fall 2013

Exodus: The Real Story

...continued from previous page.

The British tried to stop the Exodus, a few miles outside of British-controlled Palestine. All the passengers on the Exodus refused the British orders -- they were unanimous in their decision. A battle ensued, lasting over three hours, in which 3 people were killed: two refugees and one American volunteer. The British were a 'tad' upset by how long it took them to 'conquer' the Exodus, but it turns out, as one of the many anecdotes that often make history so engaging -- "the British soldiers took time out to also 'capture' canned food items so that they could send back to their families in England" -- Halamish shared.

The Jewish passengers requested British first aid, and allowed the British to board the Exodus to help the dozens who had been seriously injured during the disproportionately bloody engagement. The battle -- between armed British soldiers and defenseless and desperate, but determined Holocaust survivors, was one that "took advantage of the weakness of the powerful British. After all, there is a limit to what a democratic country is willing to do against unarmed Holocaust survivors."

"The passengers thought that once alighting in Haifa they would then be put aboard other boats and sent to Cyprus," which was what had been done until that time Prof. Halamish explained. It had been de riguer that the British would grant 1,500 certificates per month to Jewish refugees, of which fully half were granted to those 'imprisoned' on Cyprus in detention camps. That was until the Exodus episode.

However, and this is one of the other reasons that the story of the Exodus has taken on almost mythic proportions, the British decided that they needed to "teach the refugees," (and probably the Jewish Agency and its agents throughout the world) "a lesson." As a result, all of the 4,500+ refugees were reboarded onto three boats to begin a three-day journey back to France.

France agreed to accept the refugees provided that they "would alight willingly" and here was the catch. In spite of the fact that there was little communication among the three boats, and there were refugees of various backgrounds, languages and ages -- no one would agree to willingly alight. A few did: those who were injured during the ocean battle with the British, and women whose pregnancies were considered riskier. Those whose pregnancies and pending deliveries were considered to be 'normal' insisted on staying on the boat. All told 150 people got off the boat.

The British then decided that if the passengers would not disembark in France, they would be sent to Hamburg. In spite of the threat, the passengers still refused to disembark.

After three weeks during the hottest days of August, the refugees were forced to proceed to Hamburg, Germany. The 4,500 refugees who had survived the Nazi onslaught were sent back to Germany. They landed at the Hamburg port, where the British had called for a press conference. As the passengers from the first boat willingly disembarked with the Jewish Agency representatives by their side, the British uncovered a bomb the refugees had placed and defused it. However, just a few minutes before the press conference convened, the second bomb set by the refugees and undetected by the British Army detonated completely destroying the boat.

How did Prof. Halamish come to take an interest in a story, that for all intents and purposes seemed to have been told and retold for decades? "Actually, this happened during my doctorate. My professor handed out miniature boats to all the students in the class and told them to research the history of these refugee ships. Mine was the last. She handed me a boat and told me to research the story of the Exodus. But everyone knows the story, I replied. She advised me to see if the story that 'everyone knows' is the real story."

Prof. Halamish's research into the story Exodus resulted in more than a doctoral thesis. She published a book in both Hebrew and English, the latter of which was titled "The Exodus Affair: Holocaust Survivors and the Struggle for Palestine."

So, it turns out that the real story of the Exodus during that hot summer in 1947 was no less mythic and exciting than the Hollywood production. The real story of the Exodus was a story of human drama and pathos. A story of political conflict. A story of aliyah and settlement. A story of the weak vs. the strong.The Jewish refugee vs. the British.

The real story of the Exodus was, in fact, a microcosm of the story of the State of Israel.

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