A powerful play on history

The history of the famous Exodus 1947 ship is reenacted in a play by middle and high school students.

exodus 1947 (photo credit: Courtesy)
exodus 1947
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Exodus 1947, the famous ship carrying Holocaust survivors, lay tied up in Haifa’s harbor for years. Mysteriously, she burned to the waterline in 1952. The Exodus was towed into the bay and scuttled.
Ironically, there is still no unique memorial or historical marker to the Exodus in Israel. I have been trying to lay such a marker for the Exodus ever since the location of its remains was confirmed to me. But by summer 2010, the initiative had been rejected.
I thought it was over. The best I could do was write about the Exodus, her history and significance. Would anyone care? Late last November, this question was answered, but not in a way I expected and not by those one would expect.
Wendy Kaess, parent of a student at Fruitvale Junior High School in Bakersfield, California, called to say she was helping a group of 7th and 8th graders with their project for the National History Day competition. This year their chosen topic was the Exodus 1947.
“We have read your article about Rev. John Stanley Grauel.” She said. “We would love the opportunity to interview you over the phone.”
“Of course,” I replied.
Brenda Griffiths, the 7th grade history teacher, followed up. Five students decided to enter the competition by writing and presenting a 10-minute play on Exodus ’47.
Each year, 500,000 middle and high school students from across the United States compete in National History Day. The competition encourages young people to think critically, to problem solve, and to conduct research on their own. The national organizers set a different theme every year, and students choose a subject that best interprets that theme. The theme for 2011 was “Debate, Diplomacy, Successes, Consequence and Failures.”
Brooke Richter, 14, had visited the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles last September. She learned much about the Holocaust, but wondered, “What happened to the Jews after the war ended?” Brooke read an article about the Exodus and her fellow students agreed that the story fit the theme. But they knew little about the Holocaust, and none of the students or their teachers was Jewish.
The students interviewed me, very professionally. I arranged for them to meet Nate Nadler, an Exodus crew member. They met a Holocaust survivor from the Exodus. Amazingly, they obtained a rare interview with Ruth Gruber, the famed journalist. They interviewed an American Arab of Palestinian background to help balance their research. They constructed portable background sets, and honed their play.
In April 2011, the students began the competition. They won their California regional and advanced to the State championship, which they also won.
This sent them to the national championships in College Park, Maryland in mid-June. They would be among 630 presenters, with 3,500 total contestants spread among different categories and school levels.
The Fruitvale team lined up before the judges, with 3 sets behind them, the British foreign secretary’s office, the United Nations, and the deck of the Exodus ’47. They had 10 minutes and much to present.
“The Holocaust survivors were unwanted and homeless.
Europe’s remaining Jews were forced to live in displaced persons camps,” Rev. Grauel’s character said.
The play continued. In 1917, the British promised in the Balfour Declaration to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Because of Arab pressure, the British reneged. By 1939, the British severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine just as the Jews of Europe were most threatened.
The scene jumps to the Exodus, June 1947 in a port in France. A survivor is speaking to Rev. Grauel, who is imploring people to board rapidly. She is astonished that a Christian is involved in saving Jewish lives.
“Rev. Grauel, what are you doing on board a Hagana ship bound for Palestine?” “I decided to join the Exodus crew because morally it is the right thing to do,” he answers.
The Exodus escapes port and is attacked in international water by British warships. The ship surrenders, three dead, 150 injured. She is brought to Haifa harbor. The Holocaust survivors are transferred to prison ships.
The students from Fruitvale advanced to the finals, and though they came in fourth they were number one to me.
Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.