Seventy one years ago this month, the fate of a ship with 4500 Holocaust survivors bound for Israel (then called Palestine), erupted onto the international scene.
Fueled by relentless media coverage, the long-running odyssey of “Exodus 1947” gripped world interest and exerted a profound impact on seminal events in the Middle East of that period.
Contrary to popular assumption, the legendary Exodus never made it to Israel’s shores. After being rammed in international waters by several British warships, it was commandeered by the British navy and towed to Haifa where no one was allowed to disembark.
Before anyone could set foot on soil, all the ships’ passengers, including 650 children, were herded by club-wielding British soldiers from the deck of the Exodus onto 3 caged prison ships, and returned to internment camps in Germany.
Many refugee ships before the Exodus had tried to run the British blockade of Palestine. Most failed but a few did succeed in outmaneuvering British patrol boats and unloading thousands of passengers on isolated beaches. There they were met by volunteers who, in pre-coordinated rescue operations, whisked them away to nearby kibbutzim.
For the vast majority of Jews attempting to reach Israel-Palestine after 1939, however, the operation was a high stakes gamble that was often lost. Some, like the 980 passengers of the St. Louis, were forced to return to Nazi-occupied Europe. Others drowned in the ocean as their ships capsized or were deliberately sunk.
Thousands of Jewish refugees trying to enter Israel were caught and transferred to British prison camps in the desert islands of Cyprus and Mauritius. There they lived for months and often years, in primitive tents without running water or electricity, suffering from the blistering desert heat or frigid cold.
None of these tragic events captured world headlines. Most of them happened during wartime when global interest was fixated on epic battles that would spell the future of the world. All struggles of lesser consequence were eclipsed.
The Exodus was playing to a different audience. In 1947, the war had been over for two years. The Nuremberg trials (April 1945-Oct. 1946) had exposed in ghastly detail the Nazis’ systematic program of genocide that had wiped European Jewry off the map, while an indifferent world looked on.
Perhaps in search of some form of redemption, the world was quick to condemn British’s Palestine immigration regulation as inhumane and to rally around the cause of a national homeland for the Jews, especially since it eased their consciences without costing them anything.
The Survivors No One Wanted
At the close of World War II, some 250,000 Holocaust survivors languished in displacement camps, destitute and broken. Despite what the free world by now knew about the Nazis’ annihilation of millions of Jews and the horrors of the gas chambers and death camps, no country was willing to admit more than a tiny number of survivors.
Government leaders urged the survivors to “return home” and rebuild their lives. But the vast majority had no homes, communities or families to return to. Those who made their way back to their native towns were met with hostility and violence.
The notorious pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in which vicious mobs butchered 42 Jews, all of them survivors, convinced the majority of the survivor population that there was no future for them in Europe.
In the United States, immigration restrictions strictly limited the number of refugees permitted to enter the country. The British, who had received a mandate from the League of Nations to administer Palestine, severely restricted Jewish immigration there because of Arab objections. Many other free countries closed their borders to immigration.
Despite these obstacles, many survivors attempted to leave Europe as soon as possible.
The Jewish Brigade Group, formed as a unit within the British army in late 1944, worked with former partisans to help organize the Bricha (Escape); the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from DP camps across Europe to the coast, in an attempt to sail for Israel.
Aliyah Bet, begun by the Irgun and later joined by the rival Labor party led by David Ben Gurion, organized “illegal” immigration by ship.
Britain at this time maintained a tight blockade of the ports of Palestine, enforcing the notorious White Paper of 1939 that cut off Jewish immigration to a trickle just when Hitler came to power.
Capitulating to Arab pressure fueled by the vicious Muslim leader, Haj Amin, a Hitler ally, Britain used the White Paper as a “legal” tool to turn its back on the Balfour Declaration, with its promise of facilitating the return of Jews to their ancient homeland.
With Hitler’s death machine moving into high gear, Britain still refused to allow more than 15,000 Jews a year into Palestine—a mere fraction of the hundreds and thousands who sought to flee there.
Running the British Blockade
Despite the British naval ships and destroyers maintaining surveillance on the Mediterranean and blocking Haifa, Netanya and other ports, ships filled with Jewish refugees continued to try to gain entry.
Before the war and to whatever extent it was possible during the war, the Irgun led by Vladimir Jabotinsky had spearheaded the campaign for “clandestine immigration,” or haapala. To keep this operation going, Irgun had to circumvent not only the British but the Jewish Agency in Palestine led by Ben Gurion.
Ben Gurion preferred to stay on good terms with the British than to rescue Jews from the gas chambers, and he therefore outlawed haapala. He changed his position only much later, after the war’s end, when he realized that he and his party needed a sufficient influx of Jews to justify the call for statehood and to defend the country in case of war. The only way he could increase the population of the yishuv at the time was through “illegal” immigration.
In addition, Ben Gurion’s opposition to haapala was beginning to hurt his party, as popular support burgeoned throughout the yishuv for bringing Holocaust survivors to Israel in defiance of the British.
American Zionist Leaders Oppose Clandestine Immigration
In 1939, however, Ben Gurion was still an outspoken adversary of the Irgun’s blockade-running activity. His position was echoed by the majority of American Zionists who followed the cue of Dr. Stephen Wise, a prominent American Zionist leader and friend of President Roosevelt.
Wise fought against making the rescue of Europe’s Jews a front burner issue. For months after reliable information reached him about the Nazis’ mass annihilation of Jews, he did his best to suppress the news in compliance with what he knew to be FDR’s wishes.
Wise voiced harsh opposition to any rescue plan that would divert monetary or political support from the Zionist establishment, and wanted nothing to do with so-called illegal immigration.
Of interest on this subject is the dissenting voice of the influential Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who took the position that the British, not Jewish refugees, were behaving illegally.
Brandeis explained this stance at a meeting with American Zionist activists on July 31, 1939. As cited by historian Rafael Medoff of the David Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies, one of the participants at this meeting wrote: “Speaking on the question of immigration, Brandeis said that Jews would continue to immigrate regardless of the White Paper.”
“When someone suggested that it was illegal, [Brandeis] said that the Jewish people considered it legal in view of the fact that any attempt to curtail immigration was in violation of the terms of the Mandate; that it may be considered illegal by Great Britain but that we Jews considered it to be legal.”
Brandeis put into words what many intuitively felt, that a law that helped doom millions of innocent Jews could not be “legal” in the true sense of the word. Conversely, an operation smuggling Jews out of the Nazi inferno to safety could not truly be illegal.
In July 1947, under the close scrutiny of the Royal Navy, the Exodus picked up 4,553 Jewish refugees from Marseilles, France and began the voyage to Israel-Palestine.
The ship’s captain, Yossi [Hamberger] Harel, ignored the British warnings to stop, and made a run for the port.
It wasn’t the first time Harel had defied the blockade. A sixth generation Yerushalmi, Harel had left home as a teenager and fought the Nazis in Greece as a member a Jewish Brigade attached to the British army.
After being wounded and recovering, he joined Hagana and immediately after the war ended, began running clandestine operations bringing thousands of Jewish survivors to Israel-Palestine.
By the time he was 28, Yossi Harel had brought about 24, 000 Jews to Israel’s shores. The Exodus, however, was one ship he commanded that never made it to freedom—despite the dramatic portrayal of a successful docking in Exodus, a 1958 world-famous fictional account.
The ship, originally called the “President Warfield,” was built to carry about 400 passengers and a crew of 50 – but these were abnormal times. By the time it left France in the first week of July, 1947, it carried more than 4,500 passengers.
Captain Ike Aronowicz and Commander Yossi Harel were both Hagana members who, with other volunteers, had stocked the ship with supplies to last for two weeks. There were also 17 Jewish American navy volunteers, along with a volunteer medical staff and a photographer.
On the Exodus, passengers and crew communicated in Yiddish, the common language of most everyone on board. The passengers slept and ate on wooden cots located on three decks. Space was so tight, people could barely move. But there were few complaints. They knew were the lucky ones; survivors. Alive, free, about to attain an unimaginable dream – a new life in Eretz Yisroel.
From the beginning, the British were on their tail; destroyers accompanied them every inch of the way. Knowing the British would try to prevent them from docking, Harel and Aronowicz, working with leaders offshore, had devised a plan.
The ship would get as close to the shore as possible so that the refugees could jump into the water and, equipped with life belts, swim to where volunteers were waiting for them.
But the drama unfolded very differently.
Exodus Is Overpowered
In the middle of the night, in international waters about 50 miles from the dark coast, two British destroyers attacked the Exodus on both sides, firing at the upper deck. Tear gas bombs were hurled onto the ship and many were hurt.
At 4 a.m., the British began to use live fire. Passengers fought back with tin cans, potatoes and other objects. They were no match for the soldiers. Casualties soon mounted; three dead and 200 wounded. Fear that the Exodus would sink persuaded the ship’s commander to surrender.
The passengers and crew were ordered to hold fire. As the captain and commander disappeared into a prepared hideout, the British boarded the Exodus and took control. The ship was guided to Haifa, where the survivors were forced onto prison ships bound for France.
At Port-de-Bouc, in southern France, they refused to disembark, remaining in the ships’ holds for 24 days during an unbearable heat wave. Despite the scorching heat, shortage of food, crowding and the terrible sanitary conditions, the survivors could not be budged.
World media played up the stalemate. Britain found very little international sympathy for its aims of maintaining its foothold in the region through the British Mandate over Palestine.
The French resented Britain’s status as the key world power in the Mideast that enabled it to retain control of the Suez Canal and access to the region’s rich oil fields. They affected a humanitarian position toward the refugees, refusing to take over Britain’s fight by forcing the passengers off the ship.
Influential media of the time lamented the plight of the Holocaust survivors, igniting global support for their cause.
“The [survivors’] ordeal quickly assumed the mythic power in the struggle for Jewish nationhood that the Boston Tea Party had in America’s history,” wrote the New York Times.
The bullheaded English Prime Minister Bevin, obstinately refusing to reach any accommodation with the Exodus passengers, completed the public relations disaster for Britain.
Survivors Sent To Camps In Germany
As the French government continued to maintain a hands-off policy toward the Exodus and its passengers, the British government decided to herd the passengers to the British zone of occupied Germany.
For the Holocaust survivors, the prospect of being sent back to prison camps in Germany, even liberated ones, was almost impossible to bear. But the British government was determined to break the back of “clandestine immigration.”
Under Operation Oasis, plans were put in place to storm the ships and remove the passengers when they docked at Hamburg. One hundred military police and 200 “Sherwood Foresters” troops were ordered to board the ship and eject the Jewish immigrants. The desperate Jews fought back with their bare hands.
Documents from the British archives of the period cite reports by British officers in charge of the operation accusing the Jews of staging resistance as a ploy for world pity.
“Our soldiers withstood the Jews’ assault admirably and very stoically. No other nation’s troops could have done it as well and as humanely as these British ones did,” one of the commanding officers wrote his superiors.
“It should be borne in mind that the guiding factor in most of the actions of the Jews is to gain the sympathy of the world press,” the officer concluded.
Yet the violence was described quite differently by Dr. Noah Barou, secretary of the British delegation to the World Jewish Congress, who witnessed it, and whose observations were included in the British archive, quoted by the Independent.
“I Am From Dachau!”
Barou described British soldiers beating Holocaust survivors as a “terrible mental picture.”
“They went into the operation as a football match … hitting people in the stomach where it would not show up as an injury. It seemed evident that they had not had it explained to them that they were dealing with people who had suffered greatly…”
Dr. Barou wrote that he was moved by one young girl who “came to the top of the stairs, shouting to the soldiers, ‘I am from Dachau! You are behaving like Hitler commandos!’”
These events took place only two years after British soldiers liberated some of the concentration camps in the last days of the Second World War. Then they had been hailed as saviors.
The troops’ discoveries of atrocities at Bergen-Belsen, where piles of skeletal corpses were strewn about the death ovens and gas chambers, prompted Britain’s political leaders to promise that the world would never forget the suffering of the Jews.
That sympathy had apparently dissipated and British officials were sneering at the efforts of the broken Jews to rebuild their lives, accusing them of posturing for world sympathy.
“While the British claimed they could find no evidence of excessive force, they conceded that in one case, a Jew ‘was dragged down the gangway by the feet with his head bumping on the wooden slats’, the Independent reported, after studying declassified documents from the British Naval Archives.
The treatment of the refugees at the German internment camps caused an international outcry. Dr Barou was once again on hand to witness the events. He reported that conditions at Camp Poppendorf were terrible and claimed that it was being run by a German camp commandant.
The British denied that but the allegations of cruel and insensitive treatment persisted. In the end, the British government, facing world condemnation, decided to set the Jews free, claiming they had only interned them “for their own maintenance and security.”
The vast majority of the survivors aboard the Exodus ultimately found their way to Eretz Yisroel, the land of their dreams.
Largely as a result of the Exodus scandal, the League of Nations, convinced of Britain’s mismanagement of the Mandate in Palestine, voted in 1948 to end the Mandate and to partition Israel-Palestine into two domains, Arab and Jewish.
The British withdrew from the region, but only after arming the Arabs and providing them with military training. Immediately after the British departed in 1948, the Arabs declared war on the Jews, sparking the War for Independence.