In 1934, under the guidance of Qatsin Hashilton Halpern,
Betar established a marine school in Civitavechia, Italy to train young Jews
how to man sea-going vessels. Unlike the British and French, the Italian
government then allowed foreign students to enter its naval schools. The Betar
marine section was an autonomous detachment, with Hebrew as a subsidiary
language, self-government in its own barracks, kosher foods, and shabbat
services. Instruction was given to about one hundred Jewish cadets by Italian
officers, under the supervision of Betar Mifakdim.
The Betar marine section purchased its first ship and named
her Sara I. She was a beautiful four-master, originally the yacht of an
American Admiral, and the largest sailing vessel in the Mediterranean. The hull
was painted blue and white, and the hold rebuilt to accommodate sixty cadets
and the crew. She made training cruises lasting from six months to a year,
touching in at ports of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific.
During the winter of 1938, which was the stormiest the Mediterranean had seen
for over half a century, the Sara I, during a regular training voyage, rode out
thirty storms, four hundred squalls, eleven waterspouts, four hurricanes, and
two typhoons. The behavior of the cadets during this period when scores of
ships went down and hundreds of men drowned was characterized in the marine
press as "constituting a chapter in the history of Jewish navigation that
future generations will be proud of."
At Riga, Latvia, Betar opened another marine school. In 1936
Betar chartered a sailing vessel, which was renamed Theodore Herzel, for the
training of able bodied seamen. The Theodore Herzel made voyages all along the
Scandinavian coast. In 1938 two more vessels were added in Civitavechia, the
Nekha, and Lea. The cadets from the Betar marine section proved to be valuable
assets in another area of Betar activity - Aliyah Bet.