There are many rescue stories, most of them have dramatic moments, but it is doubtful if there is an incredible story like Yehoshua Rabhun’s, RIP story. The story begins in Berlin in September 1939, right after the outbreak of World War II. On September 13, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jewish men of Polish origin living in Germany were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to concentration camps. Among the detainees were Mordechai Rabhun and his son Yehoshua, who were taken to the Zaksenhausen concentration camp.

Ten days after his arrest, on Yom Kippur Eve, Yehoshua was murdered at the age of only 31. During that time, before the systematic and institutionalized extermination began, it was possible to receive the ashes of the deceased in exchange for payment. Thus, for a few marks, the family received a container with their son’s ashes.

Yehoshua Rabhon, who was murdered in the Holocaust and his ashes were buried on the Mount of Olives. Photo: Courtesy of the family
Yehoshua Rabhon, who was murdered in the Holocaust and his ashes were buried on the Mount of Olives. Photo: Courtesy of the family

Despite the harsh conditions of detention, including overcrowding, hunger, and disease, it was still possible to be released from the camp if a prisoner obtained an immigration certificate. A woman named Racha Fryar, the founder of the Youth Aliyah, managed to obtain dozens of such certificates and, by the end of 1939, she managed to release some of the detainees, including Mordechai’s father.

The beginning of a longer journey

After a long and exhausting journey, Mordechai reached the city of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia today, carrying his son’s ashes throughout the way.

Shortly thereafter, on May 15, 1940, Mordechai joined the immigration ship “Pancho,” which set sail from Bratislava to Israel. The old and rickety ship, decommissioned before the voyage, swayed from coast to coast along the Danube River, carrying about 500 people on board. In all the countries it passed through on its way to the Mediterranean, the authorities refused to assist the ship, leaving it without food and fuel, except for partial supplies provided by Jewish communities in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and by the Joint Distribution Committee.

After four months of exhausting and frustrating travel, the “Pancho” sailed into the Black Sea, with the intention of reaching Israel through the Mediterranean Sea.

Due to engine trouble, the ship drifted with the wind until it crashed onto the shores of a remote island, Milos, in the Aegean Sea.

Pancho before sinking Photo: By Yehoshua Levi, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Pancho before sinking Photo: By Yehoshua Levi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Throughout the whole journey, the jar of ashes remained with the father.

The anxious passengers disembarked immediately onto the island, including Mordechai, who insisted on always guarding his son’s ashes. The passengers stayed on the island for ten days under difficult conditions – with limited food remnants taken from the ship and a small amount of rainwater collected from a cranny. Hoping for help, the passengers lit fires and used bedsheets to create SOS signs. After ten long and tiring days, an Italian plane flew over the island and spotted the distress calls of the passengers. As a result, two ships were sent from the Italian-occupied island of Rhodes, to rescue the immigrants. At first, they were transferred to a tent camp at a military base in Rhodes, and about two years later, they were transferred to a detention camp in southern Italy.

Although the passengers were Jews, the Italians did not send them to extermination camps but kept them in detention. In October 1943, following the Allied invasion, the camp was liberated, and the detainees encountered the Jewish Brigade’s soldiers. Due to the intervention of Moshe Sharett, their immigration to Israel was arranged with the Mandate authorities. Throughout the journey and the hardships that Mordechai endured, he managed to preserve his son Yehoshua’s ashes until he finally brought them to be buried in 1944.

Upon arriving in Israel, Mordechai immediately made his way to one place – the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He concluded a five-year journey at the ancient cemetery by placing his son’s ashes to rest. It seems to be a unique story of bringing the ashes of a single individual murdered in the Holocaust to be buried in Israel.

Yehoshua Rabhun's grave on the Mount of Olives. Photo: Mount of Olives Information Center, City of David
Yehoshua Rabhun's grave on the Mount of Olives. Photo: Mount of Olives Information Center, City of David

A Great privilege to visit the grave.”

Years after burying the ashes on the Mount of Olives, Avishi, Mordechai’s great-grandson, embarked on a journey to Poland. This journey, which took place about a year ago, ignited in Avishi a strong desire to explore his family’s history. While visiting the concentration camps, he resolved that upon returning to Israel, he would visit the grave of his grandfather’s brother, Yehoshua.

Attempting to locate the grave, Avishi contacted the Mount of Olives Information Center in the City of David, and the staff quickly provided him with a clear answer regarding the precise location of the grave.

“Every Holocaust story is unique,” says Avishi while getting emotional. “The story of my great grandfather and his son Yehoshua is unique in that a Jew was burned in a concentration camp at the beginning of the war, the family received his ashes, and throughout the war, his father wandered across Europe, by river, sea, and land, enduring many trials and constant danger of death – yet he managed to preserve the ashes and eventually brought them for burial on the Mount of Olives. It’s a great privilege to visit the grave of a Jew who was burned in the Holocaust and buried in Israel. Many in our family have not yet visited the grave, but now that we know where he is and how to get there, it will be their first time.”

Yonatan Mnovitz, the manager of the Mount of Olives Information Center, operated by the Elad Foundation – City of David, states: “A few months ago, we received an email request to locate the deceased, Yehoshua Rabhun, using the system on our website. A representative from the information center received the information, and thanks to his experience and knowledge of the Mount of Olives, he quickly located the grave. The requester received a prompt response, including a link to the buried person’s card with the grave’s exact location, a tombstone picture, and the option for mobile navigation to the grave site. It is moving to know that today, 84 years after he was murdered in the Holocaust, we had the privilege to assist the family of Yehoshua in finding his grave on the Mount of Olives.”