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Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land - A Perilous Journey That Shaped Israel's Fate

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The riveting chronicle of Jewish war survivors and their flight on the dramatic voyage of Exodus 1947, the international incident that gained sympathy for the formation of Israel

The underground Jewish group Haganah arranged for the purchase of a small American steamer as part of an ambitious and daring mission: to serve as lifeboat for more than four thousand survivors of Nazi rule and transport them to Palestine. Renamed Exodus 1947, the ship and its young crew left France en ...

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Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land: A Perilous Journey That Shaped Israel's Fate

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Overview

The riveting chronicle of Jewish war survivors and their flight on the dramatic voyage of Exodus 1947, the international incident that gained sympathy for the formation of Israel

The underground Jewish group Haganah arranged for the purchase of a small American steamer as part of an ambitious and daring mission: to serve as lifeboat for more than four thousand survivors of Nazi rule and transport them to Palestine. Renamed Exodus 1947, the ship and its young crew left France en route to the future state of Israel. The Holocaust survivors aboard Exodus endured even more hardships when the Royal Navy stopped the ship in international waters, used force in boarding (killing two passengers and one crewmember) and eventually deported its human cargo to internment camps in Germany. The death of the ship’s captain in late 2009 generated headlines throughout the world. Enriched with new survivors’ testimonies and previously unpublished documentation, Operation Exodus is the deeply moving saga of a people who risked all in search for a home.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

The exciting story of the Exodus ship that in 1947 ferried 4,500 Jewish war refugees to the Zionist homeland.

Despite the urgent need for relocating concentration-camp survivors and displaced persons (DP) at the end of World War II, Britain refused to allow more than 1,500 immigrants per month to Palestine. The Jewish underground army, the Haganah, secured the boats necessary for transporting waves of refugees to Palestine, such as the large Chesapeake steamer,President Warfield. Veteran popular historian Thomas (Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6, 2009, etc.) moves swiftly from one scene to the other to keep his suspenseful story percolating, using a wealth of information gleaned from official archives, news reports, public records, British intelligence documents and interviews with passengers. The author paints a complete portrait of a variety of settings: within the Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv's Allenby Street, as well as its outposts in New York, including the basement of the Copacabana nightclub, called the Kibbutz Fourteen, where Zionist leaders like Golda Meir stayed; DP camps across Europe; and the office of the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin as he coordinated naval resistance to the "smuggling of illegal immigrants" into Palestine. Thomas looks at the outfitting of the PresidentWarfield by U.S. volunteers, its refitting and slow odyssey in May 1947 from Baltimore harbor to Marseilles, where thousands of refugees at nearby DP camps were ready to board the ship built for holding 400 passengers—all the while tracked by British intelligence. The author then recounts the harrowing trip from July through September, as the now-christened Exodus 1947 was rammed by British destroyers and forcibly boarded, then detoured back to France and Germany before the refugees were finally allowed into Palestine almost a year later.

A fine depiction of the multifaceted context of this cause célèbre.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312569938
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 9.58 (w) x 11.74 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

GORDON THOMAS is the author of forty books published worldwide and a leading authority on the international espionage community. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Operation Exodus

 

Chapter 1

 

The House of Secrets

In November 1946 a stocky man with a high-domed forehead, bushy eyebrows and piercing eyes arrived in New York, his fourth visit since the end of the Second World War. He had first come to the city in 1915, then a slim youth with bushy black hair and a knife scar on his arm from an unprovoked attack by an Arab while he was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Each time he had come to America it was to visit, not to stay: his spiritual home was Palestine. His ambition then had been, as it was now, to help build a home for the Jewish people, one where they could hold their heads up high and be proud, and hopefully live in peace after all they had suffered. Each time he came to New York he sensed his hopes were coming that much nearer than they were when – in a rooming house with a view of the Statue of Liberty – he wrote to his wife, Paula: ‘Out of sorrow and pain, the national consciousness is taking form; the thought of resurgence in Israel captivates all hearts and is bringing them closer.’

Along with other immigrants, he had toiled in Palestine from dawn to dusk in the fields, building roads, turning arid, malaria-infested land into collective cooperative settlements. They would form the foundation for a thriving, working nation.

Born in the small industrial town of Plonsk, northwest of Warsaw, and named David Gruen by his father, a lawyer, this young man had been 19 years old when he arrived in Jerusalem. Since his childhood, he had been committed to his father’s Zionism. But as he later said, ‘It was not enough to listen to my father. I wanted to live Zionism, not just talk about it.’

He had also set up a newspaper in Palestine to revive the Hebrew language as the prime tongue for his fellow immigrants. Only then would the Jews scattered across the world have a home they could call their own, he had written in his first editorial and proudly signed it, ‘David Gruen – Editor’. As he was about to take it to the print shop, he looked at the document and, reaching for a pen, crossed out his name. He felt it would be more appropriate to use a Hebrew one. He was 24 years old when he made the decision to be known as David Ben-Gurion, naming himself – appropriately – after one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Now, on his latest visit to New York as chairman of the Jewish Agency, he was the most powerful Jew in Palestine. Soon he would be its first prime minister. People would wait in line to pledge him their support for the Agency, for Israel. He would accept their money gratefully, with a quick nod of thanks. It was his way.

Hostesses would compete to hold dinner parties in his honour and guests listened in awe to his endless fund of stories. He was a man who spoke knowledgeably about two world wars, the sun of imperial Britain beginning to set, the people of Asia starting to awake to independence and how America had assumed world leadership. He had anecdotes to illustrate the vicissitudes and upheavals around the globe. But always he came back to one theme: how within less than half a century there had descended upon the Jewish people a storm of savage blows more fearsome than any they had endured since the Roman legions laid waste to their land and, in AD 70, destroyed the sacred Temple they had built on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah.

On that November Sunday morning, Ben-Gurion had come to a duplex overlooking New York’s Central Park to use his oratory to persuade the men gathered around the table to dig deep into their pockets, even deeper than some of them had done before on similar occasions. But for the moment he continued to stare out of the suite’s dining-room window high above the park.

Fresh snow had fallen overnight and children were throwing snowballs at each other. Behind him in the room, Ben-Gurion sensed the men around the breakfast table were waiting for him to speak. They all knew why he was there; he always wore his dark blue bespoke suit when fund-raising. As usual, he would give them a homily to lead into what he wanted. He had already whetted their appetites while they ate breakfast – something he never did on these occasions except for taking a cup of coffee – by telling them of his visit to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe.

Still staring down at the playing children, finally he began to speak: ‘Three hundred years ago, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, to bring the pilgrims to the New World. How many Englishmen and Americans know the precise date and the food they ate on the day of departure?’

He turned and looked at each of the silent men. Some he had met before: Rudolf G. Sonneborn, leader of New York’s Jewish community, who had regularly hosted fund-raising breakfasts and dinners for Jewish causes in his well-appointed apartment.

Next to him sat Dewey Stone, a Boston philanthropist. He was a regular guest at the table, not only for his significant financial contributions, but for the contacts he brought, three of whom were seated around him. Others included a senior Wall Street broker and Morris Ginsberg, a shipping magnate. Some were strangers to Ben-Gurion, but he knew each was a powerful and wealthy man. Sonneborn never invited anyone else to partake of lox and bagels on such occasions. For the newcomers, Ben-Gurion had an extra-warm smile.

‘We are here today because our people are still not free. They can never be free until we bring them home to their land. I have been looking out of the window at children playing in the snow. A month ago I was in Europe, talking to Jewish survivors who had seen children shot in Auschwitz for doing that. Or had been forced to march through the snow until they dropped dead from starvation. It is to make sure that will never happen again that you are here. It is as simple as that. Money to help our Aliyah Bet find the boats to bring home children like those I watched in the park. Children like you have. To bring their parents home. And their grandparents. Their cousins. To bring every Jew home to our homeland.’

Even before he had reached his seat at the table, there was thunderous applause. Within minutes five million dollars had been pledged.

Two men had arrived in New York with Ben-Gurion, both travelling on British passports. Ya’akov Dori, chief of staff of the Haganah, and Theodore (Teddy) Kollek, Ben-Gurion’s executive secretary. They would advise on how the donations should be distributed by Rudolf Sonneborn.

For the past year Sonneborn had controlled a fund-raising operation across the Jewish community in America, running it with the same quiet efficiency he did his chemical factories. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, DC and on the West Coast, Jews had met to raise funds.

Leo Macey Bernstein, an energetic 31-year-old who ran a successful real estate business in Washington, DC, was a fund-raiser for the United Jewish Appeal and was used to ‘not being told how the money would be spent. Maybe it was to buy a ship to bring Holocaust survivors out of Europe. Perhaps guns to defend our people against Arabs in Palestine. We were never told, just asked to give. And we did. Anything from a dollar to a thousand bucks. All we knew it was urgently needed.’

On 13 November 1945, a year before Ben-Gurion had addressed the fund-raising breakfast, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, had bluntly rejected President Truman’s demand that Britain should immediately admit 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Bevin had said only 1,500 a month could enter.

Now Ya’akov Dori had come to America with Ben-Gurion to buy ships to challenge Bevin’s decision. Beside him at that breakfast table was Morris Ginsberg, president of the American Steamship Corporation in New York. Turning to Dori, he said he would provide two Canadian corvettes and have them converted into cargo vessels in the city’s Brewster Dry Dock and registered under the Panamanian flag.

Ben-Gurion asked how long before that could happen. Morris Ginsberg made a quick mental calculation, then replied, ‘Six months, David, maybe a little sooner.’

Ben-Gurion grunted. ‘That’s too long, we need ships now. Big ships. Fast ships that can outrun the British Navy.’

Ginsberg promised to check what was available.

Late one afternoon in December 1946 force of habit made a number of men each walk a distance apart down Hayarkon Street on Tel Aviv’s seafront. One was a lecturer at the Hebrew University, set in a pine grove on the heights of Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Another was a soft-spoken tailor who had escaped from Germany the year Hitler came to power. A third was a pale, scholarly faced lawyer. The fourth man coming down the street was a bank teller. The fifth worked in the Water Supply Bureau. The last was a trade union leader. Nobody who worked with them knew what they did after leaving their workplaces. Even their families did not know why they came or what they did in the pink-painted house they entered, number 45, halfway down the street. They were in fact members of the Haganah High Command.

After days of rain which had whipped spray off the Mediterranean with stinging force, the weather had cleared and the Mandate police patrols were back on the streets. Britain’s High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, had ordered the patrols to be reinforced. The decision was seen by the Jewish population as a further sign the administration was becoming increasingly pro-Arab at the political level. From the Negev Desert to the border with Lebanon, Arabs were being urged by the Mufti of Jerusalem to mobilise and drive out the Jews.

The Haganah’s own spies had learned that weapons hidden during the years of war in Europe were being brought out from behind false panels and from under floorboards in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem, or removed from crates of cheap souvenirs waiting to be sold to the first post-war tourists the Mufti had promised would return once the Jews were expelled. But it was not only the threat posed by the Arabs which troubled the men walking down Hayarkon Street. What increasingly concerned them was the anti-Jewish attitude of Britain’s Labour government and the Mandate. Only recently, when Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten, Jerusalem’s most respected religious leader, had protested about the number of armed Arabs moving through the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, his protest had been dismissed by the Mandate police chief.

While a ban remained on the import of arms into Palestine, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had authorised yet another weapons contract with Iraq. A secret codicil added, ‘The use of the arms is to discharge Iraq’s responsibility to the Arab League.’

What concerned the Haganah most of all was the Royal Navy’s rigorous patrolling of Palestine’s coastal waters. Not only were illegal immigrant ships being intercepted, but at the same time the Mandate virtually ignored the hundreds of Arab guerrillas coming from Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

When Ben-Gurion had raised the matter, the Mandate spokesman blandly denied that there was any infiltration. But copies of intelligence reports leaked to the Haganah show that the Mandate not only knew the dates and times guerrillas were entering the country, but opted to do nothing, as each report was marked, ‘No action needed’.

The documents had been copied from the office of Brigadier C.K. Clayton, Britain’s senior intelligence officer in Palestine, by his secretary, a middle-aged English woman who had been seduced by a handsome officer in the Haganah. The latest report revealed the Royal Navy’s Palestine Patrol would, in January 1947, begin to extend its range to incorporate Cyprus. In a concluding paragraph Clayton wrote:

It is my considered opinion, formed from my monitoring of recent Arab meetings in Damascus and Cairo, that we must deal with the illegal immigration as firmly as possible if a war is to be avoided. If hostilities do break out then the blame must rest with the Jews. They remain not open to reason as is evidenced by the number of illegals they have managed to bring ashore. Many have turned out to be of military age (16–35) and have been trained in their DP camps. I am treating it as a priority to discover what arms Jews have brought into the country. It may also only be a matter of time before the Jews make use of larger ships than at present.

Outside the house on Hayarkon Street a young man greeted each arrival with a formal ‘shalom’ and the code names he knew them by – Ammon, Amos, Ari, Efraim, Jacob, Reuben, Rudy, Svi. All were bound by the oath of secrecy they had sworn on their first day in the Haganah, just as all recruits to the clandestine army were. Then, after being taught how to carry messages or track the movements of important Arabs and Mandate officers, recruits would be taken for training in the remote wadis of the Negev Desert, where the sand muffled the crack of a rifle. In the cool of the evening they used potatoes and oranges to practise grenade throwing. So limited was ammunition that a defining moment for each recruit came when an instructor handed him a single live round of fire. It marked his full induction into the Haganah.

The High Command had been summoned to their headquarters in Hayarkon Street after an envelope had arrived at the house from Ben-Gurion in New York. It contained copies of advertisements placed by the Maritime Commission in Washington, DC, offering ships for sale. Each boat had its price tag. Like a croupier dealing cards, the senior Haganah man around the table, Reuben, dealt out the adverts. The others studied each one, shrugged or shook their heads. Finally Reuben handed over the last advertisement. It was a photo of President Warfield, a Chesapeake steamer, with a price tag of $50,000. The ship was described as ‘salvageable but requires some work to become seaworthy’.

When Efraim asked where anyone would find that kind of money, Reuben replied that this was why Ben-Gurion had gone to New York.

*

Days after Ben-Gurion’s fund-raiser breakfast, Ze’ev Shind arrived in New York on the overnight train from Montreal. He carried a perfectly forged Canadian passport to match the address he had given as his home in the city.

In 1938 he had been one of three Polish Jews living in the cramped top floor of an apartment near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, organising throughout Europe illegal immigration to Palestine. When France fell, Shind was sent to the Mediterranean to continue to find ships to sail to Palestine’s beaches. Since then he had travelled to South America, North Africa, Turkey and the United States – anywhere he heard there was a boat for sale.

His orders had continued to come from Room 17 in the Histadrut Executive Building, the headquarters of the Jewish Trade Union, on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street. No one paid any attention to the young men who took turns to stare out of the room’s window; they were the Haganah lookouts ready to signal the approach of a British patrol.

Then desks would immediately be cleared of paperwork and the short-wave radio transmitter hidden in a cupboard. To any unwelcome visitor, the dozen men and women in the room would appear to be industrious clerks dealing with union affairs.

Room 17 was the centre of the illegal immigration network, code-named Apparat. In charge was a dynamic young Haganah officer, Eliyahu Golomb. Upon his narrow shoulders rested the responsibility of ultimately ensuring Jews in the Reich could immigrate to Palestine. Pinned on the wall behind his desk was a sheet of paper on which was written in Hebrew: ‘The key to immigration is our people, not the land, not the lifeless crust of earth, but the dynamism and creation of farmers and factory hands.’

That excerpt from a Ben-Gurion speech had driven Golomb to work long days and even longer nights, catnapping on the floor in the early hours, grabbing a sandwich when he could. From the cramped room, its air full of cigarette smoke and the aroma of strong coffee, he sent orders to Ze’ev Shind and other Aliyah Bet operatives scattered around the Mediterranean ports to find boats: ‘I need ships. I need them now. And I need safe landing sites to avoid the Mandate coastal patrols. I want everything now!’

Golomb’s words would echo around Room 17 as darkness fell or a new sun rose. He reminded everyone they must not haggle over exorbitant prices for boats, just as they must be ready to offer substantial bribes for passports and visas.

Over the years Shind had bought documents from the diplomats of Mexico, Colombia, Honduras and Peru. Finally he had been handpicked for his latest mission. The tall, red-haired and bespectacled Aliyah Bet agent was to set up a company for one specific purpose: to establish the true market value and seaworthiness of President Warfield. His Haganah code name was ‘Danny’, chosen because his hair gave him the look of an Irishman, along with his pale blue eyes which had the steely look of someone who lived by his wits.

Using his Haganah contacts in the city, Shind had opened an office on the fifth floor of an old building on 24th Street in New York. It had one desk, two chairs and a filing cabinet. He had a signwriter stencil on the door ‘Weston Trading Company – Marine Surveyors’. He had chosen the name from an obituary he saw in the New York Times. He rarely used the office telephone, preferring to use street pay phones: he wanted to be sure no one tapped his conversations.

Danny discovered that three marine surveyors had inspected President Warfield. One represented the Patapsco Scrap Corporation, the second represented the Boston Metal Corporation and the third had been commissioned by the Potomac Shipwrecking Company, who had said President Warfield was worth no more than $6,500 as scrap. The lowest bid had been Patapsco’s at $1,500. Boston Metal’s surveyor had placed the ship’s worth at $5,000.

The Maritime Commission, responsible for selling off all wartime ships with no further use, rejected the offers. Shind had called the agency in Washington, DC, and asked what offer would be acceptable. When told to make one, he said he would call back.

Next day he took a train to Baltimore. Waiting for him was Captain William Ash. The burly, beret-wearing sailor had been recommended by Morris Ginsberg as someone to guide Shind through the world of American ship-brokering. Ash, a Polish Jew who had emigrated from Russia in the 1920s, had a colourful background. He had been a deep-water seaman who rose to become a captain and enlisted in the US Maritime Service during the war, before setting himself up as a marine surveyor. Eventually he became the vice-president of the labour union for merchant seamen. Ginsberg had told Ben-Gurion that if he wanted someone to buy a ship or find a crew, Ash was the man.

Ze’ev Shind would never forget Ash’s words after they shook hands at the Baltimore railway station: ‘He peered at me and said I looked like the man he’d been told to expect, “tall and skinny with a fireball for hair”. Then he was galloping along with his words: “I know roughly what you want. A ship to bring home Jews. But I want to impress upon you that if there’s anything illegal done, then you’ve got the wrong man.” I began to wonder how this was going to play out. Then he was off again: “I know how to legally procure ships and send them anywhere you want. What you do with a ship outside this country, I don’t care. I will do my end legally. Okay?” I nodded and he was off again. He gave me a lecture on how to do this. I had to form a Panamanian company. Then we would go out and buy whatever ship was on the market at a fair price. He suggested we call our company Arias and Arias. I asked why. He stared at me. “Because it has a ring to it, okay?”’

The new company would operate out of Weston’s office. Letterheads and envelopes were to be printed. Captain Ash would be listed as the company’s president. Ash asked one more time: ‘Okay?’

It had been snowing the day Shind and Captain Ash clambered on board President Warfield, one of a long line of derelicts anchored on the James River on the Bay of Baltimore, and spent the morning tramping through the boat. With the wind off the Chesapeake whistling in the rigging, they barely exchanged a word while Ash scribbled in a small notebook. Back on shore he had given the hulk a final stare in the fading daylight. Shind recalled: ‘Finally he asked me how much I wanted to pay. I said as little as possible, though I recognised it would need a deal of fixing. “Sure will. How much money you got?” I said enough. He just stood in silence looking at his notebook, as he was deciding on a figure. “Okay, so make your phone call.”’

Shind telephoned the Marine Commission to be told that President Warfield had been sold as scrap to the Potomac Shipwrecking Company for $8,000.

Next day, back in New York, he was summoned to the office of Dewey Stone’s attorney on Park Avenue. Ben-Gurion had already told Shind that Herman Goldman handled all of the Haganah’s legal business in the United States, especially the purchasing of ships that could be used to bring immigrants to Palestine. He had his own network of shipping agents who told him what was coming on the market.

Goldman was a rotund man with silvery hair and a surprisingly strong handshake for someone Shind estimated to be in his seventies. He produced an envelope and handed it to Shind, explaining it contained a certified cheque for $50,000. Shind was to lodge it in an account with the Chemical Bank. The money was to be used to buy President Warfield, refurbish it for sea, and hire a captain and crew.

‘He was all business and said the less people knew why I was in New York the better for everyone. He gave me the name of a director at Potomac Shipwrecking I should contact to buy the ship. The guy would probably try and haggle a little. My top price would be ten thousand dollars. But nothing above that. After I had concluded the deal, Goldman said he would take over the legal side of things. There was a style about him; no wonder he moved in the same circles as Ben-Gurion.’

The entire deal, from depositing the cheque to the phone call to Potomac Shipwrecking, took under an hour. There had been no negotiation. Shind had simply offered his top price and Weston Trading became the owner of President Warfield.

It was second nature for Shind to now begin his own checks into the background of his purchase. It was his way of anticipating any surprises. But even he was unprepared for the history of the ship.

*

Like a thief in the night waiting for the moon to sink and leave the sky black and without stars, another nightmare tore apart Miriam Bergman’s sleep. In her 80th year, every moment still remained so vivid, so heartbreaking, so shocking, so momentous, from those unforgettable days of fear that were to climax at sea in July 1947.

Miriam’s fifth birthday, 25 February 1932, was the day Adolf Hitler became a German citizen, enabling him to take his seat in the Brunswick State Parliament and give his fledgling National Socialist Party a political voice. Miriam now knew that had been the starting point for her nightmare.

Miriam’s father, Leon, was a tailor in the Grunewald suburb of Berlin. Jews had lived there from around 1880 after fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Poland. Among their neighbours the Bergmans were regarded as a middle-class family. Close to their home were the mikveh where, along with their neighbours, they took their weekly ritual bath; a bakery which supplied unleavened bread for Passover; the cheder, which Leon helped to fund and where, when the time came, she would go for religious instruction.

Every Friday morning since she was old enough to walk, Miriam had accompanied Else, her mother, carrying some cholent – a dish of goose breast, beans and potatoes, that would be placed in one of the baker’s ovens to cook.

The bakery was a centre for neighbourhood discussion: who was pregnant, whose husband had pulled off a deal, which of the Gentile farmers was selling the fattest chickens. The world beyond the close-knit Jewish community hardly ever intruded, but that morning the bakery was filled with voices, uneasy and angry voices reading the newspaper the baker had produced. It reported a tirade by Hitler in the Brunswick State Parliament against the Jews.

The air filled with the aroma of fresh bread and raised voices. Her hand gripping her mother’s, her eyes going from one agitated woman to another, it was Miriam’s first conscious encounter with anti-Semitism.

Freddie Kronenberg’s terror included his time raising and lowering the barrier at Auschwitz under the arch bearing the words Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes free. In every dream there was Dr Josef Mengele waiting on the ramp for the prisoners to emerge from the cattle trucks, using his cigarette to decide their fate. A flick to the right with the butt in his gloved hand and a prisoner lived, at least for the moment; a flick to the left led immediately to the crematoria. In his nightmare Freddie saw his mother consigned to the gas chambers. But always at the last moment he was pulled aside by Mengele. The claw-like grasp on his arm, the cold eyes, were as vivid now in Freddie’s old age as the first time. So was the way Mengele had fingered the crucifix around Freddie’s neck, nodding, coming to a decision. A guard had thrown black breeches and a cap at Freddie, together with a pair of boots, and escorted him to the barrier. Freddie had become the gatekeeper to hell.

Helena Levi was the same age as Freddie, born in April 1928. Her father, Hermann, had been a respected obstetrician in a Hamburg teaching hospital. In her nightmare a newly born baby always suddenly appeared. She cradled him against her thin dress, wrapped in the shawl she had removed from the body of the woman who had begged Helena to take her child. The infant had died shortly after the start of the death march in the depths of a Prussian winter. It was so cold, Helena’s urine had frozen to her legs. The SS guards used their whips to drive them on as, in the distance, the sound of advancing Russian guns could be heard. Helena cradled the baby, which she could not, would not give up, until an SS guard had torn the infant from her grasp and hurled it into the snow, shouting she would walk faster without her burden. Then, in her nightmare, there was no longer snow but energy-sapping sun to drain Helena as she tried to protect another newborn baby while all around her the battle on board the ship Exodus raged. Suddenly the infant was no longer in her arms. Had it been snatched and thrown over the side? The question always jerked her awake. Soaked in sweat, Helena would lie still, trying to calm herself, knowing the terrible dream would return again. It always did.

*

The outbreak of the First World War between Britain and Germany found Turkey an ally of Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces. The political wing of Zionism, which Theodor Herzl had founded, moved to London, where the leadership passed to the charismatic Dr Chaim Weizmann.

Herzl was the son of a comfortable middle-class Viennese Jewish family, a newspaperman and a Jew with little concern for his race and religion until that day in January 1895 when he had been sent to Paris to report the trial of another Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, found guilty of treason. Herzl had stood among a screaming crowd outside the court on the Champ de Mars.

‘Kill the traitor! Kill the Jews!’

He had returned to Vienna a changed man, knowing it was not the blood of Dreyfus that the mob had demanded; it was the blood of all Jews. A year later he published a book that was to become famous, Der Judenstaat, in which he advocated the foundation of a Jewish state by international agreement. ‘If you wish it,’ he wrote, ‘it is no dream.’ From then on he devoted his life and energies to the Zionist cause, convening the first Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897.

After Herzl’s death, Chaim Weizmann would eventually inherit his mantle. As he wrote to his future wife, Vera, ‘I feel that a heavy burden has fallen on my shoulders.’ Born in Russia in 1874, Weizmann had already started to make his academic mark as a research chemist at German and Swiss universities before taking up a post at Manchester University in 1904. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1910. Any lingering barrier to his religious background was swept away when the First World War started. By then Weizmann, now Professor of Chemistry at Manchester, had displayed his scientific skills by discovering a process to synthetically manufacture acetone for explosives. The War Office was in urgent need of Weizmann’s discovery to supply shells for its armies in France.

Within a year Weizmann had become a figure of real influence, respected in the inner circles of the English Establishment. His contribution to the war effort opened more doors within government and he used his connections to lead the discussions in London for Palestine to become a Jewish homeland. On 31 October 1917, he helped to draft a letter for Lord Rothschild – head of the English branch of the powerful Jewish banking family – to send to Arthur James Balfour, the Foreign Secretary. Two days later a reply came from Balfour. For Weizmann, as for every Jew, the reply seemed to contain a momentous promise:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

For the Jews, the ratification in 1920 of what became known as the Balfour Declaration and the appointment of Britain to administer Palestine began promisingly. The first High Commissioner would be Herbert Samuel, who was 50 years old and the first Jew elected to Parliament. As Home Secretary, he had played a key role in the drafting of the Declaration. In Jerusalem, Jewish leaders formed a National Council to work with him. Then, in 1921, Winston Churchill, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, visited Palestine and reaffirmed his support for Zionism: ‘When I get back to London I have no doubt I shall be told that but for the Zionist Movement there would be no need to keep such a large British garrison, at so great an expense, in this country. The Jewish Community all over the world must provide me with the means of answering all adverse criticism. I must be able to say that a great event is taking place here, a great event in the world’s history. It is taking place without injury or injustice to anyone. It is transforming waste places into fertile; it is planting trees and developing agriculture in desert lands. The pioneers of this work are picked men, worthy in every way of the greatness of the ideal and the cause for which they are striving, and in that way you will give me the means to answer effectively those who wish to prevent this experiment.’

For Jewish leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, Churchill’s words were the encouragement their people needed to believe that Herzl’s call for the dream to become reality was well on the way to being realised.

However, the Arabs responded with armed attacks, rampaging through the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, marking all Christian shops and homes with a chalked cross, meaning they were not to be touched. Those belonging to Jews were to be attacked: Jewish shops and synagogues were set alight, Jewish women were raped, six Jews died and over 200 were injured. One pogrom lasted three terrifying days and nights.

In the following six years, the steady flow of immigrants from Europe continued. New roads were built and more settlements established. Land that had once been swamps infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes was drained and made fertile, after it had been bought from absentee Arab landlords glad to be rid of it. Tel Aviv and Haifa doubled in size. But the Arab onslaughts persisted. In Jaffa 43 Jews were murdered and 143 seriously injured. Samuel’s administration did nothing. He had told the Mandate Commission that ‘the basic principle of my administration policy is to deal with the Arabs as if there has been no Balfour Declaration’.

Samuel suspended Jewish immigration and distributed to the Arabs land which the Mandate controlled. Samuel departed from Palestine in 1925, leaving behind a bewildered and angry Jewish population. The Arab attacks continued.

Copyright © Gordon Thomas and Jill Samuels Productions Limited, 2010

Gordon Thomas has asserted his moral right to be identified as the Author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

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  • Posted August 3, 2011

    Fantastic work!

    Operation Exodus is well-researched, well-written, and fascinating. History becomes real and contemporary. I look forward tor reading it again.

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