Operation Pied Piper
The story of the rescue of 2,000 civilian refugees from Poland and 50 orphaned Jewish children
At the commencement of WWII Poland, at the request of Britain and France, had resisted mobilizing its armed forces to defend itself for fear that Germany would perceive such a move as a threat and respond aggressively. Now Poland found itself attacked on two sides – Russia from the east and Germany from the west. Escape was now their only option. Trainloads of refugees — Polish families, wives and widows of regular soldiers, and reserve officers fled to Greece and Jugoslavia, many via Rumania, to ships they hoped would take them to France. Those in Rumania found themselves confined in internment camps under orders of King Carol who wished to avoid being drawn into war with Hitler. Their only means of escape was to obtain exit visas - many able to be purchased only through the ‘black market’.
The Mission Begins
|Joice Loch in Quaker uniform|
...At last the aging war horse Warszawa stolen from a break-up yard in Danzig and crewed by volunteers arrived. Under cover of darkness, the Poles were smuggled on board and the ship set sail for Cypress. Among those on board was a complement of 500 Polish soldiers en route to Palestine.
...The war situation was changing fast. With the fall of Greece and the invasion of Crete, Cypress was no longer a safe haven. The British Government sent another ship to carry 2000 Polish refugees (including some rescued from Siberia when Russia joined the Allies) and 50 Jewish orphans to Haifa.
...To enter British controlled Palestine and be eligible for food rations all the refugees had to be registered as soldiers. Hence, the first Polish soldier to land on Palestinian soil was a four year old girl!
Operation Pied Piper
Summer 1940 marked the beginning of Operation Pied Piper. Susanna de Vries (2000) explains how Joice Loch borrowed the title from Robert Browning’s poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ in which a piper with a magic flute spirited the town’s children away. Interestingly, Rumanian legend records its own sequel, as it tells how about one hundred and fifty years after the event described by Browning, some merchants returning from the East told how, as they had journeyed across Hungary, they had come to the mountainous village of Sebenburgen (= seven hills). Here, they found that all the inhabitants of the village spoke only German. The people insisted they had come from Germany but did not know how or when they chanced to be in this strange country. “Could these people,” enquired the merchants, “ be descendants of the lost children of Hamelin?”
...Be that as it may, in early September, Joice, accompanied by a twenty-two year old assistant, Lushya, and Father Ambrosius, a Polish orthodox priest, took 450 Polsh women and children and fifty Jewish children from Bucharest by train to the Black Sea resort of Constantza, where she was to pick up another 400 women and children who had been harboured by wealthy Rumanians. Earlier, Joice and Lushya had trudged around the city to addresses where the women were housed to warn them of their danger and the plans for escape.
...As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, money Joice had requested from the Quakers War Relief Fund had not arrived. Although she had money enough for tickets, there was nothing left for food, medicines or any emergency. At the last minute, an urgent request for assistance from a Rumanian Banker and his wife, solved two problems. They asked Joice if their two nieces, recently orphaned in a war atrocity, together with their only daughter could be included in the escape plan and delivered to family in Haifa. In exchange for this consideration, the couple handed Joice an envelope containing ten thousand lei — more than enough to meet the needs of the journey to come.
|from de Vries, 2007, p.274|
...Then came an announcement over loud speakers in Rumanian and German that brought a chill to the adults in the party. The ferry must return to Constantza immediately! What now? Had they been betrayed? Would they now be herded on to cattle trucks and despatched to labour camps in Germany — or worse?
...A detachment of Iron Guards was waiting at the wharf. The soldiers clambered aboard amid the surrounding deathly silence and gathered around eight huge wooden shipping crates labelled sturgeon and tinned caviar. Guns were drawn. Then, after some confrontation between the Captain of the ferry and the guards, a crane boom swung over the crates to load them into nets and landed on the dockside.
...Joice was puzzled. All this fuss over tinned caviar! But Lushya, watching the pantomime playing out on the dock as the Iron Guards prised open the crates with crowbars to reveal the glint of gold bars, began to laugh. The crates contained the bullion King Carol was shipping out of the country to finance his exile.
...The ship’s engines were restarted and the ferry pulled away from the dock for a second time. Another crisis averted!
...On arrival at Istanbul, the party was met by a committee of Poles who escorted them through the streets to several large pensions where the group had been booked for the night. The next evening they boarded an overnight ferry to Mersin. From here they were to await a ship to take them to Cyprus.
...After a week, Joice was feeling desperate; money was running out, the Harbour Master was anxious she accept his recommendation of a suitable vessel. But heeding her husband Sydney’s warnings about finding a trustworthy captain and the dangers of dysentery, Joice knew she must find a ship with a safe water supply and proper sanitary arrangements.
...In desperation, she contacted the British Embassy in Constantinople. After an initial rebuff there was good news. The British Naval Command had found her a ship. The Warszawa would arrive in Mersin within the next twenty-four hours. It had been commissioned to embark Polish soldiers on their way to join British forces in Palestine. But since the ship was already bound for Cyprus en route, the cost to Joice and Operation Pied Piper was nominal. There was one proviso: they must buy their own provisions and cook their own meals. It was settled. The Polish women embraced the task. They rolled up their sleeves, scrubbed the decks, toilets and cabins, and cooked meals for themselves and the children.
...Under cover of darkness, the Polish soldiers bound for Palestine were smuggled aboard singly and in pairs; and the Warszawa slipped out of Mersin harbour so quietly during the night that not even the Harbour Master noticed her departure.
...The sea was calm and they managed to avoid German mines. After an anxious night, Joice was relieved to see the island of Cyprus. With the support of the British Government, the Polish refugees and the Jewish orphans were settled into comfortable accommodation; and for a time, Joice and Sydney now reunited, were able to relax.
...By the spring of 1941, while Joice was negotiating places for the Jewish orphans on a troop ship to Haifa where there was a large Rumanian-Jewish community who would take care of them, Germany invaded Greece and Crete. Cyprus would be next! This meant, not only the Jewishe orphans but also now, the entire contingent needed to escape.
...In June 1941, the British Government sent a naval cruiser, and Australian troops who had arrived in Cyprus after the battle of Crete helped load all 2,500 refugees aboard. Under a scorching sun, the British cruiser made slow progress, twisting and turning to avoid floating mines. The journey was perilous in many ways; there were not enough life jackets for all the passengers and few of the children could swim. One night the drone of engines was heard overhead. Bombs aimed at the ship created a maelstrom as they hit the water on either side. At dawn the German planes flew away.
...On their approach to Haifa, the Captain received a radio message to advise the area surrounding the harbour had been mined to destroy their ship. What now? Joice felt overwhelmed with concern, when, suddenly, out of nowhere, steamed their old friend, the Warszawa with hundreds of soldiers in Polish uniform waving and cheering.
... Shortly after, a British mine-sweeper arrived to remove the mines - and the refugee ship was allowed to dock. Despite stories of Palestine refusing entry to any further Jewish refugees, when port officials came on board there were no difficulties. All the women and children were ushered through customs and a special train was sent to the port to deliver the refugees to two camps outside Haifa.
...The orphaned Jewish children were found foster homes or relatives among Haifa’s large Rumanian Jewish community
...Thus, after more than eighteen harrowing months ‘Operation Pied Piper’ was finally complete. Joice Nankivell Loch had pulled off yet another remarkable feat.
de Vries, Susanna (2000), Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread, Hale & Iremonger. First edition
de Vries, Susanna (2007), Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread, Pirgos Press, Brisbane. Updated edition
Loch, Joice Nankivell (1968), A Fringe of Blue, John Murray, London
Various references, articles, interviews and reviews found online