Seventy-five years ago this week, the incredible voyage of the refugee ship Exodus captured the hearts and minds of the international community.
The lively and provocative political cartoonists for the Hebrew-language press in Palestine chronicled the journey with the unique mix of humor, sarcasm and poignancy that is the hallmark of their profession.
Originally used to carry American troops in the Normandy Beach landings in World War II, the ship was purchased by agents of the Haganah, the Jewish underground in Palestine, and repaired in the Baltimore harbor after the war.
In July 1947, the Exodus, manned by a crew that included numerous American volunteers, took aboard more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors at a rendezvous point on the coast of France. The British navy, implementing its government’s strict policy of preventing most Jewish immigration to Palestine, trailed the ship as it crossed the Mediterranean.
When the Exodus approached the coast of Palestine on July 18, a British destroyer rammed the ship and truncheon-wielding British soldiers charged aboard. They brutally beat many of the passengers and crew, including American crewmate Bill Bernstein, who died of his injuries. More than 20,000 New Yorkers filled Madison Square Garden several weeks later for a memorial ceremony in Bernstein’s honor.
International controversy over the Exodus intensified when the British shipped them back to France in three ships that were outfitted as floating prisons. But when the ships reached Port de Bouc, all but a handful of the passengers refused to disembark, and the French authorities declined to force them to do so. The refugees remained there for more than three weeks, focusing embarrassing attention on Great Britain’s harsh policy toward Jewish immigrants.
On August 22, the British ordered the refugees sent to the British Zone of occupied Germany. Upon arrival at Hamburg, many of the Exodus passengers staged a sit-down strike and had to be dragged ashore by British troops. Others physically resisted disembarking and fought a two-hour pitched battle with the British soldiers. Media coverage of the struggle further galvanized international criticism of Great Britain’s policies.
The passengers of the Exodus finally reached Eretz Yisrael in late 1948, following the establishment of the State of Israel.
#1:Yosef Bass, Ha’aretz, July 25, 1947
“[British Foreign Minister Ernest] Bevin: Damn! They’re locked, too.”
When the refugees boarded the Exodus in France, they were holding forged visas to Colombia. The ship itself was registered in Honduras. The British authorities hoped to send the refugees to one of those countries, but Colombia and Honduras declined to accept them; the Jews refused to disembark in France, and the French declined to force them. The cartoon is titled “Without a Visa.”
#2: Arie Navon, Davar, August 1, 1947
“Mother, why is it taking so long to reach Eretz Yisrael?”
Under ordinary circumstances, it takes 8 to 10 days to sail from France to Israel. From July 11, 1947, when the Exodus first set sail, until August 22, when its passengers were forcibly taken ashore in Germany, the refugees spent a total of 43 straight days on board.
#3: Adam Schleyen, HaBoker, August 15, 1947
“Sha, sha —don’t wake up our Brits!”
The caption at the top, summarizing a recent news report, says: “Five children have already been born on the expulsion ships sailing from French waters, and according to the law, they are British subjects.”
#4: Yosef Bass, Ha’aretz, August 29, 1947
“These Days: On land /On sea / And soon—in the air!”
Until the voyage of the Exodus, Jewish refugees who were apprehended by the British would be incarcerated in detention camps in Palestine or Cyprus. The creation of “prison ships” was an innovation. What tactic would they come up with next?
#5:Arie Navon. Davar,.September 12, 1947
Foreign Minster Bevin’s head is crowned with a laurel wreath, the symbol of a Roman emperor; the bloody bandage on the head of the Jewish refugee is labeled “Runnymede Park,” the name of one of the three British ships that were used to deport the Exodus passengers..
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.
This article is reposted with permission from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.