The remains of the historic shipwreck were located and identified by Greek divers

The historic wreck of the paddle steamer PENTCHO, which was used to transport Jewish refugees in 1940, has been located and identified on the bottom of the Aegean Sea and in the waters of Hamili Island.

It was the 1930s when the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe prompted hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave their homes in countries where anti-Semitism was rampant for a country where they would not be in danger. Many of them attempted the daring journey to British-occupied Palestine, where thousands of Jews gradually gathered.

The sea transport of Jews to Palestine, without the necessary British permission, began in 1934 and became known as Aliyah Bet or Ha’apalah. From the end of 1938, the British government, due to the reactions of the Arab element, announced that it would reduce the permissible limit for the establishment of Jewish settlers in Palestine. Then secret ‒ illegal ‒ organizations were formed, with the aim of continuing the transport of Jewish refugees to Palestine, mainly by sea. For this purpose, during the period 1933-1944, about eighty-six trips were made, for several of which Greek-owned ships were used that managed to transport about thirty-four thousand refugees to their destination.

The paddle steamer PENTCHO in the Aegean

The danger to the shipowners was great, because their ships, when detected by the British authorities, were seized and the crew imprisoned. Thus, the availability of boats to continue this illegal migration was limited, and overage boats were usually used. Among these often unseaworthy vessels was the paddle steamer PENTCHO. The 33-year-old schooner PENTCHO traveled for the first and last time in the turbulent waters of the Aegean in 1940. On board the paddle steamer PENTCHO were 514 passengers ‒among them, 142 women and 9 children‒ who came from Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Poland and Austria. The ship’s captain was the Russian Igor Markeyevitch.

Most were members of the Betar organization, which, during the 1930s, had helped many thousands of Jews move to Palestine. Betar’s purpose was to cultivate in young Jews the vision of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and to provide them with military training. Among them was Imi Lichtenfeld who later developed the martial art of Krav Maga.

The episodic journey

PENTCHO departed from Sulina, Romania on 21 September 1940 and opened in the Black Sea. There he was also faced with a storm but managed to reach Constantinople. After leaving the Dardanelles in the Aegean, the vessel moved south until it was spotted by a Greek warship. As the PENTCHO sailed without a flag, the Greek vessel fired warning shots forcing it to stop and then ordered it to follow it to Mytilene. After food supplies were made, the motorboat continued its course and on September 30, 1940, it sailed to Piraeus.

The Greek Jewish community rushed to the aid of the refugees by making it possible to supply the boat with water and coal. On October 2, the day of the Jewish New Year, the community offered food to the refugees, who left the next day. The PENTCHO would sail southeast to Mersina, Turkey, and from there take a coastal ferry to Palestine. The boat sailed to Astypalaia, where food was offered to the refugees and then departed south to sail the Kasos-Crete strait. However, PENTCHO experienced mechanical problems, and eventually the boiler shut down, leaving the vessel unruly. The crew tried in vain to start the steam engine, and so the drifting vessel ran aground at 19:40 on 9 October 1940 on the rocks of Hamili Island.

The grounding and subsequent rubbing of the vessel on the steep coastline caused a break in the reefs and an influx of water. The passengers and crew built makeshift bridges and connected the vessel to the shore, which allowed them to disembark safely. Having succeeded in bringing ashore anything that could be of use to them for their stay on the island, they made makeshift shacks.

The rescue and the end of the Odyssey

In the meantime, four volunteers and one crew member boarded the PENTCHO’s only lifeboat and set off in search of help. Four days later, the boat was spotted by an aircraft from the British aircraft carrier ILLUSTRIUS and the destroyer NUBIAN was alerted to come to their aid. The British informed the Red Cross of the existence of the wrecks on the islet, in order to pass the information on to the Italians.

The refugees who had disembarked in Hamili managed to survive thanks to the food, clothes, utensils, fuel and all the necessities they had been able to carry from the steamer for their stay on the inhospitable rocky island. There they organized their lives having secured a plate of soup daily from the ship’s supplies. Bad weather prevented the wreckage from being located until 14 October 1940, when the pilot of an Italian aircraft spotted the wreck of PENTCHO.

The self-organization of the shipwrecks, which allowed their preservation on the inhospitable rocky island, was a characteristic sign of the will of the Jews everywhere for their transition to their ancestral land.

After 10 days of their stay in Hamili, on October 18, 1940, the auxiliary ship CAMOGLI of the Italian Navy approached the islet. At first women, children and the sick boarded it. The next day, the men were removed except for twenty people who remained on the islet along with the baggage of the castaways. Subsequently, members of the Greek Jewish community arrived in Hamili who had meanwhile been informed of what had taken place. They gave provisions to the remaining castaways and the promise that they would return, having previously found a way to help them continue the journey to Palestine. But things took a different turn. On October 26, 1940, an Italian ship sailed to pick up the castaways and their luggage. They were all taken by the Italians to Rhodes, where they were held in a makeshift camp. In early 1942, most of the PENTCHO castaways were taken to the Ferramonti detention camp in Italy, where they remained until their liberation by the Allies in September 1943. The following June, they were taken to Alexandria and from there by train to Palestine. In the end, it took them 40 months, not 40 days, to reach their longed-for destination…

Research and documentation ‒ A shipwreck forgotten at the bottom of the Aegean

The remains of the historic shipwreck were located and identified by Greek divers. Among the forgotten wreckage, the wheels stand out as well as the bow of the ship resting on the bottom with its right side. The steam boiler that was the “heart” of the ship emerges from the bottom in an upright position and in excellent condition. PENTCHO’s two anchors remained forever on the rocky bottom of the Aegean. Alongside the underwater exploration, archival and historical research was carried out by Aris Bilalis and Costas Thoktaridis with the aim of documenting the extremely important history of the ship.

Steamship Pentcho: A shipwreck forgotten at the bottom of the Aegean Sea – See photos | News Bulletin 247