Diary of vigor

Excerpts from the journal of Meir Schwarz, a member of the Hagana who infiltrated Ocean Vigor, one of three British prison ships holding Exodus refugees in a French harbor. The bigger hotels in Marseilles are crowded with foreign journalists, who have smelled a repetition of the old story of David versus Goliath being fought out on French soil. There is not the slightest doubt that the stand of the immigrants and all others connected with this affair has led to the widest publicity being given in all countries of the world to our fight for our country and our people. Ocean Vigor. This was the vessel that I was to board as it had no representative of the Hagana. On the Ocean Vigor the British had concentrated all the elderly and weak people and some of the children during the transfer that had taken place [from the Exodus] in Haifa. The majority were unorganized, and the British were hopeful about getting them to disembark on the French coast. When we came to the harbor we heard that the Ocean Vigor had already left for Marseilles, to take on coal. We decided to try our luck there, as we knew how much depended upon our success in getting onto the vessel . En route I took off my shoes and dirtied my face and my arms with coal dust, to disguise myself as one of the stokers. The guards standing by the cage stared at me closely - and let me pass . When I got down into the hold I could not make out anything. The stench was overpowering; it rose from the "bunks," the filth and the sweating unwashed bodies of the people down below. The latter lay on the iron plates half naked. The heat was unbearable; even we Israelis could not recall a heat wave like it . On the Ocean Vigor they [the British] had given them [the refugees] one-third of the fore part of the vessel, which was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Barbed wire entanglements on top of the cages completed this floating prison . We were starving and all our logic could do nothing to still the gnawing in our stomachs. I had never conceived before that such a situation could have so profound an effect on human beings, to what extent it could expel all other thoughts, to the exclusion of the image of a slice of bread, which one must get by hook or by crook. Conversation always ranged round this topic, about something that someone had eaten at some time, when everybody could have his fill. One of the most profound experiences throughout my voyage on board the vessel was on my first day. I came on board on the eve of the Sabbath. I was still in a daze because of the congestion, the inhuman conditions on board the vessel. I had not yet become accustomed to the babel of languages, the constant shrieks and shouts in the hold. Suddenly silence reigned, and I noted scores of Jews making ready to welcome the Sabbath in this 20th-century slave ship. Where had the clean white shirts come from? It was a riddle to which I could offer no solution. It was a profound revelation of the spirit of our people, who, notwithstanding their sufferings, never lost their human dignity, and could raise themselves to new heights of spirituality, under the most terrible conditions. It was this spirit that saved many of our brethren in the death camps from spiritual collapse. Here again on this slave ship it had triumphed . After several days of feverish activity, we succeeded in establishing a school for the 350 children on board ship. After my strong representations, the British commander placed at our disposal the entire unfenced foredeck. Our curriculum was made up mainly of Hebrew language studies, Torah (with the few religious books we had on board), Israel social geography and history . We had two ends in view [with a hunger strike]: (a) to arouse public opinion in France and throughout the world - a hunger strike meant that journalists would come on board to inspect the ship; and (b) since the ships had been lying in Port de Bouc for so long already that our people began to grow desperate and their stamina was being undermined, some sort of action was necessary to restore their courage, to give them a chance to do something. Everyone on all three vessels fasted, with the exception of the small children for whom food was prepared. The atmosphere was tense and solemn. Once again I was conscious of the stamina these people could show when a major issue was at stake. They felt that they were representatives of the entire Jewish people. The last days we spent in Port de Bouc were a period of tense waiting for the anchor to be raised and for the news that we were returning to Eretz Yisrael. But there were other persistent rumors, that we would be take to Tobruk or to Kenya. In the meantime, however, our hunger strike had had its effect, and the French insisted that the British take their ships out of French territorial waters within a period of three days. We heard of this ultimatum in a round-about fashion, when the British consul threatened that if we did not disembark before a given date, we would not be permitted to take advantage of this offer [to leave the ship] and would be deported to Hamburg. This statement shocked the members of our deputation but they replied instantly: The British could perhaps take us wherever they chose; the refugees would disembark of their own free will only in Eretz Yisrael. The day that we were informed of our voyage to the vile and unclean soil of Germany was one of the most difficult in the lives of the people on board the ships. Some were desperate and wept like small children, but the majority recovered, in the faith that whatever our present destination, in the end we would reach Eretz Yisrael.