A Royal Navy sailor who helped lay the foundations of present-day Israel is today being honored in a small Italian town.
Enrico Levi was an Italian Jew who served in the Royal Navy in the final 18 months of World War 2, supporting the Allied effort to defeat Nazi and Fascist forces clinging on in Italy.
At the war’s end, he spearheaded the exodus of Holocaust survivors from mainland Europe to Palestine, delivering the first – then illegal – transport of settlers hoping to forge a new life.
His role – and his humanity – is being celebrated by the people of Monopoli, a port on the Adriatic coast south of Bari from where Levi sailed on his pioneering voyage.
A pre-war merchant navy sailor, Enrico Levi’s racial background denied him the possibility of serving his native Italy, so he devoted his efforts to defeating Fascism.
When the Allies invaded in the late summer of 1943, he headed for liberated southern Italy, helping to crew tankers which refueled the Allied fleet.
At Passover in 1945, when his ship was anchored, Enrico Levi was invited to a seder – ceremonial dinner/service – hosted by a Royal Navy rabbi and leading Jewish campaigners.
Never especially committed to the Jewish cause until that point, Levi learned about the Holocaust, the concentration camps and the murder and maltreatment of millions of Jews.
The next day, he was asked to help smuggle Jews from Europe and decided that a fishing boat would be the best bet for the clandestine mission.
Although there was some traffic before and during World War 2, the Holocaust and its discovery by the Allies in the closing months of the conflict, gave fresh impetus to the operation.
And so, having received a pass from the Admiralty to roam Italy as he pleased, he searched for a vessel best able to evade British patrols, navigate minefields and slip through radar nets.
In Monopoli, he found the Sirius nearing completion – 29 meters long, 25 tonnes and a top speed of 8 knots.
Renamed the Dalin and blessed by a local Catholic priest, Enrico Levi skippered the vessel with a joint Jewish-Italian crew and safely transported 37 settlers or ma’apilim (literally ‘those who pushed ahead’), including three women, to the small port of Caesarea, roughly half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv after a week-long voyage.
Dailin was the first of 66 vessels to make the run, delivering the first 37 of around 70,000 pioneering settlers – a three-year operation which would eventually be dramatized by Hollywood as Exodus, starring Paul Newman.
As for Enrico Levi, he decided that a larger vessel would be more suited to making the journey – both safer and able to carry more settlers, purchased a second yacht which delivered another 73 pioneers to Caesarea at the beginning of September.
Local architect Nicola Napoletano, who’s spent ten years researching Levi and his pioneering voyage, is delighted there is now Piazza Enrico Levi in Monopoli – not least because the naval officer was a modest man.
“I love the history of heroes, the real ones, like Enrico – his story tells of a humanity in the misery of post-war, the pride of rebirth, the supreme act of saving the lives of exiles,” he said.
Enrico Levi’s later career was just as varied and nearly as dramatic. He set up schools for would-be sailors in Acre in Israel, then Ghana in West Africa, before acquiring a yacht for the President of Ghana, Nkruma.
He subsequently managed two ports in Israel (Eilat and Ashdod) before running a shipping firm for two decades until retiring in 1991. He lived out his final years in Haifa, where he died in 2007.
Royal Navy photos