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Maiden Voyage

By Alfred Traum

Friday, the day of departure for our maiden voyage, had finally arrived. By 10 a.m. passengers began to embark, a very different and diverse group from those who had joined us in Gibraltar. For the most part, they were holiday makers or returning tourists. Hundreds of them, with bright smiling faces, walked up the wide gangway to be welcomed aboard by the purser’s representative. Before entering the ship they all turned back to give a quick wave to family or friends who had come to see them off on their journey. There appeared to be quite a number of American students returning home. They congregated in clusters on the decks and lounges excitedly comparing notes of their experiences while in Israel. Also noticeable were some of the older passengers, whose demeanor was that of anxious anticipation, possibly contemplating their reunion with long-lost relatives who had survived the war and made their way to the United States. The composition of the passengers had all the indications of what would turn out to be an interesting two weeks ahead of us. By mid-afternoon we were ready to sail. It looked as though all of Haifa had turned out to wish us bon voyage. The ships in the harbor gave their salutations as we slipped out of the harbor into the open sea. 

Even for the officers and crew, the Friday night dinner was both special and traditional. Wine and freshly baked challah bread was placed on the tables. Several crew members recited the appropriate blessings ushering in the Sabbath. Aside from that, for the crew, the Sabbath was just another day, seagoing duties continued as usual. We partook of the evening meal in several stages to fit in with watch-keeping duties. The hustle and bustle of Haifa port, with all the preparations prior to sailing, was far behind us and we could look forward to two glorious peaceful weeks ahead of us. Well, at the very least, that’s what I was banking on.

Our next port of call was Palma de Majorca, a small and beautiful island off the coast of Spain. Chopin spent the last days of his life there, and his former residence had become a mecca for tourists. For most of the crew, it was the first time in Palma, and just like excited tourists, we took in as much of the island as time allowed. A wondrous peaceful spot, the best of Spanish foods, fine wine, and the warmth of the Mediterranean sunshine.

After crossing the narrows of Gibraltar, we entered the Atlantic. Almost immediately a cold blast of air hit us as though a gigantic door that had been left open. The Atlantic swell could be felt, even though by all standards, the ocean was calm. But it was a brief respite—the calm before the storm. Dark clouds gathered. The weather forecast predicted heavy seas with winds gusting up to gale force six. A time to batten down the hatches, lash deck chairs together and make them secure and check the decks for loose items that could be washed overboard. Passengers were advised to stay inside, and an itinerary of indoor activities was announced.

Some passengers were already beginning to play it safe and headed for the infirmary, where Nurse Clara was distributing Dramamine tablets along with words of friendly advice.

After several days, although the weather had not let up, many passengers became used to the motion and found their sea legs. Still others spent most of their time secure in their cabins, and with the exception of rare occasions, avoided the dining room and had their cabin steward bring them some nourishment. Gradually the wind abated its anger, and the waters calmed down. Shipboard life returned to normal. The dining rooms were full, and so were the lounges in the evenings. Film shows were well-attended and nightly dancing in the bars continued. But, even with that, the occasional couple found themselves sliding uncontrollably across the dance floor, far in excess of what their dancing flair had called for.

The voyage continued uneventfully. The weather brightened and passengers, welcoming the change in weather, lounged on deck chairs soaking up the warm sunshine. Stewards, skillfully balancing trays of refreshments while weaving in between the deck chairs, delivered drinks with grace and a smile. Much to the regret of some of the children, it was still too cool for swimming and the small pool was covered for safety.

As though equipped with a “bridge-partner-seeking radar” enthusiastic bridge players found each other, and small groups were speedily established, as was a hierarchy in the proficiency as a bridge player. To the casual observer, such as myself, one could easily distinguish between the groups, from the tense, fiercely competitive demeanor to those who appeared to be actually enjoying themselves. Max, the second Engineer, an avid bridge player, soon found his partners. When off duty he could often be found in the Jonah Bar, engaged in serious battles of the mind. I was amazed at their power of concentration as they sat for hours, stone-faced, not giving away clues to the opposing team players. One would think their lives were at stake. The Jonah Bar was a coffee and soft drink lounge. In addition to several bridge players it was a convenient hang-out for the teenagers.

Four a.m, the end of my watch, and I was anxious to take in a deep taste of New York air before catching a couple hours of shut-eye. Several hours later we would be docking, and I would experience my first impressions of that rich and famous city that has been an attraction for so many millions. I knew that this would be a day to remember.

After a short rest and a hearty breakfast I returned to the upper deck. It was still early, about 7:30 in the morning. Some of the New York Harbor immigration officials had come aboard with the pilot’s launch and were already going through their administrative work. A section of the dining room would serve as immigration and passport control for all new arrivals.

The New York Harbor pilot had taken his place on the bridge, navigating the ship through the tricky waters of the New York Harbor.

The deck crew had prepared the ship for our grand entry. The ship was fully dressed. Flags attached to halyards ran from stem to stern via the top of the mast; a most magnificent and colorful sight. The ship itself, gleamed white, with the exception of the funnel markings of two blue bands spaced apart with seven gold colored stars between the bands, representing the seven seas. Conforming to standard protocol, high above and attached to the mast, fluttered the Star Spangled Banner, —a courtesy on entering the United States—and slightly below flew the Israeli flag.

Two helicopters buzzed overhead and began circling the ship at a safe distance. They were part of our welcoming entourage. Soon they were joined by two harbor water barges sailing off the port and starboard sides, sending up plumes of water high into the sky like two immense water fountains escorting us. It was all part of our grand entrance into New York Harbor. As a passenger ship on its maiden voyage, we were accorded the customary welcome for such an occasion. Ships in the harbor offered their welcoming salute by giving three long blasts of their ship’s horn. Our ship, the SS Zion, acknowledged with one short blast. With so many ships in the harbor joining the salutations it became a quite noisy, but wondrous affair.

As the morning wore on, passengers were slowly being processed by immigration officials in the main dining hall. Those who had been processed were eagerly roaming the decks scanning the skylines, picking out famous landmarks. The Statue of Liberty stood off in the distance but had come within eyesight. A most dramatic and emotional sight, especially for those among our passengers who were immigrants to a whole new life in the United States.

We had a number of dignitaries among our passengers who normally commanded and presumably received special attention. Some strutted around on deck like peacocks full of self-importance, but on this special occasion even they had to take second place to that of the ship. This was the SS Zion’s day and no one could take that away. As we came closer to the harbor, the ship’s orchestra positioned themselves on deck and played Hebrew and American music appropriate for such an occasion. Many passengers joined in singing along to the music; "Hevenu Shalom Alechem" and "America the Beautiful" to name just a few. As we approached the Manhattan Bridge, we noticed hundreds of people lining the bridge, frantically waving their arms and shouting welcomes to us. Next we sailed under the Brooklyn Bridge, where more well-wishers had lined the bridge, some waving small Israeli flags and shouting to us in English and in Hebrew. By that time, the water barges had left us and were replaced by regular tugs that would assist in docking. We headed for Green Point Pier in Brooklyn, where we would dock.

My parents were not fortunate to live to see this day. They had perished in the Holocaust, but they were very much in my thoughts at that time. They, having witnessed the worst of humanity, of what one people could do to one another, could not in their wildest dreams have imagined the scene unfolding before me. An Israeli ship, a Jewish ship, with an Israeli crew, a ship built in Germany under the reparation program, and their son, a crew member, an officer aboard that ship, receiving such an enthusiastic welcome from the greatest country in the world. How could the world have changed so much in so few years? It’s hard to fathom, but it had. What a profound contrast from 17 years earlier in June of 1939 when a downcast little boy of ten bid his parents good-bye for the last time, never to see them again, and with his sister, left Nazi-occupied Vienna for freedom and hope of a new life in England.

The whole voyage—and especially the arrival in New York, an unbelievable and an emotional event—will remain with me as a high point of my life.

© 2019, Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.