November 8, 2007
Holocaust remembrance—Exodus redux
(Page 2 - Previous Page)She doesn't quite remember how she knew what to do, but she joined a group of refugees who were heading toward France to get on ships that were illegally taking Jews to Israel.
At that time, Palestine was under the control of the British mandate, which had set strict quotas of how many Jews were allowed in.
One of those ships was Exodus 1947, a Chesapeake Bay ferry originally called the President Warfield that American Jews purchased and re-outfitted for $40,000.
Transferred to the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet -- the underground Israeli organization facilitating the blockade run -- and with young American Jews and Israel's Haganah underground defense forces commanding the ship, Exodus 1947 took on passengers in Sete, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947.
Jacobs says quarters were crowded -- "there were 4,500 people," she keeps repeating. She spent her days and nights below deck on the closely stacked bunks, just like in the concentration camps.
There wasn't enough food or water. But she was excited about the prospect of arriving in Israel, where cousins awaited her.
Throughout the Exodus' journey from France, the British Royal Navy trailed the ship. Other illegal boats had been sailing for months, some making it through and some getting caught. The ones that got caught were usually diverted to displaced persons camp on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. But the British had recently changed that policy in favor of sending the refugees back to ports of embarkation.
They decided to make an example of Exodus.
About 20 miles from the shores of Palestine, British destroyers rammed the ship and soldiers boarded. The young people started throwing cans of food at them -- their only weapon.
"It was scary," Jacobs remembers. "One more hit and everyone would be in the water."
Jacobs remembers standing on deck, seeing the coast of Israel, and that powerful moment of singing "Hatikvah," an anthem she learned back in pre-war Poland.
Just off of Haifa, the passengers were divided onto three British Navy transports, and the boats were ordered back to the south of France.
But the French authorities refused to force the Jewish war refugees to disembark in Port-de-Bouc, near Marseilles. The British decided to wait it out, but the passengers proved more stubborn than the British anticipated. They stayed in the holds for 24 days, through August heat waves.
Jacobs remembers being told that she could get off in France, but she refused.
"Nobody went off, so I didn't get off also," she says. "I wanted to go to Israel."
Meier Schwarz was at that time a member of the Israeli Haganah, the underground Israeli military. He had been sent to Europe to usher refugees to the south of France where they could catch boats to Israel. When the Exodus passengers reached France after the standoff near Israel, he was smuggled aboard the Ocean Vigor, one of the three boats onto which the passengers had been divided.
He became the commander of the Ocean Vigor, and did his best to keep the spirits up among the passengers.
Schwarz himself was a Holocaust orphan. His father was among the earliest of Hitler's Jewish casualties, killed in 1937 in Germany. Meier was sent off alone, at 13, to a kibbutz in Israel a month before war started in 1939; the rest of his family was killed in Auschwitz in 1940.
Schwarz remembers one episode aboard the Ocean Vigor, when a woman gave birth to a baby boy. The baby died within a few hours, but the woman still refused to disembark. As the funeral took place on board, all the passengers, along with members of the British Navy who surrounded the ship in destroyers, stood at silent attention on deck to honor the life lost.
After more than three weeks off the coast of France, the passengers decided to push the British by staging a hunger strike.
With world opinion about British handling of the event at a profound low -- and with members of the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine deciding the British Mandate's fate in Geneva -- the British were faced with the additional publicity nightmare of starving Holocaust survivors, including more than 650 children. They ordered the boats to return to British-occupied Germany on August 22, 1947. With an outraged world looking on, the British forcibly removed the Holocaust survivors from the boats. The Exodus 1947 passengers were put in displaced persons camp in Germany, where many stayed for months.
There is a photo of Sara Jacobs in that camp in Hamburg, in a jeep with her cousin, Tziporah, and a handful of young men. The group is smiling, even laughing -- smiles, Jacobs attributes, to the presence of the camera.
Jacobs was still in Hamburg when Israel was proclaimed a state on May 14, 1948.
"Oh, we were so happy," Jacobs says of that moment.
She says things weren't so bad in Hamburg -- they were free to come and go, unlike in the labor and concentration camps she had been in.
A friend Jacobs met aboard the Exodus lived in Garmisch, Germany, and she took Jacobs there to meet a boy she had in mind for her.
Sarah and Max Jacobs, an Auschwitz survivor, were married on July 18, 1948 -- a year to the day after the Exodus was turned back from the shores of Palestine.
Max and Sarah planned to go to Israel, even sending appliances ahead of them. But a cousin summoned them to a business opportunity in California, and in 1950 the couple left for Los Angeles with their baby daughter (born on July 11, 1949, two years to the day after Sarah boarded Exodus).