We were privileged to hear Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum talk about his experiences as a passenger on the ship named “Exodus 1947,” that played a significant role in the history of the founding of the State of Israel.
He came from a religious family in the German-speaking region of Slovakia. Early in WWII they moved from there to Budapest, Hungary, and it was a good choice because the Germans did not take over Hungary until 1944. However, they were interned in the camps but managed to survive. They were liberated by the Russians when he was 15 years old and he joined a group of Hashomer Hatzair youth and they decided to move to Palestine/Israel. They contacted the Jewish organization Bricha (meaning rescue), that was effectively part of the Haganah, that was in charge of the illegal Aliyah Bet movement of Jews to Palestine. He was the leader of a group of thirty and they were moved in trucks via various places to southern Germany where they stayed in a sanitarium for one and a half years, much longer than they had expected. During this time they had to keep active and they organized trips and schooling.
Eventually they got the word that they were leaving and they boarded trucks only to be driven around France for a whole day, until they eventually arrived with many other trucks at the port of Sète. There they saw the Mediterranean for the first time and their boat, the President Warfield, an old wooden steamer that had been purchased in Baltimore. There its elegant interior had been ripped out and refitted for carrying ten times more people. Altogether there were ca. 4,500 Jews aboard from every country. Jewish immigration to Palestine was still illegal, according to the British pro-Arab White Paper of 1939. Since the War the British had not changed their policy and were trying everything to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine. They had been detected and a British war-ship was offshore at Sète and the French authorities refused to give them permission to embark.
During the night the captain and crew, all American Jews, left the harbor in a very risky and dangerous maneuver and managed to get out to sea. They were followed by the British ship, that was later joined by others, up to seven at a time. The passengers were warned to stay below decks in their bunks which were planks of wood stretching the length of the hull on all four decks. Ervin was able to be on the deck since he and his group were chosen as guards. However, after a few days the chief Haganah officer agreed to let all of them up on deck because it was so unhealthy in the hull, and everyone stayed on deck. Also after a few days they renamed the ship ‘Exodus 1947’ acknowledging their Exodus from Europe.
The plan was that when they arrived after 7 days at the 5 mile limit of the British Palestine territorial waters they would make a dash of it for the coast. But, the British warships attacked them illegally in international waters and tried to damage the boat. Eventually they warned them and started to board. There was fierce resistance that lasted hours, the Jews used potatoes and cans of food for ammunition. But, three Jews were killed and the ship was finally taken under British control to Haifa harbor. There the passengers were forcibly disembarked and moved to three other British ships and put in large cages. Then instead of being taken to Cyprus as they had been told, they were shipped back to Europe!
Abba Eban was the Jewish representative with the UNSCOP Committee then visiting Palestine to make recommendations regarding the situation there. They saw the way the poor immigrants were treated by the British and this influenced them to propose the partition plan to the UN, that laid the basis for the foundation of the State. This is what was different about the Exodus 1947 from all the other 136 Aliyah Bet ships. Not only did it have many more passengers, but it received significant press and diplomatic notice and became a symbol of the resistance of the Jews to British rule in Palestine.