Season 2, Episode 34
The Ship That Launched a Nation
While the Irgun waged its resistance campaign in Palestine, the Haganah continued its nonviolent Aliyah Bet operation — illegally smuggling in Holocaust survivors from Europe. It was a slick, deeply symbolic operation that increased in intensity after the war, as hundreds of thousands of traumatized Holocaust survivors languished in displaced persons camps all over Europe. It was yet another battle in the ongoing war between the British and the Jews over who would control Palestine. It culminated in the drama around the ship called Exodus 1947.
When my grandparents, amongst many others, found themselves liberated after surviving the Holocaust, the Allies put them in displaced persons camps. In these DP camps the Jews tried to scratch out a basic living in spartan conditions while searching for lost family members and figuring out where to go next. Palestine was a major draw, and Jewish nationalism attractive after their extreme helplessness during the war. The Zionist Movement embedded itself in the camps, preparing survivors for life in Palestine. But the British continued to refuse Jews entry. The Yishuv was determined to continue their end-run around the British by illegally bringing in as many Jews as possible.
In one famous incident, known as the La Spezia Affair, organized by Yehuda Arazi, the Haganah falsified papers, stole British uniforms and trucks, and transported hundreds of Jews from a DP camp in Italy to a boat in the port of La Spezia, Italy. The ruse discovered, a six-week standoff at the port ensued. Local Italians rallied to the Jews’ cause, and the Jews on board went on a hunger strike. International pressure forced the British to cave, and the refuges were allowed to set sail for Palestine.
In 1947 the Haganah purchased a decrepit, decommissioned American ship for $40,000, and a group of American Jews volunteered to crew it to Europe to help rescue and transport Jewish refugees across the Mediterranean. Originally named the President Warfield, the crew changed its name to Exodus 1947, communicating the ancient Jewish past, the urgency of the present, and the determination the Zionists had to get this boat to the Promised Land.
The Exodus took on 4500 passengers in France, the single largest haul of any ship in the entire Aliyah Bet operation. The Haganah prepared the ship and its passengers for confrontation with the British, since they knew a ship of that size wouldn’t be able to sneak past the blockade. On July 18 the British boarded the ship near Haifa and a fight broke out. Three Jews were killed and several soldiers wounded. Arriving in Palestine for just a brief moment, the British sent everyone right back to France. They knew the PR was bad but wanted to deter the Haganah from continuing the Aliyah Bet.
In France, the French refused to force the Jews off the boats. After a three-week impasse and a short hunger strike, the British came up with an even worse idea: send the Exodus refugees back to British-occupied Germany. Another fight broke out in Hamburg, but the Jews were forced off the boat and parceled out to various internment camps. But the Haganah continued to smuggle them one-by-one out of the camps and onto other ships for Palestine. Most of them eventually made it. Only 1,800 of the original 4,500 hundred were left by the time Israel became a state.
The Exodus 1947 served as the defining symbol of both the daring-do of the Haganah and the seemingly callous indifference and hostility of the British. The Exodus received so much attention that it was later dubbed “the ship that launched a nation.” Aliyah Bet ultimately brought over 100,000 Jews to Palestine from Europe
Yehuda Arazi: swashbuckling Haganah fighter with numerous exploits to his name. He was the lead investigator in the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff from Episode 21. He joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in 1945 but was secretly the head of the Italian branch of the Haganah’s Aliyah Bet operation. He used his position to smuggle Jews from DP camps to ports in Italy and onto ships bound for Palestine. He was immortalized as the main character of Leon Uris’ novel Exodus, Ari Ben Canaan, and was played by Paul Newman in the film version.
THE BIG IDEAS
During the war thousands of Jews from Palestine enlisted in the British Army. Many of them were organized into a Jewish Brigade. With the war over many soldiers returned to Palestine, oftentimes to join the Haganah or the Irgun and apply their new military skills to the Jewish resistance. But others who stayed on active duty in Europe helped undercover Haganah fighters move around Europe and organize smuggling operations to get the Jews out of the DP camps.
Aliyah Bet was difficult and dangerous business. From sneaking Jews around Europe, to finding, crewing, and supplying a ship, to sailing across the Mediterranean, to evading the British blockade, the Yishuv had numerous successes but also many failures, and many refugees lost their lives trying to get to Palestine. But the fierce determination that kept them alive during the Holocaust turned into a tenacious desire to get to Palestine. Getting to the Land of Israel became their single-minded purpose.
Unlike with the Exodus, it was rare to send Holocaust survivors to Europe. Usually the British sent them to detention camps on Cyprus. 50,000 Jews ended up stuck there in austere conditions. Massively overcrowded, the camps had just barely enough food, water, and basic medical care, but lacked other critical resources. There was no long-term plan for what to do with these Jews, as only 700 were allowed to immigrate to Palestine each month. This took a huge psychological toll, and wasn’t resolved until Israel became a state.
In response to Jewish refugees’ demand that they be allowed to immigrate to Palestine, the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, said that the Jews had waited 2,000 years to return to the Holy Land — so they can wait longer.
To demonstrate their support for the Jewish refugees during the standoff with the British at La Spezia, local Italians put up a sign renaming the dockyard “The Port of Zion.” There is still a commemorative plaque there.
Things go so bad on the Exodus’ sea trial run that the non-Jewish captain gave the order to abandon ship. The Jewish crew refused and decided to get a Jewish captain who would understand that, sinking or not, they would get to Europe to rescue their fellow Jews even if they had to jump in the water and push.
The actually ship Exodus sank in Haifa harbor in the 1950s, and the harbor eventually expanded over the remains. A memorial at the port was finally dedicated in 2017.
© Jason Harris 2019