Walking history

Rivlin said that the Exodus was a symbol of the turnaround in the global attitude to the moral impetus of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Life is moving at such a fast pace these days that many historic events are forgotten or ignored and maintain relevance only for the people who were involved in them and their descendants.
That, of course, is an unfair generalization because there are history buffs who remember to commemorate even the most obscure of incidents. It is not certain whether the 70th anniversary of the arrival at Haifa Port of the Exodus, the most iconic of pre-state Israel’s many illegal immigrant ships, would have been commemorated were it not for the fact that Jerry Klinger, the founder of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, had not decided to put up a memorial at Haifa Port. Unlike France, Italy, Germany and the US, Israel had no monument to honor the fact that the Exodus symbolized a turning point in contemporary Jewish history.
The monument, unveiled in the presence of hundreds of people – mostly Holocaust survivors, including some 150 who had their first glimpse of Haifa from the deck of the Exodus – was dedicated on July 18, which was exactly the 70th anniversary of the ship’s arrival at Haifa Port.
A dozen people who had been at the Haifa event, together with second-, third- and fourth-generation Holocaust survivors and descendants of Exodus passengers, came to Jerusalem on Sunday to meet with President Reuven Rivlin.
The youngest person in attendance was fourth-generation Holocaust survivor Omri Horen, whose great-grandmother Olga Gan had been a passenger on the Exodus. Omri, who is not yet old enough to walk, was dressed in a blue-and-white striped romper suit, which enamored him greatly to the Exodus group because he was wearing the national colors, which 70 years ago had been regarded as emblematic of audacious courage.
Blue and white were not the colors that the British Mandate authorities liked to see, and they were far from happy when they detected the overcrowded ship with 4,554 passengers on board plus several unborns traveling in their mothers’ wombs. Among the infant passengers were babies that had been born on board. Others were born in displaced persons camps in Germany when the British forced the people on the Exodus to return to Europe in British prison ships.
Among the group who came to meet with Rivlin on Sunday was Dr. Zvi Chetkowitz, whose late father, David, had been a passenger on the Exodus and had written a diary of his and other passengers’ experiences Zvi Chetkowitz took it upon himself to edit the diary and publish it in book form so that this epic story in contemporary Jewish history would not be forgotten.
There are many articles plus, of course, the best-selling book by Leon Uris about the Exodus, but the memoirs of someone who was actually there and writing impressions gleaned from firsthand experience is, in many respects, much more authentic.
Chetkowitz presented the book to Rivlin, who said that it would be placed in the presidential library.
Also present was Itzhak Rozman, the son of illegal immigrant leader Mordechai Rozman, who died three years ago. The elder Rozman was somewhat of a legend in his time.
Itzhak Rozman said that on board the ship there were children, women and men who were all survivors of the Holocaust in Europe and who all carried in their hearts the great hope that they would reach the Land of Israel.
“There were no differences between religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Moroccans, [politically] Right and Left,” he said. “They were all part of one People.
They were all Zionists to the core.”
Rozman insisted that the saga of the Exodus must not be forgotten. In Israel’s national anthem, he said, there is a line that states that our hope has not yet been abandoned.
“The illegal immigrants did not lose hope or their determination to reach the Promised Land and to start a new life,” he said, adding that they had lived to witness the establishment of the state and, in subsequent years, could be found in every sphere of Israeli endeavor.
He also paid tribute to the organizers of Aliya Bet and to the foreign volunteers who manned the ship.
Rivlin said that the Exodus was a symbol of the turnaround in the global attitude to the moral impetus of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. It was a significant and decisive event that influenced the November 1947 United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine, he said.
Turning to the people who were children on the Exodus and who are today in their 80s, Rivlin said, “You were refugees who had survived the Holocaust, who wanted to come to their country, to their ancestral homeland, clearly determined that there was no other alternative.”
Even though he himself was a child at the time, he continued, he remembers the shock waves that went through the Yishuv when the passengers of the Exodus were transferred to British prison ships and sent back to Europe. Taking baby Omri Horen in his arms, Rivlin said, “Now, we all look at the State of Israel and its flag as something to take for granted.”
Chetkowitz noted that the passengers who had been sent back to France, where they had first boarded the Exodus, refused to get off the British prison ships, which were then sent on to Hamburg in Germany, and the passengers were divided among three camps for displaced persons. That was why to his regret he had been born in Germany, he said – but the date was auspicious: November 29, 1947.