Forgotten heroes

60 years after 'Exodus' brought world attention to fight for Israel's creation, new initiative trying to discover who exactly was on pivotal ship.

exodus wounded 298.88 (photo credit: USHMM, Courtesy of Central Zionist Archives)
exodus wounded 298.88
(photo credit: USHMM, Courtesy of Central Zionist Archives)
For nearly three months in 1947, 4,554 desperate Holocaust survivors chose to live in a floating jail rather than return to the European graveyards they had just fled. They had set out from France that summer on a clandestine steamship named the Exodus 1947, an apt name for a modern incarnation of the ancient passage of Jewish refugees to the Promised Land. But just miles from their destination, the British had captured the ship and barred its passengers from disembarking in Mandatory Palestine. The refugees said they would rather die than be denied entry to their homeland, and three of them did when the British forced them off the Exodus. The rest were then divided among three British prison ships and sent back to France. When they again refused to get off, they were forcibly removed, this time in Hamburg, Germany.
  • Diary of vigor The refugees might have failed in their immediate aim of reaching Palestine, but they achieved a broader goal of helping to create a Jewish state. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine was at that time formulating its recommendation on what to do with the territory, and the deluge of news reports on the Exodus helped create sympathy for the Jews and the recommendation UNSCOP eventually made to partition the land and create a Jewish state. Later, Leon Uris's New York Times best-seller, which was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, enshrined the episode in the collective historical consciousness. Indeed, it is perhaps the most storied event in pre-state Israeli history. And yet, for all that is known about the Exodus, it is striking what is not known. The historical record lacks so much as a list of all the passengers on the ship. "This was the turning point for the [creation of] the State of Israel. There's no doubt about it," says Genya Markon, acquisitions curator of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It seems amazing that there is no list." So the museum is trying to help discover their names and record their stories this summer, as the 60th anniversary of the voyage is observed. The museum staff has been called into action by Meir Schwarz, a survivor of the Exodus saga who two years ago embarked on a new journey to track down the passengers and collect their stories while they are still able to tell them. To mark the occasion, he plans to hold a reunion in Tel Aviv in August. "We want to give honor to these people," says Schwarz, a member of the Hagana who infiltrated Ocean Vigor, one of three British prison ships holding Exodus refugees in a French harbor, who now lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. "They lived in very bad conditions, but they stuck to their goal... to get to Palestine." So far about 2,100 passengers have been identified. Many people approached Schwarz after some initial publicity about the effort, and in most cases those who came forward knew others who made the voyage with them. At the same time, a large number have already died and many of the names have been contributed by their children or grandchildren. JUST WHY these names have never been known before has something to do with the secretive nature of the voyage itself. The illegal immigrants were told not to reveal their names to anyone, and even the official travel documents made for each passenger included photographs but no names. "[The British] would send them back the minute they knew where they were from," Schwarz explains, since the officers wanted to figure out which European cities the refugees came from. "If they didn't give their names and their information, they wouldn't be able to be sent back. Everybody said they were born in Tel Aviv." In truth, the refugees hailed from Russia, Poland, Romania, Germany and other Central and Eastern European countries. Many traveled long distances to get to the departure point in southern France from which the Exodus furtively set sail on July 10. Of course, it wasn't called the Exodus then. The ship's original purpose had been concealed, in part by its name from a former life, the President Warfield. A one-time pleasure cruiser later used by the allies for supplies during the Normandy invasion, the vessel set sail from Baltimore, where American Jews had purchased it for $40,000. The dilapidated ship wended its way to Italy, where it was gutted and refurbished so that it could hold as many passengers as possible (it was originally designed for around 400). The British stopped the boat well before it could beach itself in Tel Aviv and offload the refugees. But publicity was also part of the plan - the voyage having been timed to coincide with the visit of UNSCOP, then deciding the fate of Palestine after the British washed their hands of it. And publicity is what they got when the Royal Navy forcibly removed the passengers in Haifa and reboarded them on three British prison ships. The Jews defended themselves with whatever they could - mostly cans of tuna and sacks of potatoes. Three people were killed in the struggle. SEPARATED AMONG three prison ships, the refugees thought they would be sent to Cyprus, where internment camps had been established for other Jews whom the British had caught trying to enter Palestine illegally. But they were taken to Marseilles. That was the point at which Schwarz met them, and then, too, subterfuge was used. The British were uninterested in giving the refugees food, as they initially hoped hunger would drive them off the ships. But Jewish and French relief organizations collected provisions and brought them regularly to the boats. Schwarz came along with one of the shipments when the ship was being loaded with coal, dressed only in shorts, the same limited garb worn by the male passengers. Once on board, he dirtied himself with coal and successfully blended in with the refugees. There he found himself in unbearable conditions. "There was no room to sit or stand. People didn't eat because they were vomiting," recalls Efraim Menaker, an Exodus passenger identified by Schwarz in his research. "Looking back on it now, I don't know how we survived three months on that ship." Menaker did have one pleasant distraction during his time on board, a "beautiful girl" named Fira. There for months, without much to do, "we had plenty of time for romantic life," he says. Once they were back on land, they got married. But it took a long time - and a lot of pressure - to get them back to land. They refused to get off in France despite being offered asylum. One of Schwarz's main responsibilities was to keep up morale so they wouldn't give in to the demands to disembark. But Menaker says there wasn't much chance of that happening. "After Auschwitz and all those things we went through [we didn't want] to go to another place where the same thing could happen," he explains. "We said we would get out only in Israel." But the British had no intention of allowing that, so they finally took them to Hamburg and dragged them off. It was a bleak day when the refugees were returned to Germany, Menaker recalls. There they were put in camps surrounded by barbed wire so they wouldn't again try to go to Palestine. "It was not life," Menaker says. "There had to be an end to it. We had to start a new life." So he and his wife, like many other passengers, escaped in small groups and made their way via other ships to the Promised Land. Part of the reason a list of the Exodus passengers was not compiled earlier has to do with the nature of memorializing refugees - or the lack thereof. Right after the Holocaust, museum curator Markon explains, the focus was on marking those who had died. "People were still so devastated, and they had no way to record [those who died]. There were no cemeteries, and they wanted somewhere to record their names." While recording the names of the dead was a priority, there was little sense that the survivors also needed recognition. "Immediately postwar, you didn't talk about people as survivors. There was no such concept," says Michael Goldman, who works with Markon and is the acting director of the museum's Registry of Holocaust Survivors. Now, with little space in museums given to the plight of the refugees following the Holocaust - years in which many continued to live behind barbed wire in atrocious conditions, face anti-Semitism and die prematurely - Schwarz says this population feels neglected. He acknowledges that when it comes to the Exodus survivors, their story is more familiar to the public because of Uris's novel and the movie adaptation starring Paul Newman. But he stresses that they have "nothing in common" with the actual events save for the name. "It's a very nice story, but it's not the real story," he says, though he adds that he bears the fiction no ill-will, as it "made a very nice advertisement" for the ship. "Most people don't know the story of the Exodus, they just know the book," he says. "We want people to know the story from those who have been involved." Just one of the differences between the big screen and the real story: In the movie, the refugees are allowed to go to Palestine after staging a hunger strike. In the case of the Exodus 1947, a hunger strike was followed by the British decision to send the refugees to Hamburg. Schwarz attributes the relative dearth of information on the Exodus passengers to timing. Though the episode was one of the most important moments in the creation of Israel, soon after its occurrence the fledgling state found itself overwhelmed by war and other problems. "The Exodus was forgotten. So we want to remind people what happened. They don't know. This is for the young people, not the old people," he says. One young person - or at least a person younger than the remaining survivors - is distressed that there hasn't been a fuller historic accounting of the Exodus's journey and its passengers. Samuel Brill, whose father was on the ship, says the episode "was the pivotal moment in getting worldwide attention for the suffering they were continuing to experience, and that they had no place to go." He maintains that it's essential the public remembers the story because of the current threats Israel faces. "Today you have Holocaust deniers, you have people in Iran and all over the world who deny that the Holocaust took place and they go on to say that Israel shouldn't exist. Today it's more important than ever to [understand why] Israel exists." Brill plans to contribute to the US Holocaust museum project to make a book of the Exodus passengers' stories. He said that he's disappointed that the Israeli government hasn't contributed any money to the reunion effort, which is jeopardized by a lack of funds. Brill wants to help the project so his children will know more about their roots, and at an earlier age than he found out about his father's experience. He only found out the details after watching a documentary on the Exodus made in 1997 and asking his dad questions. Learning the story also taught Brill something about his father. "I've always respected him because of his decision to live and survive through the Holocaust," Brill says. "But I understand now what makes him be who he is. I think a lot of his character was formed during his times fleeing the Nazis and during his journey to get to Palestine." And understanding the people behind the story is the real aim of recording the names of the passengers, Goldman says. "It's about the person. When you look at these massive historical events and all the individual stories get combined into one big historical [experience], you lose a lot of the personal stories, the personal suffering and victories, and our goal is to try to bring those pieces out," he says. "The name is the first step in that. Hopefully we'll find a lot more than the name. We want to know who the whole person is."