The first ship of State

60 years ago Eli Agulnik was a three-year-old passenger aboard the Exodus as it made its historic voyage to the shores of Palestine.

If any on board the British ship failed to understand the reference, they would have understood the unfolding drama when the Columbian flag was lowered and the Israeli one raised Launched in 1928, the President Warfield initially plied the Chesapeake Bay between Baltimore and Norfolk. Nearly two decades later, the ship - worn out, battered and appearing to one observer as "a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker" - was renamed the Exodus. In 1947 the ship embarked on its final voyage, and helped to launch a nation. On the 60th anniversary of the Exodus's sailing, Metro spoke to a father and son who were among its 4,515 passengers. Eli Agulnik, who today resides with his South African-born wife, Zinky, in Kfar Saba, was three years old at the time. "My father, Boris, had been a colonel in the Russian army and my mother, after marrying my father, had moved east and so avoided the Nazi invasion," he explains. The rest of his family had been less fortunate. "My grandfather Motel crawled to his grave," relates Agulnik. "When the Germans arrived and began rounding up the Jews, they had little patience for the elderly. They threw saba out the window from his second floor apartment." Motel survived the fall, but the Germans made him crawl to a pit, where they shot him together with the rest of the residents of his shtetel, Agulnik recalls. Other family stories were equally horrifying. His aunt was one of a group of Jews hiding in a sewer. As the Gestapo searched above, another woman suffocated her baby to keep his cries from giving them away. Agulnik says that in 1947, after months of travel by train, foot and cart, his family made its way from the Russia-China border to Poking Pine City, the second largest German DP camp after Belsen. Their plan was to reach Palestine. "There, my sister Yudit was born and… I finally had my brit mila, at age three. There was no anesthetic and they said I screamed in Russian, 'Mommy, mommy it's painful.' Afterwards, I'm told, I used to proudly go around and boast, 'Now I am a Jew and I am going to Israel.'" Few immigrants to Israel can claim that the story of how they arrived entailed a lengthy sea journey that was chronicled in daily newspapers around the world. How many have kept the El Al tickets from their aliya flight? But Agulnik proudly shows Metro his Exodus boarding pass. While still in the camp, Agulnik senior was approached by the Hagana. Having been a battle-hardened colonel in the Soviet army, he was needed in Palestine. The family boarded a truck that was part of a convoy bound for Sete, a port near Marseilles. From there, they would be joined by other Holocaust survivors and displaced persons and would board the President Warfield, bound for Palestine. "At the German-French border we were told to get out of the trucks and cross by foot. Scared that they would not allow us through with a three-month-old baby, my mother hid little Yudit in a box and left her on the truck. At the other side, after [the] nerve-wracking process at passport control, my anguished mother rummaged through the boxes until she found my sister, who was crying from hunger and fear," Agulnik recalls. "One of the French soldiers noticed the commotion, but when he saw [my mother] breastfeeding Yudit, he tactfully looked away." "Looking away," however, was something the British refused to do. After setting sail on July 11, the President Warfield soon had company. The British Royal Navy began tailing the vessel, despite its Columbian flag. Soon, there was little point in pretense. The destination was Palestine, and the ship - under the command of young American Ike Aharonowitz and his mainly American crew of Jewish ex-servicemen - was ready to convey a message to the world. One can imagine the outcry after the ship's real name was revealed in bold lettering: EXODUS. If any on board the British ship failed to understand the reference, they would have understood the unfolding drama when the Columbian flag was lowered and the Israeli one raised. The course of not only a ship, but a whole nation, was at stake. "What was different about the Exodus," explains Agulnik, "was the massive number of passengers on board. Generally, the ships that had been bringing in illegal immigrants before were relatively small, carrying at the most a few hundred passengers. With over 4,500 on our vessel, the Hagana had upped the ante. The stakes were high!" The British government, which wanted this evolving drama to reach a finale of its own choosing, ordered its Navy to hijack the ship. "One of the destroyers came alongside and called over the loudspeaker to our captain, ordering him to sail for Haifa," relates Agulnik's father, Boris, a resident of Haifa. "As time passed, they could see that the Exodus was not changing course. The instructions from the Hagana were to sail directly to Tel Aviv, as far [as possible] from the British naval base at Haifa. Then the British made their move." Some 40 kilometers offshore and outside the jurisdiction of Palestine, the British destroyers surrounded the Exodus - one even ramming into it. They forced their way on board the Jewish vessel, caring little for the 655 children on board, many of whom were war orphans. Challenged by the Exodus's passengers and crew, a fight broke out in which three shipmates, including first mate William Bernstein - a US sailor from San Francisco - were killed. "The British had truncheons and were bludgeoning left, right and center. What did we have to fight with?" sighs Boris, "Our bare fists - and some hopelessly fought with tin cans. Ike, our captain, lost his finger." In the end, the British took control of the ship and towed their battered- and-bruised prize into Haifa port. Little did the Mandate Authority realize that they were creating the images that would swing the world's sympathy toward the Jewish people. Ruth Gruber, an American journalist, was waiting on the wharf as the Exodus limped into harbor. In a dispatch, she described her first impressions: "In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off and lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles." The rafts must have been hanging very precariously, because one of them dislodged and drifted over to another ship, the Drom Afrika, which had left Cape Town three months earlier carrying seven young Jewish men trying to reach Palestine. Metro spoke to Issy (Greenberg) Granot, a retired architect, who was on board that day and helped lift the Exodus's errant life raft onto the deck of the Drom Afrika - a former mine-sweeping vessel that had been converted into a fishing trawler in an attempt to fool the British. "As we sailed into Haifa, we saw the Exodus being towed into port. We watched as the Holocaust survivors on board were transferred onto three British ships. That night, Haifa Port was alive with activity," Granot recalls. He describes how police patrolled the harbor, dropping depth charges to scare off the Jewish frogmen who were working to sabotage the British ships. But the British had no intention of sending the Exodus passengers to Cyprus. "They wanted to make an example and humiliate us. What better way than by sending us back to Europe?" Agulnik asks. Exhausted from the sea journey as well as the battle on board, all 4,515 passengers were transferred to three freighters converted into prison ships - The Empire Rival, The Ocean Vigor and The Runnymede Park. Not only reporters, but also some members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) witnessed the events in Haifa Port. They later said that what they saw influenced them to press for an immediate solution to Jewish immigration and the question of Palestine. The next day, the three ships left. The Agulnik family was crammed into the belly of The Empire Rival. Boris describes the conditions on board. "We lay crammed together in the bare hold of the freighter and the food was inedible. Nevertheless, under the command of the Hagana, we began to build an organization. It was decided that all passengers were to remain on board and not disembark when we arrived in France. We were repeatedly encouraged to resist [the British]. Even little Eli went all out to make a nuisance of himself. He used to climb all over the place, particularly on top of the makeshift toilets on the deck, and scream, 'Englander, I'm here. Now come pull me down.'" But the Hagana members who had slipped on board disguised as refugees were plotting other acts of resistance - some more serious than others. "No sooner were we out at sea, when one of them climbed the mast and removed the Union Jack, replacing it with the Star of David. If they could, they would have lynched the fellow. In the end, they released him, never suspecting that he was a Hagana plant." "What we later found out was that the three Hagana chaps had brought a bomb on board. Unfortunately, they had no timer, so they drew lots as to who would sacrifice himself should they decide to use [it]," Boris adds. When the ships arrived at Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles on August 2, the emigrants refused to disembark. The French refused to cooperate with the British attempts to force them off the ship. "So the British Consul came on board and tried 'friendly' persuasion. If we voluntarily left, they'd arrange French papers for us, find work and so on. People were booing and screaming. Someone shouted, 'We know all about British promises,'" Boris relates. He says the scene reached a head when a passenger showed the consul a plate of that day's food. "You call this food. Look at it. Can you tell the worms apart from the spaghetti?" he asked the official, who left in a huff. Following a hunger strike by the passengers, the ships were ordered to proceed to the British-controlled sector of Germany. Boris reveals that he had been told that the Hagana managed to smuggle a clock on board to use as a timer for their bomb. The plan dictated that if the Jews were ever forced to leave the ship, the Hagana would detonate it once all were safely off. The plan was executed when the ship reached Hamburg and all the refugees were finally forced off the ship into DP camps. "The British suspected something and conducted a search of The Empire Rival. We heard afterwards that they found the bomb in the engine room, removed it, and placed it on a small dingy with the aim of dropping it somewhere safe in the sea. Reports filtered back that the bomb exploded, killing all the British personnel," Boris relates. One day, David Ben-Gurion visited the camp. "After he addressed the people, I introduced myself and we spoke in Russian," says Boris, who at that time knew no Hebrew. "BG spoke with such vigor. He assured me, 'Don't worry. There will very soon be a Jewish State, and you, the passengers of the Exodus will become its honorary citizens.'" Eventually, in 1948, the Agulnik family returned - but not to Palestine, rather to Israel. The captain of their ship was Ike Aharonowitz, of the Exodus. Ten years later, Leon Uris wrote Exodus. The best-seller was partly based on the story of the ship. One of the millions around the world who read and thrilled to the novel was a young girl in Cape Town, Ziona "Zinky" Wolffe. She was so inspired by the story that she went to her father and told him, "One day, Dad, I will marry an Israeli who sailed on that ship."