Uri Weinberg of the old Botei Naten neighborhood of Yerushalayim was known and loved by hundreds of yeshivah bochurim until his passing last year. He constantly invited them for Shabbos meals in his simple Meah Shearim home and regaled them with inspiring stories and divrei Torah. Most famous of his stories was the depiction of his miraculous escape from being torpedoed by a submarine. This happened when England deported him and hundreds of other German, Austrian, and Italian Jews to Australia, mistakenly convinced that Jewish refugees might help Germany invade England.
The Better of Two Evils
Shortly before World War II, Weinberg was studying at the shomer mitzvos Yavneh School in Cologne, Germany. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, headmaster Dr. Erich Klibansky saw the writing on the wall and decided to save his students by sending them to England. They went in four batches from 17th January 1939 to July of that year. Rav Uri left with them and never saw his family again.
“I studied in a chareidi run institution in Cologn, Germany,” he related. “Realizing that there was no future for us in Germany, the director went to England and told people he needed accommodation for 300 children to learn in yeshivos or to study a trade. This was my first miracle; Hashem helped me move to England two days after Lag Baomer in 1939. Two months later, on the 17th of Elul, World War 2 broke out and no one could leave Germany any longer. Anyone trapped there remained put.
“I arrived in Liverpool, England’s second largest port, where wealthy Jews had financed a sort of yeshiva with 50 to 60 students learning hilchos shechitah and other rabbinical matters; it wasn’t a yeshiva according to the regular meaning of the word. After we came, the yeshiva was organized on more regular lines and about 30 Germans studied between its walls. I earned money to support myself by baking in the mornings and studied there in the afternoons. Altogether, England took in about 70,000 refugees from Germany and Austria, more than any other country in Europe. This merit stood her in good stead and saved her from being overrun by Germany. But not appreciating this fact, papers made a big noise about German nationals living on the country’s soil, blaming German spies for German’s lightning takeover of France, Belgium and Holland.
“Because of this suspicion, German nationals above the age of 16 were interred in prisoner camps where they received all the rights owed to them through international treaty. Non-Jews were arrested immediately. I was not interred right away; instead, I affirmed before a judge that I hated Germany and would never return there the rest of my life. I said it and I meant it – I have never been there again. At the time I was only 17-years-old.
“On the 27th of Sivan, however, government policy changed and I was interred in a camp. On Friday, it was announced that whoever wanted to be interred overseas in one of England’s dominions such as Canada, Australia, or New Zealand could join a transport. To leave England at the beginning of World War II was a disaster and extremely dangerous , especially during the first couple of days of a voyage. Every moment a submarine might appear and fire off a torpedo. But I thought, ‘How much longer will it take until the Germans reach England?’ What was the alternative? To remain in England? Germany had conquered Holland, Belgium, and France within a few weeks. They had started the battle in the West on 2 Iyar and by Shavuos they had conquered three countries. At this rate, I could find myself in a German camp within two weeks and that certainly wasn’t in my interest.”
Weinberg’s fear of catastrophe was well justified. Shortly before his own voyage, the British Andorra Star transporting hundreds of German and Italian internees in addition to a number of Jews was torpedoed on its way to Canada. An internal explosion broke the ship in two and it sank within 35 minutes with the loss of 743 lives. Upset that one of their submarines had killed their own nationals, the Axis powers ordered submarine commanders to be more cautious. The 813 survivors of the Andorra Star were later put on Uri’s ship and transported to Australia.
“I registered for a transport overseas on Friday close to Shabbos,” he recalled. “A rav who later served in the Toronto rabbinate instructed me, ‘Sign quickly before Shabbos comes.
If we need to use the document during Shabbos, we can ask a non-Jew to fill in the details.’ On Wednesday, 4th of Tammuz we set out for a port in great trepidation. I boarded the ship and found that the soldiers appointed to guard us were freed prisoners. Anyone with a prison sentence of less than eight years could leave jail by enlisting; the government did not place them in regular units to prevent them from corrupting other soldiers. Instead, they sent them on dangerous missions such as accompanying prisoners over dangerous seas. If the soldiers drowned, the government wouldn’t sit shivah over them.”
Conditions on the boat were atrocious. 2,542 men aged between 18 and 45 were crammed into the Durena, a ship with a maximum capacity for 1,500 including crew. About two thousand of them were Jews and the rest were non-Jews from Axis countries.
“The first thing the guards did was to rob us all,” Weinberg related. “They forced us to leave our suitcases with them and sent us below. The quarters there had tables and chairs fixed to the floor and we lived there the next eight weeks. At night we slept on the floor, or on benches and tables. There were hammocks, but after trying one out and slipping off I gave up the attempt. One of Hashem’s chassodim was that the sea was relatively calm so no one got seasick. Generally, people suffering from this malady feel terrible for about 18-19 hours and can barely move.
“At 2 a.m. in the morning we were some distance from England in an area where German submarines prowled. Now the sea became stormy, the ship leaped on the waves and all the passengers became seasick. In our compartment there were about 300 of us. At 9:00 a.m., a German submarine was noticed in the area, but despite our fears we were so seasick that no one could get up. I don’t want to imagine what tragedy would have occurred if 300 people rushed to the narrow exit to try and get on deck; they would have trampled one another.
“During this time, the soldiers were still rifling our property, tearing suitcases with knives, taking valuables, and throwing the rest of our belongings into the sea. At about 9:30 the ship suddenly shifted alarmingly. The stern shot upwards and the bow sank down. After about fifteen seconds the boat returned to an even keel. We thought a torpedo had hit and I immediately recited Sh’ma Yisroel. But nothing happened; long afterwards, I learned that the disturbance had come from something else.”
Years after this event, the log of the German commander of the submarine was discovered and publicized. Mentioning his battle against the Durena he concluded, “We were happy we had not hit a ship with fellow Germans aboard.” No submariner wanted a repeat of the Andora Star’s sinking. Peering through his periscope he had noticed German books and bundles marked in German floating in the water and realized that although the ship was English, its passengers were German like himself. Immediately, he issued a command to cease fire. The Jews mourning over their belongings had to wait until long after the war to realize the miracle they had experienced because of the loss of their belongings. Rav Uri said that there was a second miracle as well.
“Reading about how boats were sunk by torpedoes, I found that the Germans used to always shoot torpedoes towards the propellers,” he related. “Generally, within two minutes a ship would be sunk. In our case, at the exact moment that the torpedo arrived, a huge wave lifted the stern and the torpedo passed underneath. After the incident, all German submarines in the area were ordered to leave the Dunera alone due to the German prisoners aboard. We were saved by a vast open miracle.
“Our voyage lasted for 58 days from the 4th of Tammuz until the 3rd of Ellul,” he concluded. “From Sydney we went took an 18 hour train journey to a camp where the guards behaved excellently with us, even setting up a kosher kitchen for us.”
This was Camp 7 in the Hay Interment Camp where Uri was employed as a baker.
The first Australian to board the Dunera, medical army officer Alan Frost, was appalled by the conditions on board and his report led to ridiculously limited justice. Only three men were punished: Lieutenant-Colonel William Scott senior officer of the soldiers on board was “severely reprimanded” as was Sergeant Helliwell, while RSM Bowles was reduced to the ranks and given a twelve months prison sentence and then discharged from the Army. A parliamentary outcry led to England releasing its first detainees in August 1940 and by the following summer only 5,000 were still prisoner in England. Winston Churchill admitted that the voyage of the Denura had been a “regrettable and deplorable mistake.”
Weinberg moved to Eretz Yisroel where he became a sofer and married Bluma Lapidus, granddaughter of Rav Gershon Lapidus who served as Rav of the Beis Yisroel neighborhood in Yerushalayim and as a day an in the Agudas Yisroel Beis Din. Rav Lapidus used to finish Shas every nine months and often said that all he wanted in Olam Haba was a Gemara, a shtender, and a supply of cigarettes and coffee. Every year, Weinberg made a kiddush in Kol Torah’s dining room and related the story of his miraculous voyage.
As for the Dunera, contrary to reports that it was torpedoed, the ship helped in many operations in different theatres of war and later served as an educational cruise ship replete with a swimming pool, games rooms, a library and assembly rooms until she was scrapped in 1967.