Ike Aranne, the captain of the famed refugee ship Exodus 1947, died in Hadera on Wednesday at the age of 86 after a long illness.
President Shimon Peres described Aranne as not only the ship's captain, but "its spirit" who "gave the voyage a special character."
Peres said the Exodus captain was a rare breed of pioneer, a unique, matchless individual with extraordinary courage and a great love for his people. Peres noted that the Exodus set sail at Aranne's initiative.
"He was tenacious, and he had tremendous leadership capacity. Ike wasn't keen on taking a path paved by someone else," Peres said in a statement released by Beit Hanassi. "He wanted to pave his own path, even at the risk of being a loner."
Aranne (formerly Yitzhak Aronowicz) was born in Danzig, Poland, and came to the country at the age of 10. Aranne later worked with ships and always loved the sea, his daughter, Ella said.
In an interview in The Jerusalem Post last year he said that he first became a seaman by bribing a "guy named Perlman a whole month's salary to arrange it." After sailing on various ships, Aranne took an officers course in London - for third, then second and then first officer.
In 1942, when he returned to Palestine, he heard about the Palmah, the strike force of the Hagana, which evolved into the IDF.
He found that they had established a naval branch called the Palyam, and wanted to join, so Aranne got his friend - the co-founder of the Palmah as well as its first commander - Yitzhak Sadeh, to help him.
At that time, the Palmah had no professional sailors at all. Since he already had eight months' experience at sea, he was considered practically an expert.
The Exodus was his first captaincy.
The story of the Exodus was turned into a popular novel by the legendary author Leon Uris in 1958, which in turn was the basis for the acclaimed movie starring Paul Newman in 1960. There was also a 1997 documentary about the Exodus narrated by CBS newsman Morley Safer.
In the Post interview, Aranne said of the book and movie that the story they presented "had nothing to do with reality - not because of my own story, but because of the situation as a whole."
Aranne's captaincy of the Exodus began on July 11, 1947, when the ship set sail from France with a crew of Hagana members transporting more than 4,500 Jewish refugees, most of them Holocaust survivors, to Palestine.
The British had declared Jewish immigration illegal to appease the Arabs. They intercepted all refugee ships en route and returned them to their ports of origin. As soon as the ship - originally called the SS President Warfield, left the port near Marseille, British naval boats began to follow it.
A week later, as it neared the coast of Eretz Yisrael, the British rammed and boarded it.
David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish community in Palestine, had given an order to surrender to the British, but Aranne and his crew disobeyed. He said that he felt that surrender had brought about the decision by the United Nations to divide Palestine.
Resistance by the crew and the passengers led to clashes that left three dead and dozens wounded.
The British then towed the ship to the Haifa and forced the passengers to board boats that would return them to France.
When they arrived in France, however, the passengers refused to disembark. French authorities also refused to cooperate with the British in forcing them to do so.
Under terrible conditions, due to overcrowding and a shortage of food - in an August heat wave, to boot - the passengers remained steadfast for nearly a month, until the British ordered the boats to head for Hamburg in Germany.
There, the exhausted, hungry and despondent refugees were taken to detention camps near LÃ¼beck.
So soon after the Shoah, there was great international sympathy for the stateless Jews and Britain was pressured to change its policy. From then on, instead of sending "illegal" immigrants back to Europe, they would be sent to detention camps in Cyprus.
The UK continued to hold the detainees in Cyprus until January 1949 when it formally recognized the State of Israel.
Aranne's daughter, Ella, told the AP that the experience remained a pivotal part of his life for years afterward.
"It was one of the most important things of his life. He wasn't a big storyteller, but he'd happily tell schoolchildren about it," she said.
"The Exodus influenced him and his friends deeply. Those were the days that defined them and as far as they were concerned defined the character of this country."
From 1993 until his death, he lived in a house built like a ship, with rooms in a row and a faux mast and huge windows providing a view of the Mediterranean.
He lived in the house alone since the death of his wife, Irene, in 2001.
Aranne's funeral is scheduled for Friday in northern Israel. He is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren, and a 2-year-old great-grandson.
Greer Fay Cashman, Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.