Doctor on the 'Exodus' recalls a dramatic voyage

"Ill people were not supposed to be on board, but they came in masses."

exodus 88 (photo credit: )
exodus 88
(photo credit: )
For Dr. Joshua Cohen, the Exodus was a major highlight of a long career in medicine and public service. The soft-spoken, Glasgow-born Cohen served as a doctor on the ship, which attempted to ferry illegal immigrants to Mandate-era Palestine. He spoke to The Jerusalem Post on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the event, commemorated at a ceremony in Tel Aviv last week. Dr. Cohen, who taught heder (religious school) in Glasgow before he became associated with Habonim Zionist Youth Movement, became the only official doctor on board a ship involved in Aliya Bet, which was a program to secretly bring Holocaust survivors to British-occupied Palestine. Along with the Holocaust survivors, the Aliya Bet program also surreptitiously brought Zionist activists as well. Cohen's brother and sister-in-law had been in Habonim "and all of a sudden they and their haverim disappeared." Cohen, who now lives in Jerusalem, subsequently discovered that they had been sent to help set up Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in the Upper Galilee. Cohen recounted how, shortly after he completed his medical studies, he approached the Habonim shaliach (emissary) in London and said that he also wanted to contribute to the nation in the making. He was sent from London to Paris to meet with Shaul Avigur, then called Shaul Mayeroff, one of the founders of the Mossad. (Mayeroff's son Gur was killed in the War of Independence, after which Mayeroff changed his name to Avigur). Cohen was sent to camps in the south of France to examine people before they were to board one of the 60 ramshackle vessels that were used to transport more than 60,000 illegal immigrants from ports in Europe between 1946 and 1948. One day, when he was at a camp in Bondal, he met up with Yossi Hamburger (later Harel), who was the commander of the Exodus, and Ike Aronowitz (later Aranne), who was the captain. They told him about a special ship that was to carry around 4,500 passengers, named The Exodus, and asked Cohen to serve as the ship's doctor. There were doctors and nurses among the passengers, and Cohen ran a first aid course for them, hoping to prepare them for the voyage. When they couldn't understand him, he switched to a language he barely knew - Yiddish - and somehow managed to communicate. Yiddish was also the common language that he had with patients. When he couldn't understand them or they him, he would say, "Show me with your finger where it hurts." That was one sentence that he could utter with absolute fluency, and also be sure of getting the correct response. Because medical care had not been a high priority on the Mossad's agenda, there were people on board who strictly speaking should not have been there. "There should have been very few illnesses," said Cohen, "because ill people were not supposed to be on board. But they came in masses. You couldn't control it. There were elderly people with heart diseases and diabetes, aside from the day to day illnesses that people get." The only truly professional assistance that he received was from a nurse from Kibbutz Afikim and a medic from the American crew. He set up a clinic on every deck, hoping that medical personnel from among the survivors would help him to run it, "but they were physically and mentally unable to provide medical care." There were three births on board during the week-long voyage. One woman who required a Caesarean section died, but the baby was saved. The mother was buried at sea. Medical equipment had been put aboard ship in Marseilles, but Cohen had never thought of obstetric equipment and so didn't have the tools with which to perform the essential surgery. The death of the mother still pains him. "I had to sign her death certificate and in my youthful arrogance, I signed all medical documents as "Rambam." I've no idea what happened to them afterwards." The whole situation was chaotic, partially because everyone on the crew was so young and organizationally inexperienced. "The oldest person was probably the nurse from Afikim, who was about 30. We all thought she was old." Cohen, the ship's doctor, was 23 at the time. When the ship approached the Haifa port, the British opened fire (although they later claimed not to have used live ammunition), and there were several people wounded by the gunfire. When Harel saw what was happening, he asked Cohen to report on the situation of the wounded. Cohen told him that some needed blood transfusions, impossible under the circumstances, but that plasma transfusions were, in his opinion, possible. Cohen told Harel that without these transfusions, at least three or four people would die very soon and three or four more would die thereafter. Harel immediately stopped the fighting and allowed the British to board the ship so that he could ask them for medical help. Cohen subsequently negotiated with the British doctors to have as many as possible of the wounded sent by ambulance to Haifa. He had to put on a German accent lest he betray himself with his Scottish brogue. The negotiations took place on the quay, and after Cohen had succeeded in his mission, he calmly picked up a sack, swung it over his shoulder as if he was a sailor, and returned to the ship, where he and some Hagannah people on board hid inside a specially built cache until it was safe to come out. After leaving the ship, Cohen got on a bus to Kfar Blum, but was injured in an accident on the way, waking up in a hospital in Tiberius. The British police came began to question him, putting Cohen in a highly uncomfortable and dangerous position, so the Hagannah got him out of the hospital and sent him to Marseilles. Cohen picked up his passport in Paris and went back to Britain where call-up papers for the British Army were waiting for him. He wrote a note of apology, explaining that he was late in turning up because he'd been involved in an accident, then joined the same British Army he had just recently been evading. After serving for a number of years in the British Army, Cohen eventually returned to Israel, and helped to set up the infrastructure for the Israeli hospital system.