Let my people go!

I would like to tell you of our modern-day Moses, and how he led his people out of Egypt.

pessah good 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pessah good 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
April 1946: 1,040 Jews bound for Palestine stage a protest at the Italian port town of La Spezia. Leon Uris, in his epic book Exodus, and later Otto Preminger in his film of the same name, tell the near-true story that caught the world's attention. Theirs, however, is set in Cyprus, Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, is the hero and the ship is called the Exodus. In reality, the ship at La Spezia was called the Fede, later renamed the Dov Hoz, the good people were Italian, not Cypriots, and the hero was a Palestine-raised Polish Jew named Yehuda Arazi. In 1946, after years of fascist rule and Nazi rule, the displaced Jews of Europe, numbering almost 100,000, were desperate to find a home, and no one would have them. Refugee camps around Europe overflowed and Palestine, the only place with outstretched arms, was closed to them. As tension in Europe escalated in 1939, a movement called Bricha (escape) began, aimed at getting Jewish refugees from all over Europe into Palestine. In 1946, the way out of Europe was Italy. From the end of WWII to Israel's declaration of statehood, Arazi helped send more than 26,000 Jewish refugees from Italy to Palestine. No book has him as the main character, however, and though the story from La Spezia made front-page news the world over for a week in April 1946, not once was Arazi mentioned. That said, I would like to take up the task, and honor, of telling you of our modern-day Moses, and how he led his people out of Egypt. Arazi, perhaps one of the most wanted men of the Mandate, borrowed (that is, you understand, a loose term) enough trucks from the British army to convey nearly 1,200 concentration camp survivors and supplies from Italian DP camps to the port at La Spezia. He also "borrowed" enough food to keep the refugees nourished during their sea voyage. The refugees made their way through the Italian countryside to the port, boarded the Fede and renamed it the Dov Hoz, but before they could lift anchor, the ship was boarded by Italian police. The police believed that the ship was full of fascists escaping to Spain. The police, who were under British control, were ordered to seize the ship and detain it, though they would have preferred to let the refugees seek refuge in Palestine. As soon as the British demanded that the Jews disembark from the Dov Hoz and return "home," Arazi, using his charisma, and no shortage of willingness from the refugees, conspired in a mass suicide pact. The threat: If any British soldier boarded the ship they would blow themselves up. The hook: A hunger strike; anyone over 17 fasted until demands were met. The demand: Let my people go! No Italian mother can see a bambino go hungry, and many went down to the port and started clamoring. Before long, the media got wind of the situation and the circus began. During the late Forties, it didn't take much to make the British look bad, and on this occasion they looked very bad indeed. As if Italian mothers and reporters weren't enough, Arazi started sending telegrams from the Dov Hoz to world leaders. Before long, he had the US and USSR breathing down the proverbial British neck. As the hunger strike entered its second day, those over 13 in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, joined in as well. Pessah approached and the rabbis of the Yishuv said that at the Seder that year all were to eat one piece of matza no bigger than an olive, and the four cups of wine were to be replaced with tea. I can only imagine that on that night, the people aboard the Dov Hoz and those in Palestine read from their Haggadot that every generation must see itself as if they had personally left Egypt. The fulfillment of the promise that God had saved not only their ancestors but them as well, was confirmed the next day when the 101-hour hunger strike ended with British permission for the 1,040 refugees to enter Israel. Why do we tell the Pessah story? I believe we do it for the reminder and the realization that we - and I mean the greater We, humanity as a whole - live in our own personal Egypt. Nonetheless, we are hopeful that the possibility of a better life, a Promised Land, is attainable, and reaffirm so each year through our retelling of the story. That the Promised Land is my birthright, I do not doubt; that the way forward lies through the wilderness is a given. What I convey to myself and my children each year is the knowledge that the only way to get there is by joining together.