Doctor of legendary ‘Exodus’ ship dies at 86

Dr. Joshua Cohen set up impromptu clinics on deck, cared for 4,500 passengers.

Dr. Joshua Cohen, the doctor aboard the Exodus – the legendary Aliya Bet ship that attempted to bring Holocaust survivors from war-torn Europe to British-mandated Palestine in the 1947 – died on Tuesday in Jerusalem at 86.
Shortly after completing his medical studies in the United Kingdom, the Glasgow-born Cohen contacted a Habonim Zionist Youth Movement representative in London to volunteer his services for the nation in the making.
He was first sent to refugee camps in southern France to examine Holocaust survivors before boarding one of the 60 ships used to transport more than 60,000 “illegal” immigrants from the ports of Europe to Palestine.
It was during this time that he was approached by Exodus commander Yossi Harel and captain Ike Aronowitz – who died late last year – to serve as the ship’s official doctor. Most of the crew on board was made up of volunteers from the US and Canada.
With limited medical equipment, Cohen set up impromptu clinics on every deck to care for more than 4,500 passengers, including 655 children.
On reaching the shores of Mandatory Palestine on July 18, 1947 – almost 63 years ago to the day – the Royal Navy boarded the ship. Two refugees and a crewman were killed in the battle, and 30 people were wounded.
When the fighting ended, Cohen negotiated with the British doctors to have as many wounded as possible sent by ambulance to Haifa. But most of the passengers on the Exodus were forced onto prison ships and sent back to Europe.
Following his experience on the Exodus, Cohen returned to the UK, only to be recruited by the British Army. He eventually returned to Israel and served for four years in the Israeli Medical Corps. Later, he was director general of the Poriya Hospital outside Tiberias, as well as deputy director of Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
In the mid-1950s, Cohen was responsible for creating a master plan for Israel’s hospitals, and helped set up most of the country’s general and psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
He also served as an adviser to the Foreign Ministry’s agency for international development cooperation, MASHAV, providing expertise in the field of health in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America.
From the late 1960s, he was an adviser on health policy to the director-general of the World Health Organization in Geneva, where he was instrumental in launching global programs on universal child immunization, tropical disease research and AIDS. After his retirement in 1988, Cohen continued to work as a consultant at the Health Ministry and the WHO.
Cohen was laid to rest in Jerusalem. He is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.