Ike Aranne (formerly Yitzhak Aronowicz), the captain of the Exodus who died last week, told The Jerusalem Post's Ruthie Blum Leibowitz in an interview in his Zichron Ya'acov home in November 2008 that neither the Leon Uris's novel, Exodus, nor the film with Paul Newman bears any resemblance to the cold, hard facts.
Here is an extract from the interview:
What made you want to become a seaman?
That happened completely by accident. When I was 17, I wanted to fight Hitler. But I didn't want to join the [Jewish Brigade] of the British army, because they gave us lousy jobs. So I decided to go to Odessa and enlist in the Red Army. To do this, I stowed away on a [Histadrut-owned construction company] Solel Boneh ship. But I was caught on the way and returned home. When I got back, everybody told me I was all talk, and that I was just trying to show off and impress people. I was so embarrassed by this that I boarded a Palestinian ship that sailed from Haifa to Tobruk [in Libya].
You simply got on the ship and said you wanted to become a sailor?
No, it wasn't so simple. I had to bribe a guy named Perlman a whole month's salary to arrange it. After sailing on various ships, I did my officers' courses in London - for third, then second and then first officer. In 1942, when I returned to [pre-state] Israel, I heard that there was this thing called the Palmah [the first mobilized regiment of the Hagana, which preceded the IDF] that had a naval branch called the Palyam, and I wanted to join it. I got my friend, [cofounder of the Palmah and its first commanding officer] Yitzhak Sadeh, to help me. Now, at that time, there were other Jews here who sailed, but they did it to make a living - not as part of an ideological Zionist endeavor. And the Palmah had no sailors at all. Since I already had eight months' worth of experience at sea, I was considered practically an expert.
What about the Exodus?
It was the first ship of which I was captain. Six months earlier, I had become first officer - and I had four months missing to becoming a captain. But, because it was a boat from Honduras, where they didn't give a hoot about such regulations - I could do it. If that same boat had carried a British rather than a Honduran flag, there's no way I would have been made captain, because to become captain required seven years seatime, and I only had six and a half. [He is referring to the fact that after the ship was purchased by the Hagana from the American navy, which had anchored it, following its service in the allied invasion of Normandy, the Honduran Consulate gave it permission to sail under its flag.]
What was your experience on the ship?
We had a commander who was sent by [head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine who would become first prime minister of Israel] David Ben-Gurion. His name was Yossi Harel. [The character Ari Ben-Canaan, played by Paul Newman, is loosely based on him.] He died a year ago. He was a politruk brought to the ship to supervise us Palmahniks whom Ben-Gurion considered to be a bit nutty. And we told him he could go f**k himself. He was a guy who didn't even know what the inside of a ship looked like, let alone how it worked - though later he would go on to study naval architecture. Anyway, he got it in his head that the ship was going to sink. I told him he was talking nonsense - that the ship was not sinking.
Why did he think it was going to sink?
Because the British rammed it 20-odd times, so water began seeping in. But I tried to explain to him that the ship itself wasn't damaged at all. You see, this ship - originally called The President Warfield - was built for shallow water. [Named after the president of a shipping company in the Chesapeake Bay, it was originally a luxury liner that sailed between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, during the years 1928-1940. In 1940-1, it was converted into a troop and supply ship for the British navy. Then it was assigned to the US navy, where it took part in the allied invasion of Normandy. It was the short draft of the ship that caused Aranne to notice \it in the first place at the ships' "graveyard" in Baltimore in 1946, and purchase it for the Hagana for the purpose of bringing Jewish refugees to Palestine. Its shallow draft is precisely what would enable it to get close enough to the coast of Palestine unhindered by boats that could sail only in deep water.]
Anyway, the point is that Harel was not a seaman, and didn't know anything about it. But he thought the ship was going to sink, and Ben-Gurion told him to surrender. So he surrendered.
How did you feel about that?
The crew and I were all against it. It was that surrender that brought about the decision of the United Nations to divide Palestine.
What was your opinion of Ben-Gurion?
Ben-Gurion is considered to be a great, daring leader, and it's complete nonsense. He thought that the Jewish people, without the support of America and the United Nations, would go kaput, which is ridiculous. It's now that we're kaput - or at least on the way there.
What is your most vivid memory from that episode?
My most emotional and horrible memory is Ben-Gurion's ordering Yossi Harel to surrender - and our surrendering.
Do you remember that day clearly?
Every aspect of it.
Did Leon Uris interview you prior to writing the book for the details you remember?
Yes he did, in 1956.
What emerged from that interview?
I told him that he was a very gifted writer, but not a historian, and therefore it shouldn't be he writing the history of the Exodus.
How did he react when you said that?
He was very offended. But, of course, I turned out to be right, because afterwards, he wrote a very good novel, but it had nothing to do with reality. Exodus, shmexodus.
Was it completely inaccurate?
I'm telling you, it had nothing to do with reality - not because of my own story, but because of the situation as a whole.
What happened on the Exodus caused the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine to divide Palestine into two states. The Palmah was against this decision, as were the Lehi [Stern group] and the IZL [Irgun]. We said that Israel had already been divided once in 1920 by Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann [Zionist leader, who later became the first president of Israel] after Balfour gave the declaration to have a Jewish state in 1917. And the Balfour Declaration was in favor of giving Palestine to us as a Jewish national home. That included all of Transjordan - which is eight times the size of Palestine, inhabited at the time by a mere 15,000 nomadic Beduin.
But then Ben-Gurion and Weizmann decided to give it to this guy from the Hejaz - Emir Abdullah - who wasn't even from Jordan. And that is how the Kingdom of Jordan was declared in 1920, against the decision of the League of Nations in 1917 to give Palestine to the Jewish people as a Jewish national home.