprus by the British authorities. However, many more Betar groups did not manage to leave.
Among those who remained ashore because of the war, was a transport from Bratislava organized by Yehoshua Citron. In May 1940, after five months of waiting, Citron managed to sail on a refurbished ship, the Pentcho, with about 500 passengers, including 100 former Buchenwald’s internees. Like most ships rented for this purpose, the Pentcho was old, malfunctioning and had undergone insufficient repairs.
The descent on the Danube was delayed by new requirements of the Rumanian and Bulgarian authorities, difficulties in collecting provisions and the poor state of the vessel. Citron’s ongoing conflicts with the leaders of Betar and of the other two Zionist organizations made it even more difficult to manage logistic problems. In October 1940, the Pentcho shipwrecked near the island of Rhodes. After a few days ashore, the Italian authorities brought all passengers to a camp in Rhodes. Due to the difficult conditions on the island, lack of food and infrastructure, in March 1942, the passengers of the Pentcho were transferred to the concentration camp of Ferramonti in Calabria.
After the Allies’ landing in Sicily, on July 10th, 1943, the Fascist government ordered the evacuation of the camp and the deportation of all internees to a transit camp in Bolzano. Mussolini’s deposition on July 25th nulled the order and the Jews interned in Ferramonti were liberated, a few weeks before the deportation from the peninsula began and 18 month before the end of the war.
Drawing on testimonies and memories, this film narrates the vicissitudes of the Pentcho and its passengers before arriving in mandate Palestine almost six years after its departure.
Stefano Cattini, has been a member of the European Film Academy since 2010. He is the author of several documentaries focusing on personal stories. His film L’isola dei Sordobimbi was selected for the David di Donatello in 2010. He directed several award-winning short documentaries including Ivan e Loriana, Amen and L’ora blu. The Children of the Pentcho received special mention of the jury at the Festival dei Popoli in Firenze.