One sunny Friday afternoon in February 1947, 20-year-old Murray Greenfield went home and – without being asked – scrubbed the kitchen floor. “I thought it might soften my mother up,” Greenfield laughs. “I had to give her some news I was a little apprehensive about.”
Greenfield had just completed three years of wartime service in the Merchant Marines. “I was headed for Hunter College in New York,” he said. “Education was a big deal in our family – I was the second-youngest of five sons, all of us veterans. One older brother was already a dentist; another, an accountant. Obviously I was going to college, too.
“So when I sat my mother down and said, “Mom, I’m not going to college,” I knew she’d be shocked. I couldn’t lie to her, but I couldn’t tell her the truth, either. All I said was, ‘I’m going to do something good for the Jewish people instead.’
“There was a long pause, and then she said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do something good for the Jewish people, then you don’t have to go to college.’”
What Greenfield couldn’t tell his mother was that he had just volunteered for a highly dangerous mission, one for which, if caught, he could be hanged. He was about to challenge the British blockade of Palestine – to outwit the British Royal Navy with a “rust bucket” of a ship – ferrying Holocaust survivors from war-torn Europe into Palestine. Orchestrated by the Hagana, Greenfield’s mission was strictly secret.
“I did tell my brother Sam, just so he could cover for me. I knew I couldn’t tell Abe, my oldest brother. If I had, he would have insisted on coming with me.”
A whole year would pass before Greenfield saw his mother again, but she wasn’t emotional, he recalls.
“My mother was sad because of Europe, the Holocaust. But she wasn’t sentimental, and she was dedicated to the Jewish people. During the war, she’d even sold a diamond ring my father had given her. In Yiddish, she said, ‘The people of Europe don’t have to eat – and I should have diamonds?’ She sent the money to Europe.”
The mission Greenfield signed up for was part of what came to be called “Aliya Bet,” facilitating the “illegal” immigration of the wretched survivors of the Holocaust into pre-state Israel. For four decades, the role that Greenfield and some 200 other North American volunteers played in Aliya Bet has remained one of history’s forgotten chapters. Not until Greenfield’s book The Jews’ Secret Fleet
was first published in 1987 did the heroic story of the young American volunteers come to light.
Last year, an hour-long documentary film by Alan Rosenthal called Waves of Freedom
, based on Greenfield’s book, retold the dramatic story, this time with actual footage of the events in addition to interviews with several of the participants – not just survivors and volunteers, but also with the British naval officers who worked to stop the immigrant ships.
The simple fact is that during 1945-1947, almost 50 percent of the refugees from post-Nazi Europe who made it into Palestine – 32,000 men, women, children and babies – arrived on 10 ships purchased from postwar US salvage yards and sailed by “American Jew-runners,” as British officials called them.
Most of the volunteers were little more than kids, and only a few had any seagoing experience. Yet the job they undertook played a significant part in the establishment of the State of Israel.
Reconstructing events that had occurred some 40 years earlier was no easy task, Greenfield says, noting he spent 10 years researching his book.
“The mission was so secret that few records were kept, and of those that were, very little survived. Many of the participants had passed away, and others were unsure of their memories. We searched through endless archives and interviewed countless people about what they remembered, or what they recalled hearing from family members. Eventually local presses picked up on the story, so we combed old newspaper files. The objective was to tell what happened, what the American volunteers did, and why it mattered.”
Each of the volunteers who decided they wanted to “do something good for the Jewish people” came to the clandestine operation in much the same way.
In the documentary, Paul Kaye recounts how he was summoned: A voice on the telephone asked, “Would you like to save your people?” He was instructed to go to a certain location and watch for a man in a black leather jacket who would be carrying a newspaper. If the man put the newspaper under his arm, Kaye was to follow him. If he threw it in the trash, Kaye should go home. That meant they were being followed. Secrecy was prime.
Greenfield’s introduction to the Hagana agents, came at shul. He met an American Zionist activist who told him the Hagana was looking for young men with sailing experience. Intrigued by that tiny bit of information, Greenfield agreed to meet one of the “Shu-shu boys,” so called because they were constantly “shushing” everyone, warning them to be quiet. At the subsequent interview, Greenfield listened and then asked two questions: First, was the mission dangerous? Second, what was the pay?
On being told that, yes, it was dangerous to try to sail an old, salvaged ship seriously overloaded with human cargo past the strict British blockade; and, second, that no pay was being offered, Greenfield’s response was instantaneous.
“Good!” he said. ‘Sign me up!”
His reasoning was that if the mission was dangerous and no pay was being offered, that must mean it was worthwhile.
If secrecy was prime, time was critical. The
situation of the 150,000 European Jews who’d managed to survive the Holocaust was dire. Homeless, stateless, exhausted, broken and ill, the Jews who’d emerged from Hitler’s camps now found themselves facing a hostile world where no one allowed them entry.
“The British had a slogan for the surviving Jews,” Greenfield recalls. “‘Go home! Go back to where you came from!’” But Europe’s Jews had no homes, most had no families, no possessions. Europe was under occupation by the Americans and British, but in Poland, where most Jews had lived, pogroms were still common.
For two full years after the war, an additional 1,500 to 2,000 Jews in Poland were murdered by Polish nationals. “Going home” was impossible, but neither was there any other place to go. The US and Canada had virtually closed their doors. As a result, the surviving remnant of Europe’s Jews huddled in “Displaced Persons” camps which differed from Hitler’s in only one way: in the DP camps, Jews weren’t scheduled for extermination.
Neither was Palestine a viable option. Since 1922, the British had held the Mandate for the administration of Palestine. And to placate local Arabs, they strictly limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Under the terms of the 1939 White Paper, the British permitted only 75,000 Jews over a five-year period to enter Palestine.
With the war over, many world leaders, including US president Harry Truman, expected that Great Britain would open the gates of Palestine to the few Jews who had survived. But as Sir Martin Gilbert writes in his introduction to The Jews’ Secret Fleet
, that was not to be. The desperate pleas of Jewish leaders were denied.
“On November 13, 1945, Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, announced that the British White Paper policy would continue as before. Although nearly 100,000 Jews moved throughout Europe during 1945, all of them seeking routes, ports or ships to Palestine, by the end of the year, only 13,100 had been allowed to enter – 1,500 fewer than had been allowed in 1944.”
With desperate survivors tenaciously clinging to life in the DP camps, something had to be done. “Aliya Aleph” was the term coined for Jews permitted to entered Palestine legally under British limitations, while “Aliya Bet” came to be applied to the clandestine “illegal” immigration, Jews smuggled into Palestine.
The most obvious option for bringing Europe’s Jews to Palestine was by sea.
“After the war, there was a tremendous surplus of vessels,” writes Paul N. Shulman, first commander of the Israeli Navy. “Ships of all kinds were headed straight for the scrap yard and could be purchased by weight for a few dollars a ton. Two of the Aliya Bet ships, the Pan Crescent and the Pan York, were purchased outright for around $125,000 each.”
The other eight ships – the Wedgewood
, the Haganah
, the Arlosoroff
, the Ben Hecht
, the Exodus
, the Geula
, the Jewish State
and the Tradewinds
– were acquired for similar amounts.
When Murray Greenfield took leave of his mother in Far Rockaway, NY, he first traveled to Miami, FL, to meet his shipmates for the Tradewinds
, the ship to which he had been assigned. Formerly an icebreaker on the St. Lawrence River, the ship had spent the war as a coast guard cutter tracking down German submarines.
Now? “It was a rust bucket,” Greenfield laughs. “It didn’t look like it could hold 100 passengers, let alone the 1,500 she was scheduled to take.”
In Miami, the Tradewinds
was made marginally seaworthy in preparation for a sail up the US coast. “But the evaporators failed and we ran into bad weather, so we put into port in Charleston, SC,” Greenfield recalls. “Of course we were trying to keep the whole mission secret, so while we waited in Charleston, we were careful about rationing our showers at the local YMCA. We were afraid someone might get suspicious about all the Jews showering in that Christian facility.”
Not all of the volunteer sailors were Jewish. One of Greenfield’s favorite shipmates was Hugh McDonald, an Irishman, who volunteered for the project on the simple grounds that he didn’t like the British.
“Most of the volunteers were veterans of some service,” Greenfield notes. “A few were Navy, Coast Guard or Merchant Marines who had sea experience. But the majority had been infantrymen, paratroopers, aviators, medics, technicians – you name it. Some had seen action in the Battle of the Bulge, the Anzio beachhead or in the Pacific. Most were from the US, but a few hailed from Canada and a couple from Mexico. Some were religious, others had no connection whatever.
“The one thing that united us was a deep commitment to doing something positive to help the survivors. Six million Jews had been murdered while the rest of the world looked the other way and failed to take any action that could have saved countless lives. We volunteers decided to act now. This was the option open to us at that moment, so we jumped in to save as many of the survivors as we could.”
Leaving Charleston, the Tradewinds
sailed to Baltimore, where it paused for a week, with additional volunteers added to make up the full complement of 27 men. After filling the hold with such items as canned food and sanitary napkins intended for delivery to the DP camps in Europe, the motley crew set sail for Europe. Even at that point, the volunteers knew trouble loomed ahead.
Locals hadn’t been completely blind to the fact that the ship’s crew looked like they were all Jewish, unique enough all by itself. Suspicion about the whole Aliya Bet operation had become common, too. The local Baltimore press had already written about the President Warfield
– which became the Exodus
– that had already set sail. The secrecy of the mission had been compromised, but pushing ahead was the only alternative.
On board, minor frictions bubbled up. “The tough veteran sailors tended to offend the volunteers from Zionist youth movements, while the young Zionists seemed stuffy to the seamen,” Greenfield says. “The youth group volunteers thought the ship should be run democratically, an idea that struck the sailors as absurd.
“Then real trouble erupted. As the Tradewinds
neared the Azores, the fuel supply ran low. The British, in their vast plan to halt illegal immigration to Palestine, had forbidden fuel sales, but by virtue of something that can only be characterized as divine intervention, a local Jew appeared and, without fanfare, signed for the purchase of all the fuel the Tradewinds
The next stop was Lisbon, where the Tradewinds
would spend several weeks being refitted for – as the story went – the shipment of fruit. Specifically, bananas. The hold was gutted and replaced with shelves said to be designed to hold the bananas, but really intended as resting places for the human cargo.
Greenfield’s memories of Lisbon were golden. “We were boys, out on our own in Lisbon. We were young and alive and pretty darn sure of ourselves. We liked going to bars and meeting girls – but we weren’t very sophisticated. We’d sit in the bars and drink hot chocolate.”
While in Lisbon, the volunteers celebrated Pessah in high style aboard the Tradewinds
. “We had a full Seder, all the traditional foods,” Greenfield recalls. “Everything was cooked by another of our non-Jewish volunteers, a Polish-American ex-Merchant Marine who’d learned all the recipes while working in a Jewish bakery. In fact, the reason he’d decided to volunteer for the mission was that he held his former employers in such high esteem.”
Just as the refitting of the Tradewinds
was nearing completion, the worst happened. Authorities had become suspicious of the crew, not quite buying the banana story. They arrested the Tradewinds
’ captain, who was in reality a Hagana agent, a kibbutznik named Yehoshua Baharav traveling under a false Canadian passport identifying him as “Captain Diamond.” As the volunteers saw “Captain Diamond” being led away by the secret police, they knew it was now or never. They had to leave, ready or not.
“But we had a problem,” Greenfield laughs at the memory. “We couldn’t get the anchor up – it was caught in a metal hawser. One guy grabbed a hacksaw and started sawing away, trying to cut the anchor loose, which eventually worked. But in the meantime we dragged anchor all the way out of the port.
“What was really funny was that as we moved forward, dragging the anchor, all the electric lights in Lisbon started going out, area by area. We’d snagged underground electrical cables with the anchor and were literally turning out the lights as we left.”
– now called the Hatikva
– set about picking up her precious cargo, the survivors, who would board on two separate nights from the Italian Riviera. In the documentary film, dramatic footage depicts the hardships the survivors endured in reaching the pick-up point. Cold, weak and ill-clothed as they were, they had to cross the Alps by foot, crawling through snow a meter deep in places. Children and the elderly had to be carried. Ropes helped the struggling victims up some of the steeper inclines, but the going was tough.
Once they reached Italy, the Hagana arranged secret camps, from which the survivors were loaded into trucks to be driven to the coast, where they’d board the ships.
“We arrived just off the coast in Bogliasco,” Greenfield says. “It was like watching a movie with the sound turned off. Absolute silence prevailed. We watched for the signal – a light on shore being turned on and off. Then we saw the headlights of trucks snaking their way down the hill to the beach.
“All night long the survivors came out to the ship in rubber rafts. One of my shipmates became very emotional. ‘I looked at those poor Jews, and all I could see was my people,’ he told me. ‘I saw my brother, my father, my aunt. But for some stroke of luck, that could have been my family. It could have been me struggling to crawl into this ship.’”
The scene was repeated at the mouth of the Magre River. In all, just over 1,400 survivors were helped over the guardrails and lowered into the Hatikva
’s hold. Reuven Gil was one of them. Gil remembers being given a glass of wine. With a twinkle in his eye, he recounts how it cheered them. “A little thing, a drop of wine. It meant a lot to all of us,” he recalls.
On board, Gil met Hedva, the woman who would become his wife. In the film Hedva explains the wonder she felt at seeing American Jews arriving to help. “We’d lost faith in humanity,” she says. “But here were Americans – American Jews! – coming to help us. Seeing them gave us back so much of what we’d lost. It helped restore the one thing we thought we’d lost forever: hope.”
The first problem the survivors encountered manifested itself when they saw the “shelves” built into the ship’s hold. “It was terrible for them,” Greenfield recalls. “Awful. Those shelves looked too much like the bunks in the concentration camps. But what could we do? There was no other way to pack that many people into that ship.”
Seasickness came next. “There wasn’t room for everyone up on deck. They had to stay below and take turns coming up for fresh air. We brewed strong tea, thinking that might help. Then I thought of something. The one thing my brother Sam had given me to take along was hundreds of packets of sample vitamins.
“I started giving those vitamin pills to the passengers, telling them it would cure their seasickness,” Greenfield laughs. “And you know what? It did! I guess it was the power of suggestion.”
Two babies were born on board. “The Hagana had told women that if they were five or six months pregnant, they shouldn’t get on a ship. They should wait until after the baby was born. But some women ignored that, fooled everyone and came anyway.
“Because I spoke Yiddish, I was closer to the passengers than some of the other volunteers. I went to talk with one of them, to see how she was doing. I had to ask why she’d done it. ‘You were told over and over you should wait,’ I said. ‘Why did you try so hard to get on this ship?’
“She gave me an answer I’ll never forget. ‘I came because I didn’t want my child born on land soaked with my family’s blood,’ she said. Okay, she was right. I couldn’t argue with that. She named her son David Balfour Friedman.”
Ten days out, the Hatikva
was spotted. A British airplane buzzed the ship twice and flew off. Still trying to avoid the inevitable, the volunteers scurried to alter the appearance of the ship, hoping to escape detection. All the survivors went into the hold, out of sight. Deck equipment was dismantled as much as possible, anything distinctive taken down. It didn’t work. British warships appeared, surrounding the survivor ship, then boarding it and taking control.
Now that they had nothing to lose, the volunteers proclaimed the ship’s identity. “We flew the Star of David and we painted the name Hatikva
in big letters. Hugh McDonald, my Irish shipmate, went to one of the huge smokestacks and proudly painted a Star of David, together with the designation ‘Eretz – 1947.’ Under that, he painted a big green shamrock. And under that he wrote, ‘Eire – 1922.’ He equated the struggle of the Jews of Palestine with the Irish, who also struggled for independence from the British.”
Even hemmed in by the heavily armed British warships, the survivors weren’t about to go quietly. “This was their chance,” Greenfield says. “During the war, they didn’t have a way to fight back. A few ran to the forests, but in terms of personally fighting back against the Nazis, that hadn’t been an option. Now their time had come, and they wanted to fight.”
The objective was for everyone to resist, but not so much that it would give the British an excuse to open fire.
As one of the big warships pulled alongside the fragile Hatikva
, a booming voice from a loudspeaker barked the standard warning: “Your voyage is illegal. Your ship is unseaworthy. In the name of humanity, surrender.”
The survivors armed themselves with canned food they intended to throw at the invaders, but one of the warships made a sharp turn, creating a wave that rocked the ship. Panicked, the survivors all raced for the other side of the ship, nearly causing it to capsize. The menacing voice on the loudspeaker sounded again. “Let the captain of your vessel identify himself!” Quickly, a 10-year-old boy was found, a hat plunked on his head, and the boy shouted in English, “I am the captain!”
Not amused by these antics, the British pulled their warships very close and began boarding by swinging across on lines, or just jumping. In practice, the valiant idea of throwing canned food at the invaders didn’t work. Canned food didn’t stand against tear gas and clubs, not to mention warning shots fired into the air.
The end came quickly. On May 17, 1947, the Hatikva
was towed into Haifa harbor. Most of the passengers – survivors and crew alike – were taken to a detention camp in Cyprus. A few escaped.
“The Hagana had this all planned out,” Greenfield notes. “They knew where to hide people on the ship. So a few of the crew hid, and then when cleaning people came on the vessel, they walked off with them. One tried swimming away, but he was caught. For the rest of us volunteers, it was up to us what we wanted to do.
“Some felt they’d done their duty and wanted to leave, so they identified themselves as Americans and ultimately made their way home. Several of us decided to stay with our people. We hid the fact that we were Americans, pretending we didn’t speak English. We were trucked off to Cyprus right along with the survivors, imprisoned behind barbed wire just like everyone else.
“Why did I stay, go to Cyprus? The Jews of Europe had been abandoned during the war. Now I’d come to know them, and I felt a strong kinship. I wasn’t going to let them be abandoned again.”
Those American volunteers who chose to remain spent several months incarcerated in Cyprus. “But after a while, the Hagana thought it was wrong to keep us there. They gave us new papers to get out. Every few months, thousands more people were pouring into those camps. The British allowed the camp internees to organize themselves, and we Americans ended up in our own little colony, just like the survivors organized themselves into little landsmannschaften
“Those mutual aid societies were critically important to the survivors. These were people who’d lost everything, most especially their families. So they became family for each other. They grouped together – 20 or 30 in a group – based on some common element. It might have been a region, a common language or a shared desire to do the same thing once they were free again. It satisfied a basic human need to belong.
“They’d needed communal support to get out of Europe, but now that they were here, they needed a community again. Where were they going to live? What kind of work could they find? They had all kinds of names for their groups – ‘Mizrahi’ was one, another called themselves ‘Kibbutz Yosef Kaplan,’ to honor a Polish underground fighter. At the time they formed, they weren’t a “kibbutz” of any kind, but once they were released, they did form a kibbutz here in Israel, starting with nothing at all.
“But the whole country was like that, then. Nobody had anything.”
The 10 American-purchased, American-sailed ships that ran the British blockade from 1946 to January 1, 1948, carried more than 32,000 Jews – 46% of the total 69,563 Aliya Bet immigrants – to their new home in Palestine. An 11th American vessel, the Calanit
, arrived in July, 1948, carrying 1,200 immigrants, but because it arrived after the state had already been proclaimed, it wasn’t considered part of Aliya Bet. Interestingly enough, the Calanit
had previously been called the Mayflower
, serving as the personal yacht of US presidents from Theodore Roosevelt through Herbert Hoover.
Greenfield still puzzles over why the story of the American volunteers’ role in the founding of the state isn’t better known.
“The story of Aliya Bet has been told many times, but the American role in the drama is almost never included. Worse than that, when some reference is made, they usually get the facts wrong. Everyone knows about the Exodus
, but the book and film were pure fiction. The real Exodus
bears little resemblance to the ship Paul Newman sailed into Haifa. The true story is much better.”
To tell the real story was filmmaker Alan Rosenthal’s objective when he decided to make Waves of Freedom
“People know the Leon Uris fictional story of the Exodus
, but I thought it would be so much more interesting to tell what really happened,” Rosenthal told a Chicago film critic, when the film played there. “What interested me were the volunteers, trying to understand why these young men, just back from the war, would want to put their lives on the line again. It's a very American story, almost an Errol Flynn sort of thing, with American heroism and bravery, a story that had never been told.
“Even more critical, though, was the timing. Today we live in an age where, at least in Europe, many people question Israel’s very right to exist. So here is a story that shows so clearly and humanely and passionately why Israel came into existence – as refuge, home and haven. That need still exists.”
Murray Greenfield’s life changed permanently as a result of his service on the Hatikva
“I got out of Cyprus. I stayed on here for a time, visiting people I’d met, enjoying myself – I was young and single. I wanted to have a good time. Then I did a stint as a speaker for the United Jewish Appeal, back in the States. I raised money for projects here, I sold investments in Israeli factories – I understood business, I could talk, I could sell. Back in the States, I sold shares in all kinds of Israeli companies, a fertilizer factory, a tire-making plant, a paper mill.
“But something kept pulling me back to Israel. I started helping other
new immigrants here with things like mortgages and housing projects. I
was one of the founders of AACI, the Association of Americans and
Canadians in Israel.
“I’d been here for seven years when I
married my wife, Hana, a camp survivor from Czechoslovakia. Together we
founded Gefen Publishing House, which is now run by my son Ilan. From
our three sons we have 10 grandchildren, all living here in Israel.
I think about it now, it seems to me that when I told my mother I
wanted to do something good for the Jewish people, the best thing I did
was to choose to stay in the detention camp in Cyprus. In retrospect,
that was the most important. I didn’t abandon my people.”The
DVD Waves of Freedom is available from Gefen Publishing House, as is
Murray Greenfield’s book, The Jews’ Secret Fleet, co-written with
Joseph M. Hochstein. www.gefenpublishing.com