A healthy dose of Zionism

Dr. Yehoshua Cohen recounts his experiences aboard the legendary ship 'Exodus.'

Yehoshua cohen 298 (photo credit: AP)
Yehoshua cohen 298
(photo credit: AP)
t is an episode that will forever be linked with Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel. But for one Jerusalem resident, the events on board the immigrant ship Exodus in 1947 have remained with him throughout his life. Today, Dr. Yehoshua Cohen is a retiree living in an immaculate apartment crammed with souvenirs of his life's travels. His earlier years were marked by the adventures and travails that came with being a volunteer doctor for the Mossad L'aliya Bet (Illegal Immigration Organizaton), a role that brought him aboard the Exodus and allowed him to play a key role in one of modern Jewish history's most dramatic and revered episodes of defiance and tenacity. Born in Glasgow in 1924, Cohen, despite having long ago perfected Hebrew, retains the Scottish lilt that lends even the most mundane sentences a magical quality. Age and recent medical procedures keep Cohen largely confined to his apartment where he often tells his story to the younger generations or keeps busy with his favorite hobby - translating the works of the Scottish bard Lord Byron into Hebrew. Living in Israel since 1950, with the exception of a two-decade tenure abroad, Cohen bears the marks of a man who personally witnessed and contributed to the enterprise that is the Jewish state. The doctor, who treats his stories to a healthy dose of medical terminology, assumed senior positions in the Health Ministry, including the director of government hospitals. In that position until 1969, Cohen was given the responsibility of developing and designing a medical system that involved setting up all the country's hospitals from Safed to Eilat, where he led the effort to "transform old British huts and build all sorts of hospitals." In 1969, his prowess in the field was recognized by the head of the World Health Organization and Cohen was recruited to serve as the organization's chief adviser. The position took him to ports of call across the globe, where he was involved in helping develop and maintain viable medical systems. Yet all this, he acknowledges, was "the end of the story." With a chuckle and no small measure of satisfaction, Cohen says the early chapter of this remarkable life allows him to be "one of the few people in the world who can say that they are veterans of two armies and one underground navy." Raised in a religious Zionist home with a father who had moved to Palestine only to later return to Scotland, the young doctor's decision to volunteer for the Hagana was of little surprise to those who knew him. Yet, when asked what motivated his decision to leave his family and birthplace to actively support the creation of a Jewish state, Cohen responds simply, "the Shoah," and feels no need to elaborate. At the time only 22 and a recent graduate of the medical school at the University of Glasgow, Cohen made his way to Paris where he was taken to a one-room office at the Metropol Hotel to meet with Shaul Avigur, the head of the Mossad L'aliya Bet. Founded in 1938, the Mossad was directly charged with coordinating illegal immigration activities past the British authorities and into Palestine. Clearly enamored of the man, Cohen says that Avigur personified what real leaders were about. "While today leaders are all too often about extravagance and power, Shaul Avigur coordinated the story of the aliya of tens of thousands of immigrants from the modest confines of a simple hotel." Soon sent to the south of France, from where many of the illegal ships bound for Palestine originated, Cohen became the first doctor to be assigned by the Hagana to a ship. While he acknowledges that there were often doctors and nurses within the immigrant populations, they were rarely in a physical or emotional state to be prepared to treat others. Coming face to face with the throngs of immigrants from Nazi Europe for the first time - most of whom had lost entire families and livelihoods - Cohen remembers only then truly appreciating their plight. "You quickly realized that nobody wanted these people. There was no answer other than aliya. There were some 250,000 survivors with nowhere to call home and the countries of the world simply didn't want to absorb them." Soon after his arrival, Cohen was sent on to Port Duboc in southern France, where 4,500 Jewish refugees had been sent in trucks coordinated by the Hagana to board a ship to depart from Europe. Then, in July of 1947, Cohen joined a ragtag small group of other Hagana operatives in obtaining supplies and medical equipment to sustain the approximately week-long voyage across the Mediterranean. The ship, which Cohen described as seaworthy and quite sturdy, had been purchased for $50,000 through hand-collected donations from synagogues around the United States. First setting sail in 1928, the ship had actually spent its early years as a pleasure steamboat ferrying passengers along the Chesapeake Bay as the President Warfield, named for the president of a prominent Baltimore, Maryland based shipping company. The 4,500 immigrants who made their way on board all possessed exit visas from France saying that they were bound for the South American nation of Columbia, in an attempt to fool the British authorities, who were intent on stopping the ship's departure. Despite protests from London, the ship set sail. Early in the voyage, Cohen excitedly recalls, a placard was placed along the side of the ship reading, "Hagana Ship Exodus from Europe - 1947," and even while closely trailed by British destroyers, the newly named Exodus made its way toward Palestine. Led by two Hagana representatives, with Yossi Harel (known as Amnon) as the ship's commander and Yisrael Ahronovitch (called Ike), the crew was rounded out by several Americans, but Cohen says it was a small and very young collection of people charged with the welfare of thousands of immigrants. While fictional accounts of the voyage of the Exodus and similar ships have often suggested desperate conditions of filth and disease, Cohen says that while it was terribly crowded, there was suitable ventilation for the passengers, who were split among three decks. A kitchen offered plentiful and kosher meals and while passengers bathed in seawater a liter of drinking water was made available to each person daily. A hospital staffed by Dr. Cohen, a medic and nurse was set up on the top deck to care for the ill. He says that while the Hagana has "been criticized for hefkerut [chaotic conditions,] the situation was for the most part quite orderly." The zeal to get to Palestine made many people lie about their health conditions, a situation which Cohen says allowed many people who should ideally not have boarded the ship to be included on the voyage. There were three deaths over the course of the week-long journey, one of which was brought on by childbirth in which the baby also later died. An additional two babies born aboard the ship went on to survive. Cohen recalls the passengers' spirits as largely upbeat and optimistic, including the children regularly bursting into song and the speakers blasting Hebrew music. The mood would change dramatically for the worse in the early morning hours of July 18 when, as the ship neared the coast of Gaza while still in international waters, the Exodus was rammed on both sides by British warships. Amid a chaotic mix of sirens, searchlights, noise grenades and tear gas, several British soldiers succeeded in boarding the ship and rushed the cabin, where Cohen says they beat the pilot on duty, an American named Bill Bernstein, to death. Having prepared for such an eventuality, the Hagana was able to keep the crippled ship slowly moving forward from an alternative helm. Intense fighting broke out between the British soldiers and the ships' passengers and despite any later claims to the contrary, Cohen says, "the wounds that I treated clearly indicated the use of live ammunition including rifles and even machine guns." Over the course of a fight that lasted several hours, more than 200 people were injured, about 50 of them seriously. In addition, three British soldiers were wounded, with Cohen pointing out that, "I looked after them as well." Eventually, after the Hagana commander had negotiated a cease-fire with the British forces, British medical personnel boarded the ship. The more seriously wounded were taken to hospitals in Haifa while the remainder were kept aboard. Soon all passengers were transferred off the Exodus and split among three British ships. With the shores of Palestine well in sight, the immigrants painfully watched as the ships turned around and headed back to the European shores they had fought so valiantly to escape. While Cohen was left behind to treat the wounded in Haifa, he heard the accounts of how, when the ship arrived back in the French port, the thousands of Jewish refugees refused to disembark, choosing instead to burst into the "Hatikva." After a three-week stalemate, which quickly attracted the attention of the international media, Cohen says the British Foreign Secretary decided that the ship should be sent back into the maelstrom of post-War Germany and the immigrants were taken off the ship and sent to displaced persons camps. There they remained until they were either able to be placed on other illegal immigration missions or, upon the declaration of Israel's independence in May of 1948, the passengers of the Exodus were given special priority and enabled to begin their lives anew. Cohen, even while having been allowed to make his way to Haifa to tend to the wounded of the Exodus, soon became a wanted man by the British for his senior role on the immigrant ship. While fleeing the authorities he was involved in a serious car accident and was taken to a hospital in Tiberias. There apprehended by British authorities, he, too, was sent to France. With the help of a French Jewish doctor, he was able to get out of France to Britain, where he was met by papers mobilizing him back into the British army into which he had been commissioned prior to joining the Hagana. Ever the dedicated soldier, Cohen served out his two years in the Suez Canal zone where he met his wife, whose father had been working there as an engineer. In December 1949, Cohen himself made aliya as he had long dreamed, at which point he joined the newly formed Israeli army. He served for four years before embarking on a long and esteemed career bettering medical services both in Israel and around the world. Yet, despite his subsequent accomplishments, Cohen believes that the experience on the Exodus allowed him to be part of one of the most important events in modern Jewish history. He believes that the Exodus has become a symbol of Zionism because of the historical context in which it took place. "In a world that had become accustomed to the Shoah, the news of the fight on board the Exodus flabbergasted the world. When Jews were being sent back into Germany, the world began to finally appreciate the plight of these refugees," he relates. "It would be the last straw of the British Mandate and the story of the Exodus was in fact a major factor that led to the United Nations vote to support the creation of a Jewish State." Specifically mentioning historian Benny Morris, Cohen objects to those who have argued that the Exodus was an effort by the Hagana to exploit the plight of the immigrants to gain favor in the international community. "These so-called historians, instead of speaking to the immigrants themselves who experience these events, have only looked at historical documents which cannot truly tell the story," he asserts. While having observed the popularity the Exodus has gained in popular culture through the epic novel by Leon Uris released in 1958 and an Otto Preminger film two years later, Cohen knows better than most that those depictions have little, if anything, to do with reality. He amusingly recalls how some young people - after having heard about his story - were disappointed upon meeting him that he was the actual doctor who had served on the ship, as opposed to the actor who had played that role. Over the years, Cohen has become distanced from the key figures with whom he shared the Exodus experience. Lamenting that the speed of the events and the nature of the time left him with little chance to take home any pictures or real souvenirs, all he has is the chance to tell his story. Even with the passage of time, Cohen believes that the events aboard the Exodus will prevail as a lasting legacy for the Zionist movement and the birth of the modern state. "You need a human story to get the message across, and there is no more human story than 4,500 immigrants whose actions made a tremendous impression all over the world, and brought about the creation of this State," he concludes.