Ирина Говоруха
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BERTA RAPOPORT: one of the first female captains in the world

BERTA RAPOPORT: one of the first female captains in the world
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Berta Rapoport in front of the motor ship «Moldavia» / usionline.com

 

The first female captains in seafaring are an important part of maritime history, which men have traditionally dominated since ancient times.

Berta Rapoport (1914–1967) was one of the first female captains in the world. She was born in Odesa. She started her maritime career at the age of 17, and thanks to her professionalism, knowledge, and skills in the marine field, she quickly moved up the career ladder.

Berta Rapoport is buried at the third Jewish cemetery in Odesa, and in May 2006, a bas-relief with her image was installed on the building of the Odesa port.

In 1966, director Rafail Goldin made a movie about Berta Rapoport called «In One Family».

The first female captains not only paved the way in navigation for other members of the fair gender but also became symbols of courage, independence, and overcoming societal stereotypes. Their achievements and stories inspire to this day.

 

LEGENDARY BERTA

 

She used to watch the sea from my window every day. As soon as she opened her eyes, the kingdom of Neptune appeared. You would look out in the afternoon and see an oval of greenish-blue water again. In the evening, the salt water was always visible when the darkness was thick, and it was difficult to recognize where the shore, a long breakwater, or a retaining tower began and ended. It was heavy, salty, iodized.

As long as she could remember, Berta adored the sea and dreamed of becoming a captain. To stand on the navigation bridge, steer the ship, and keep a logbook. To wish herself and her crew «Seven feet under the keel».

Her father didn’t even want to hear about it. The man had worked as a carpenter all his life: he cleaned bars and boards, had heavy, rough hands with splinters, and demanded that others do the same. Her mother kept the house and tirelessly explained the meaning of a woman’s life.

Berta protested. She tried to convey that the sea is a life. Since childhood, she had been a good swimmer, so she would go swimming with the neighborhood boys and then watch with interest as the ships unloaded. They respectfully enter the port and moor, and the orchestra plays some catchy melody.

Besides her, there were other girls in the family. The younger sisters lived up to their parents’ expectations. They were good at sewing and embroidery. On the other hand, Berta wanted much more than was customary in a respectable Jewish family. Not to draw crosses and knots on the canvas but to become on a first-name basis with the sea. Not just to get some kind of port profession but to captain a ship.

At first, they hoped that the girl would outgrow it. She would fall in love, get married, have children, and the sea would quickly fade into the background. After all, the girl is beautiful: round-faced, with wavy thick hair and a beautiful figure. However, her nose is a bit too big, and her mind is too sharp. She responded quickly to any changes and had organizational skills and a commanding voice.

Her father used to ask her: «Who are you going to manage? Is it really the sailors?» He would sniffle when he heard the answer: «Back in 1562, Denmark passed a law stating that women and pigs were not allowed on ships. If they were found, they were to be immediately thrown overboard». Berta persisted: «Father, we are not in Denmark and not in the sixteenth century».

My mother said nothing of the sort. She just sighed: «There are such rude, uncouth people there, bastards, how will you be? Don’t you know that the captain is called uncle among them, and the boatswain is called dragon?»

Berta stubbornly pursued her goal. At fourteen, she entered the Odesa Maritime College, the navigational department, and began learning about land and shore landmarks and ship maneuvers. At first, she was treated with skepticism, but she tirelessly argued her case.

She received high marks, and later, the teachers respected her greatly. Especially one old sea wolf, who wore a jacket smelling sea salt all year round and was considered a bit crazy. He was the one who quietly told about sea customs and laws:

«During a festive dinner, you should not clink glasses. This sound disturbs the souls of the dead sailors. When making a toast, you should sit (God forbid you should stand). The first toast should always be to the gods of the sea: Poseidon and Neptune».

The girl listened carefully and took notes. At the beginning of her internship on the sailing ship «Tovarysh», she was promoted to the long-distance navigator. Oh, my God, what a joy it was! Berta was on equal footing with the boys, washing the deck, assembling and setting the sails, and whenever she had a free minute, she would climb to the highest matcha and sing.

Her career developed quite rapidly. At first, she was the fourth assistant captain on the «Batum-Sovet» ship; a year later, she became the third assistant captain on the «Kuban» self-propelled ship, and two years later, she was promoted to the second assistant captain on the «Katayama» ship, and in February 1936 Berta became the senior assistant captain on the «Katayama» ship. While her sisters sewed pleated skirts and jabot blouses and cut crepe de chine dresses (always with a small flower), Berta skillfully navigated from the port of Odesa to ports in England and France.

One day, they came to a French port. A large crowd had gathered at the pier to watch the woman command the mooring of a giant ship. She was short, pretty, and persistent, but the sailors listened to her without question. The audience burst into loud applause when the ship was attached to the dock.

Children gave flowers, hugged the madame, and asked her about her life in the USSR. Everyone was curious to see the woman first officer. Another time, the ship arrived in London, and a crowd was waiting for her again. This time, many reporters gathered, so the next day, an article about the world’s first female sailor appeared in local newspapers.

In it, the correspondent, a dapper English dandy, described in detail her appearance, eye and hair color, clothes, and manicure. Or rather, there was no manicure. No one could understand how this was possible. After all, she is a lady first and foremost, and here is such a dog’s position.

She sleeps in fragments four to five hours a day, is always on the watch, is responsible for the ship’s leading devices’ operation, supervises the deck crew’s work, takes care of food and water consumption, and keeps the ship clean and tidy. Even a tastelessly prepared dinner remained on the XO’s conscience, but Berta easily fulfilled her «dog» duties.

The woman was fluent in English, found an approach to both sailors and stokers, and could alleviate the dissatisfaction and those who were simply tired of the confined space and the overbearing team. The chief mate had a strong-willed character, did not disdain a tart strong word, smoked Belomor fervently, and, as an expert, was in no way inferior to the man.

Even then, the sailors called her the legendary Berta and treated her with great respect. It seemed that nothing could confuse the woman: neither sleepless nights, nor motion sickness, nor endless changes of time poles. She endured the tropical heat, unbearable Arctic cold, the long separation from her family, and the inability to walk on solid ground. Looking at her, no one had the desire to grumble or rebel. After all, it turns out that a woman can do it, and men are weaklings.

Her personal life remained the greatest secret. No one had any idea who she loved, who she cried for, or how she spent her free time. Only later did they notice that she seemed to have put on weight. She changed her tunic from a size forty-four to a size forty-six. From time to time, she looks pale and tired. When she has a free minute, she sleeps. In a few months, it became clear that Berta was expecting a child. The sailors were confused and tried to make the life of the first mate easier, but Berta resolutely refused to indulge because pregnancy, like the sea, is a form of life.

 

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She went ashore to give birth and recover. The girl was named Zhanna. The young mother breastfed, washed diapers, and, from time to time, looked toward the sea. Toward the Quarantine Harbor and the pier number four and three. Where the «Mayak» cafe, which was once called «Kel’s Buffet», was rounding up. Just like half a century ago, it served delicious food and refreshments, and three orchestras played in shifts on Prymorskyi Boulevard: a military brass band, an Italian band, and a Romanian band.

t that time, she had a room in a four-story house at Deribasivska Street, 4. The house was solid, with high windows and marble stairs. All the apartments were communal, so we lived together. When someone returned from a flight, we would organize loud celebrations. Tables were set, caviar from bluefish and flounder roasted to golden brown were brought out, and toasts were made. They raised their glasses to those currently rocking and those at sea, on watch, and in the brig.

When it was time to leave for the voyage, there was no choice between your favorite job and your child. Of course, you had to go to sea. Her mother stayed with the baby because Berta knew that no one could handle a child better than her mother.

The voyage was scheduled to start on Friday. This was considered a bad omen among sailors at all times because nothing should be started on Friday (the day of the crucifixion of Jesus), let alone such considerable things as an international voyage. (The plan was to enter Mariupol, load grain, and head for Liverpool.)

Early in the morning, Berta fed her daughter, kissed her on the top of her head, and tied her chest tightly. A bad feeling sucked at her insides, and she suddenly remembered that the «Katayama» had been renamed. An old teacher in a peacoat came to mind. One day, he told a legend that said that all the names of ships are stored in the Book of the Abyss, which is managed by Poseidon himself. Therefore, when a ship’s name was changed, it was equated with an attempt to deceive God.

It was October 1938. A civil war was raging in Spain. The USSR was helping the government of the republic with weapons and food, so they were transporting grain to the warring country. The sky that day was gray and inhospitable; the sea had lost its color and its former flair, but the «Katayama» stubbornly kept its course to Liverpool. It was undaunted by heavy waves and the whims of nature.

At night, near Malta, the ship was illuminated by powerful searchlights. As it turned out, Spanish fascist ships were patrolling the Mediterranean. A warship approached them and gave a signal: «Stop immediately! In case of disobedience, you will be shot».

The captain of the «Katayama» slammed on the brakes, and that night, the entire crew was arrested except for Berta and five sailors. The prisoners were sent ashore, and the only people left on the ship were a woman, a boatswain, two sailors, a driver, and a stoker. Leaving the ship, the captain resigned his authority over her and advised her not to succumb to provocations.

Berta did not move a muscle, only caught a glimpse of her daughter’s face: thick curls and beady eyes. In the morning, Berta raised a flag on the deck. When the robbers wanted to tear it down, she objected: «As long as I am on board, there will be my order and my flag». On the same day, the sailors were sent to a concentration camp and Berta to a women’s prison, where they demanded a written statement or confession that the ship was carrying weapons, not bread.

During the interrogation, the woman was hit. After one powerful blow, Berta fell down and lost consciousness, and when she came to, she was horrified by the conditions. There was mud in the cell, excessive moisture, and no beds or chairs. The food was terrible. They had to wash from a bucket. The woman immediately went on a hunger strike. The prison director came to see her and offered her better conditions if she stopped her hunger strike. Berta refused and was transferred to a concentration camp as a punishment. Her fellow sailors were held in a Palma prison on the Mallorca island.

Berta spent eight months behind barbed wire. She behaved with dignity. She cried once. Her daughter turned one that day, and she could not congratulate her. To cook a spittoon with an apple or at least a «porridge pudding». Give her a teddy bear or a spinning top toy. In June, she was finally released, so the entire concentration camp came to say goodbye. The Spaniards gave the woman a bouquet of wildflowers and babbled for a long time about the indomitable and unconquerable nature of the Odesa sailors.

Zhanna did not recognize her mother. When she saw the emaciated woman on the doorstep, she cried out in resentment. For a long time, she did not go to her arms, and Berta did not understand how to approach her own child. What to say, what game to play, how to sway her. Over time, everything settled down, the first officer recovered, and they set out to sail again. The mother could not resist looking at her daughter with reproach. She sighed: «Mom, finally understand! The sea is my land».

From April 29, 1941, Berta sailed as a first officer on the ship «Moldavia». Her mouth tasted sweet as soon as she said the ship’s name. As if she had sipped a spicy grape wine with a cherry flavor. The woman was still in charge, overseeing the team’s work, giving orders, and regaling them with stories until the war broke out. The city changed overnight.

Instead of snow and rain, gray pellets of death flew from the sky. The Nazis seized a water pumping station near Odesa, and there was no water supply. In the evenings, someone would always yell: «Citizens, keep your camouflage, turn off the lights». The residents of Odesa obediently dressed their windows in black. From the very first days, «Moldavia» received a Red Cross flag and began to take women, old people, and children out of Odesa.

Before we knew it, October paled. The sea cooled down to thirteen degrees, the ash trees turned brown and yellow, and the white-tailed eagles made particularly eerie calls. On the tenth, again on Friday, Berta had to take the people of Odesa to safer places. The woman nervously lit a cigarette and noted the full cubicles of people.

Those who didn’t fit in the holds were sitting on the deck, watching the horizon with a furtive eye. They looked confused, frightened, pale. The sea was waiting patiently for the start of the journey. The sky was clear, but a few seagulls were confused and wild. Berta had understood their language since childhood. Everyone knows that the souls of dead sailors are hidden in the throats of birds. This time, the cormorants warned of something terrible and inevitable.

The tragedy happened near the Tendra Spit. At first, metal birds appeared in the sky: planes of the Squadrons of the 77th Dive Bomber Wing nicknamed the «Patchworkers». They hunted the red crosses like bulls hunt a red rag. They ruthlessly drowned the wounded, children, and women and enjoyed it immensely.

So, having captured their prey, bombs flew into the sea. A child’s scream made my ears ring. The ship tilted dangerously, as the creatures had put dozens of holes in it. Berta gritted her teeth and clung to the steering wheel with all her might. She managed to reach the shallows at Tendra, and the evacuation began. Thank God, the rescue ship «Jupiter» crew came to the rescue.

The rescue of the «Moldavia» lasted until late in the evening. The wounded were moaning everywhere, the frightened were screaming, and the dead were silent. Fourteen men were missing from the crew, twenty-five were injured, including the captain himself. Seventy passengers lay bloody but alive. The ship also seemed unconscious.

The last person to get off was the captain, Berta Yakivna Rapoport. Soon, the poor people were transported to safety, and the ship, or rather what was left of it, stood stranded until the end of the occupation. Eventually, it was written off and cut up for scrap.

In November, Berta was already in charge of the ship «Turkmenistan», and when the war ended, she was transferred to the position of senior inspector of the office of the captain of the Odesa port. Two years later, the fight against cosmopolitans began. Highly skilled specialists were fired from the Black Sea Shipping Company simply because they were Polish, Greek, Bulgarian, and Jewish.

Captains, boatswains, and mechanics were born and raised in Odesa and did not know any other homeland, but no one cared. The Soviet government was trying to preserve the «purity of the race.» Berta also fell under the spell, and a woman who had risen to the rank of captain was offered the position of dispatcher.

 

Берта Рапопорт в качестве диспетчера морфлота
Berta Rapoport as a dispatcher of the navy / grad.ua

 

She had no choice. She had to feed her daughter, her mother, and herself. So, in 1948, she became a shift dispatcher for the Navy. She accurately sent a tugboat of the required capacity to a particular area and controlled the vessels’ compliance with traffic schedules and cargo transportation plans.

In 1962, the former first officer was nominated for the «Honorary Worker of the Navy» award but was not given the award because she had been in capitalist captivity for almost a year. The woman swallowed another insult and later contracted cancer. When she was going to the other side, she asked to put her bed by the window so that she could see the sea. After all, the sea is like a tattoo that is almost impossible to remove. No matter what you do, a white mark remains.

People said different things about her. That she always stepped on board with her right foot, and she had a pig and a rooster tattooed on her leg (the pig on the left and the rooster on the right, but no one ever saw them) as if this allowed her to survive any shipwreck. The most daring ones said that she «wore» a real cross under her knee, which made the woman tasteless and invisible to sharks.

On board, Berta did not allow whistling, as it could provoke a storm or a storm. She adored the red evening sky because it predicted good weather. When the storm was lingering, she would throw bread into the water to improve the natural conditions and appease the elements.

When setting out on a long voyage, she carefully ensured that none of the crew stood at the stern for a long time and did not watch the waves. She knew that sailors can have transformations of consciousness: when they do not see land on the horizon for too long, they can jump into the water without realizing it.

In fact, no one knows anything about Berta Rapoport except for a few well-known dates: her birth, her entry into the technical school, her arrest, and the sinking of the Moldavia. We do not know what made her laugh and what, on the contrary, embarrassed her. What dreams she had, what she taught Zhanna, and what men she loved.

Berta’s daughter is old and sick, so she refuses to tell us anything. Her grandson has long been in Israel, and the only things in the archives are her diploma and a few other yellowed pieces of paper. All that is known is her strong belief in the sea. After all, any sea is a land.

 


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