Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Gruber’

Exodus – The Ship That Launched a Nation

May 3, 2008


Last week Ynet News reported that Yossi Harel died in Tel Aviv at the age of 90.

He was the commander of Exodus 1947, the immigrant ship that tried to make it through the British blockade to Israel after the Second World War, with 4,553 Jewish refugees on board.
Under Harel’s command the Exodus sailed for Israel on July 12 1947 and, after it had left French territorial waters, the British cruiser Ajax and several destroyers escorted it to Haifa with the aim of arresting it and preventing the immigrants from entering Palestine.

Harel planned with the skipper, Yitzhak Aaronowitz, to “get rid” of the British escort when they neared the coast of Israel. The plan, Harel later recalled, was “to turn off all the ship’s lights at a given moment, stop suddenly so that the unwary destroyer would pass us by, and then change our course by 90 degrees and steam away at full speed ahead – 18-19 knots – with all the lights out”. On board, Harel also prepared the stiffest possible resistance against any potential British attempt to board the ship.

On Friday July 18, when Exodus was 22 miles off the coast of Israel, Harel was informed by the British that his ship had entered the territorial waters of Palestine and that he had to shut down the engines and surrender. With five British destroyers closing in, Harel felt he could not implement his plan of evasion and instead ordered his captain to ignore the British warning and head straight for Haifa harbor.

When Harel failed to obey the British command, Exodus’s bow was hit and a detachment of troops attempted to board the ship. But under Harel’s leadership the British troops were driven back by a volley of canned goods, bolts and potatoes.

British commandos soon managed to take the ship’s wheel, however, by which point several holes had been made in the ship’s wooden structure. Harel – after a strenuous argument with his skipper, who was keen to continue fighting – ordered the immigrants to cease their resistance and allow the ship to be towed into Haifa. Three Jews and a British soldier died during the operation.


Ruth was there. She watched the story unfold. Over 50 years ago, American journalist Ruth Gruber watched, recorded, and told the story of the 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard Exodus 1947 who tried to reach Eretz Israel. When the ship was pulled into Haifa, Gruber was a witness. In her book, she describes Exodus as “The Ship that Launched a Nation”. Gruber documents in text and photographs the journey of the refugees from their arrival in Haifa to their forced return to Hamburg, Germany.

“The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off; the lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles.    The 4,500 Jewish refugees were unloaded from the tattered ship. They were separated from their few belongings and then placed on three ships (one hospital ship; two prison ships).”

Gruber describes the scene in abounding detail – from facial expressions of the refugees to the depth charges exploding around the ship.

In 2007, 60 years later, a cruise liner carrying some 300 Jewish passengers docked in the Israeli port of Haifa in a symbolic re-enactment of an attempt by European Jews to settle in British mandate Palestine 60 years ago.

The story of the ship Exodus, intercepted by the British navy in 1947, helped draw world attention to the efforts of Jews to flee Europe after the World War II Nazi Holocaust and became an important episode in the founding of the state of Israel.


The incident reached a wider audience still with Leon Uris’s novel: Exodus.


The book title Exodus is the actual name of a ship that was full of Holocaust survivors when it arrived in the port city of Haifa in 1947. Exodus was immediately translated into some 50 languages, among others into Finnish. Uris is known for his panoramic, action-filled novels which often depict determined individuals during the dramatic upheavals of modern history.


I remember reading the book and crying over the many tragedies that happened before the world’s only Jewish state was established – and over how they fueled today’s violent conflict.

The written style of the book is easy to understand and to the point. It gives a good description of how the British colonial system double-crossed both the Jews and the Arabs, to the detriment of both. It gives a vivid description of the main characters and their determination to establish a Jewish state. One scene points that out. As Barak Ben Canaan says at one point, “If we’re to be a nation, we must speak like a nation.” His bride Sarah replies “But of course we do. Yiddish is our language.” An angry Barak replies, “Yiddish is the language of exiles. Yiddish is the language of the ghetto. Hebrew is the language of all the Jews.”

Exodus is really THE Story of Israel’s Birth.