Sarah Jacobs (Surcha is the Polish version of Sarah) was married to my grandfather's first cousin Max, who, along with my great uncle and grandfather, were the only ones from their family to survive the Holocaust.
And while we don't see each other often, I was surprised to learn from her daughter recently that Tante Surcha was once a passenger aboard the Exodus.
Along with more than 4,500 other Holocaust survivors, Jacobs saw Israel from the deck of the Exodus in July 1947. But she couldn't disembark, because the British, trying to enforce a strict quota in the Mandate of Palestine, rammed and boarded the rickety ship, killing three passengers and wounding 30. After a long standoff, the passengers were sent back to Germany.
The world uproar that followed is credited with leading to the creation of a sovereign Jewish homeland.
Jacobs' daughter, Helen Lepor, set up this interview for us so I could learn more about her voyage, and while Jacobs, 82, agreed to let me come, now that I'm here she seems reticent. She doesn't quite avoid my questions, but her answers are minimalist, and often accompanied by a shrug or a tilt of the head, as if the information is so obvious -- or perhaps so painful -- as to make the exercise unnecessary.
How were conditions on the ship?
"The facilities were not so good," she understates in a thick Yiddish accent. "There wasn't enough water."
Weren't you angry that after surviving concentration camp, you were once again being so mistreated?
"Yeah, so nu, that's life."
Jacobs isn't the only survivor having memories plied from her.
Over the last several years, in anticipation of the voyage's 60th anniversary, survivors of the Exodus have been asked to share their stories in an effort to solidify Exodus' place in history, before all that is left are the fictionalized and romanticized versions of the 1958 Leon Uris novel or the 1960 Otto Preminger film (and even those are already being forgotten). Among the recent projects are "Exodus 1947," a 1997 documentary film by Venice resident Elizabeth Rodgers, and a new release of journalist Ruth Gruber's account of the voyage, "Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation" (October 2007, Union Square Press).
Last week, 300 French Jews re-enacted the voyage, setting sail from Exodus' original port in the South of France and arriving in Haifa. Unlike Exodus' real passengers, they disembarked.
The largest of the commemorative events took place on Aug. 1 in Tel Aviv, when 1,500 Exodus passengers and descendants of passengers gathered for a reunion, initiated and organized by Meier Schwarz, a Haganah commander aboard the ship.
Schwarz, an 81-year-old botany professor who pioneered Israel's hydroponics crop system, enlisted the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to put together a complete list of passengers. A manifest for the ship never existed, since the passengers were trying to smuggle into Israel illegally.
Around 2,100 names have been gathered so far. Many people also submitted memoirs or interviews, and Schwarz published these in Hebrew in "Maapilei Exodus 1947." ("Maapilim" derives from the Hebrew word for "daring," and refers to the Jews who ran the British blockade to get into pre-state Israel.)
Schwarz also officially presented to the Knesset "The Scroll of Exodus," a document of the Exodus survivors.
Schwarz is hoping these events will raise interest among a generation that seems to have forgotten the vital role the ship played in the founding of the state.
"If you go on the street in Israel and ask somebody what happened on the Exodus, most of them say they don't know what happened," Schwarz said by phone from his Jerusalem home. "They know the Leon Uris book, and they know the movie, and they all have in mind that was the real story, but the real story was something quite different and more interesting."
While he is proud that 1,500 people showed up for the reunion -- double what organizers expected -- he is disappointed that he's received scant funding for his efforts. Only the Tel Aviv Municipality chipped in for the event.
Jacobs couldn't make the reunion. Still, she is aware of her journey's significance, not only in the role it played in creating the state, but in how it determined the course of her life: She landed in Los Angeles in 1950 and didn't step foot in Israel until 1964.
And even if she is reluctant to let her mind go back in time, her nonchalance disappears and her fuzzy memory clears up when she remembers what happened after the British rammed the ship.
"We went outside, we went up to see Haifa. Everyone was there, and we started to sing 'Hatikvah,'" Jacobs remembered, her eyes growing intense. "But unfortunately, they didn't let us off."
'I Wanted to Go to Israel'
Like most of the 4,515 passengers, Sarah Jacobs (née Surcha Feder) was a young Holocaust survivor. Before the war, Jacobs had lost both her mother and the grandmother who raised her, and in 1943, when she was 19, she was taken from Sosnowicz, Poland, to a German labor camp. In 1944 she was transferred to a concentration camp, from which she was liberated in 1945. At the age of 21, with all of her immediate family dead, she went to live with her uncle in Germany.
"My uncle said to me and my cousin that we are young girls, we should go to Israel. He gave us the address of my cousin there," Jacobs says.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).Max became well established in the clothing industry. The couple had three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Max died in 2001.
The couple retained close ties to Israel, keeping in touch with family there and supporting it from afar. In 1964, they went to Israel for a wedding -- the first time Sarah was finally able to step foot in the Jewish homeland.
'A Last Hurrah' for Exodus?
Most of the Exodus passengers tried again to get to Israel, and many ended up in camps in Cyprus. With Israeli independence, most are thought to have made it to Israel. The disabled Exodus sat in the port of Haifa until 1952, when it caught fire and burned to the waterline.
"It's just important that people remember," said Genya Markon, a curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who is helping Schwarz in his efforts to gather names and stories. "The survivors are becoming fewer and fewer, and I have a feeling this will really be the last hurrah for the Exodus."
Markon, who had a cousin on the Exodus, says that she also hopes to obtain original documentation, photos and artifacts for the museum's collection.
Markon has been in touch with Helen Lepor, Jacob's daughter, about Jacob's story.
While Lepor had always known her mother was aboard the Exodus, it was only after a friend in Baltimore told her about the current effort to locate passengers that she really began to study the event, getting films, books, researching it herself, and picking her mother's memory.
It seemed like fate when her daughter Marissa's bat mitzvah Torah portion this past year turned out to be the portion of Exodus.
Marissa, who is going into eighth grade at Harvard-Westlake, is beginning to take in the significance of her grandmother's journey.
"I know that people wouldn't leave because they wanted to go to Israel, and they wouldn't settle for anything different," she says. "I know it's really important, but I don't know everything about it."
Now, it seems even Jacobs herself is more interested in her part in history. As she sits in her den, after all the questions about her experience aboard the Exodus have been asked and answered, she gazes intently at the copies of archival photos Lepor has brought, and she flips through the books, trying to see if she recognizes anyone.
Jacobs has seen the "Exodus" movie, the one with Paul Newman as Ari Ben-Canaan, a fictional character. In the movie, the British eventually relent and bring the Jews back to Israel.
But Jacobs knows that's not what really happened.
"I tell you something," she says with a laugh. "I was on the Exodus. And Paul Newman -- he wasn't on the Exodus!"
As we get ready to leave, Jacobs looks at the pile of books and films Lepor is about to pack up.
Leave the books and the film, Jacobs tells her daughter.
Maybe now, it seems, she's ready to go back.
For more information, visit
http://www.ushmm.org/ (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
http://www.exodus1947.org/eindex.html (Meier Schwarz's site)
http://www.exodus1947.com (Documentary film made by Venice resident Elizabeth Rodgers)