SS Exodus 1947 carrying Holocaust survivors on a failed attempted to bring them to Israel
SS Exodus 1947 carrying Holocaust survivors on a failed attempted to bring them to Israel REUTERS

Seventy years ago this week, some 4,500 Jewish Holocaust survivors gathered aboard a rickety old steamer in the French Mediterranean port of Sete, destined for a journey that would help spur the creation of an independent Jewish state.

On Sunday the city marked the audacious attempt to reach what was then the British-controlled Mandate of Palestine in the presence of a few of the remaining survivors of the voyage, along with France's Grand Rabbi Haim Korsia.

"It's the last time that we have survivors: in 10 years they'll be gone," said Freddy Dran, co-president of the "Exodus Committee" and a representative of the Jewish community in Sete, near Montpellier.

"We've found that in Sete and the region, half the population has no knowledge of this event, which had a profound impact on 20th-century history," he said, calling the commemoration "an educational project for younger generations".

The plight of those onboard was memorably dramatized in the 1960 Otto Preminger film of the same name, starring Paul Newman.

'Like climbing Mount Sinai'

"Boarding this ship was like climbing Mount Sinai," according to Isthak Roman, whose father was onboard, speaking at Sunday's ceremony.

On the night of July 10-11, 1947, a strange-looking boat overflowing with people, most of them survivors of Nazi concentration camps, began slowly making its way out of the harbor, officially destined for Colombia.

The operation was mounted by the Haganah, a Jewish pre-state organization in the Land of Israel, which had acquired the flat-bottomed boat originally intended for only river navigation from an iron yard, before discreetly bringing it to the Mediterranean.

At the same time, the group began bringing thousands of would-be immigrants to Sete aboard more than 170 trucks.

"If we hadn't decided quickly to load these 4,554 people we would have had serious problems," a leader of the truck convoy, one of five Sete residents at the time who attended the anniversary ceremony.

"Haganah was behind this entirely clandestine operation, very few people in Sete were aware of what was going on," said Gustave Brugidou, president of a Sete historical society.

Most residents were focused on the Tour de France racers as the cycling race passed through the city on July 10, and "were astounded to see all these people arriving on Mole Saint Louis dressed in winter clothes in the middle of summer," he said, referring to the port's jetty.

Global outcry

The passengers, representing a multitude of nationalities and including about 1,700 women and 950 children, squeezed themselves onto the boat still known as the "President Warfield".

Their goal was to break through the infamous British blockade on Jewish immigration to Palestine, where the Zionist movement hoped to create a Jewish state, and the ship was renamed the "Exodus 47" on July 16, a reference to Moses's biblical exodus, and a flag bearing the star of David was hoisted.

Had European Jews been allowed into British Mandate-controlled Palestine, many could have been saved. As it was, the British caved to Arab pressure, preventing Jews from escaping the Holocaust and did not change their policy to accept survivors.

Two days later, a British navy vessel that had been trailing the Exodus seized it just a few dozen miles from the Palestine coast, in a confrontation that resulted in at least two deaths.

"The ship's commander asked them to stop the fight, he said, 'My mission is to bring Jews to Israel alive, not dead'," Yossi Bayor, who was 15 when he boarded the Exodus, told the ceremony in Hebrew.

The passengers were rounded up by the British and put on prison ships bound for the French coast, where they refused to disembark, and after several weeks were brought to Hamburg, Germany, in the British-controlled zone where the Holocaust survivors were put back in camps.

"The conditions were terrible, we had no sleeping berths, everyone was on the floor," Bayor recalled.

The ordeal sparked a global outcry, and most of the passengers were later interned on Cyprus, then a British colony, and did not reach Israel until it declared statehood in 1948.

"Thanks to -- or because of -- the odyssey undertaken by this ship from Sete, the State of Israel was created a few months later," said Brugidou, underscoring its influence on the decisive United Nations vote to divide Palestine in November 1947.

The name Palestine for the area was coined by the Roman conquerors who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. in revenge for the fight put up by the Jewish forces. It referred to the ancient and now long gone Philistine tribes who came from the Greek Isles and were an implacable enemy of the Jews in biblical times and has no connection with the Arabs who call themselves Palestinian today..