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Jewish Journal

The Story of the Exodus Remains Powerful

A journalist's eyewitness account helped create the Jewish state

by Aaron Leibel

January 20, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The story of the Exodus ship -- immortalized in a novel by Leon Uris and converted into a movie -- was an important marker in the struggle for the resurrection of the Jewish state. It was also a milestone in the decline of Britain as a great power, Ruth Gruber explains in her powerful, newly-revised book, "Exodus 1947 -- The Ship That Launched a Nation."

Gruber's association with Jewish refugees began in 1944, when, as special assistant to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, she was sent on a secret mission to Europe to accompany 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe to the United States. On the trip home, she got to know the refugees. "The bonding with the refugees became the defining moment of my life. I knew from then on that my life would be inextricably bound with the refugees, with rescue and survival."

Two years later, as a reporter for the New York Post, she accompanied the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, the panel set up by British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin as a concession to U.S. President Harry Truman, who had complained to Bevin about the conditions in the D.P. (displaced persons) camps housing Holocaust survivors.

Most of the refugees were adamant about their desire to get to Palestine. When Gruber asked one woman where else she would want to go if she couldn't get to Palestine, the woman answered, "The crematoriums."

In 1947, Gruber became the New York Herald Tribune correspondent with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine set up after the British informed the United Nations that it could no longer rule Palestine.

While she was in Jerusalem with that committee, she learned that a refugee ship named the "Exodus 1947" was trying to run the British blockade of Palestine. She rushed to Haifa to cover the story.

The British forces at that port city were apparently very nervous. "Tanks, trucks, jeeps, military police, secret police, the constabulary, CID (Criminal Investigation Department) men and about 500 gunners from the artillery branch of the Sixth Airborne Division filled the waterfront," she recalls. "MPs checked us constantly at barbed-wire checking posts."

The gritty reporter made it through the obstacle course and got to the harbor in time to witness -- and photograph -- the ship's entrance.

Her reporter's eyes caught the following scene: "The enemy [the Exodus 1947] came in slowly, a black shabby, broken steamer, pulled into place by British tugs. She had a single, tall black funnel. Fore and aft, the blue-and-white flag of Zion flew from her masts...

"The voices of thousands of people floated to us on the quay. They were singing 'Hatikvah,' the Hebrew hymn of hope [which later became Israel's national anthem]...

"The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. 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; the lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles."

The Exodus refugees were put on ships, supposedly bound for Cyprus. Gruber went there to continue her reporting and described the appalling conditions under which the 20,000 Jewish adults and 2,000 children, brought there by the British, lived. "Cyprus was a 20th-century purgatory, a hell circumscribed by two walls of barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka, a hell in which privacy was unknown."

But the British had an even more horrible fate in store for the 4,500 Jewish refugees. The refugees, now prisoners aboard three British ships, living in cages below deck, were taken back to Europe -- to Port-de-Bouc, a French Mediterranean port. The French, under British pressure, demanded that they disembark; they refused -- despite the horrendous heat, unbelievable overcrowding and inhuman conditions in which they lived. After a month, the refugees faced the choice of disembarking at the French port or being shipped back to the one destination they feared the most -- Germany. They chose Germany.

The people were forcibly taken off the ships at Hamburg and put into D.P. camps, from which most escaped, helped by Palmach volunteers, and finally made their way to Palestine.

The story is simply, but forcefully, told, in the best tradition of journalism. It is written by an excellent reporter who understands the two most valuable weapons in a reporter's arsenal: perseverance and keen observation.

She also knows the power of pictures. The photos she took and sent back to her paper with her articles speak for themselves. In the faces of the people, the world saw their misery and the feelings of hopelessness that enveloped many of them. The pictures of the mangled Exodus in Haifa port and of the wounded, bleeding passengers leaving the ship especially tugged at the world's conscience.

The poignant stories those pictures and words told helped to convince a war-weary world 50 years ago of the urgent need to solve problems of the refugees. Today, these wonderful snapshots help remind us of a traumatic but heroic period in the history of the Jewish people.

This book is an updated and revised version of the work originally published in 1948. After all those years, it retains its power.

Aaron Leibel is Arts Editor of The Washington Jewish Week

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