A Perilous Journey from the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land
By Gordon Thomas
JR Books Copyright © 2010 Gordon Thomas and Jill Samuels Productions Limited
All rights reserved.
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 BenGurion 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, codenamed 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Operation Exodus by Gordon Thomas. Copyright © 2010 Gordon Thomas and Jill Samuels Productions Limited. Excerpted by permission of JR Books.
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