France marks 70 years since ‘Ex­o­dus’ voy­age to Is­rael

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Seventy years ago, some 4,500 Jews gath­ered aboard a rick­ety old steamer in the French Mediter­ranean port of Sete, des­tined for a jour­ney that would help spur the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent Jewish state. Yes­ter­day the city marked the au­da­cious at­tempt to reach what was then Bri­tish-con­trolled Pales­tine in the pres­ence of a few of the remaining sur­vivors of the voy­age, along with France’s Grand Rabbi Haim Kor­sia.

“It’s the last time that we have sur­vivors: in 10 years they’ll be gone,” said Freddy Dran, co-pres­i­dent of the “Ex­o­dus Com­mit­tee” and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Sete, near Mont­pel­lier. “We’ve found that in Sete and the re­gion, half the pop­u­la­tion has no knowl­edge of this event, which had a pro­found impact on 20th-cen­tury his­tory,” he said, calling the com­mem­o­ra­tion “an ed­u­ca­tional project for younger gen­er­a­tions”. The plight of those on­board was mem­o­rably dra­ma­tized in the 1960 Otto Preminger film of the same name, star­ring Paul New­man.

Like climb­ing Mount Sinai

“Board­ing this ship was like climb­ing Mount Sinai,” ac­cord­ing to Isthak Ro­man, whose fa­ther was on­board, speak­ing at yes­ter­day’s cer­e­mony. On the night of July 10-11, 1947, a strange-look­ing boat over­flow­ing with peo­ple, most of them sur­vivors of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, be­gan slowly mak­ing its way out of the har­bor, of­fi­cially des­tined for Colom­bia. The oper­a­tion was mounted by the Ha­ganah Jewish para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion, which had ac­quired the flat-bot­tomed boat orig­i­nally in­tended for only river nav­i­ga­tion from an iron yard, be­fore dis­creetly bring­ing it to the Mediter­ranean.

At the same time, the group be­gan bring­ing thou­sands of would-be em­i­grants to Sete aboard more than 170 trucks. “If we hadn’t de­cided quickly to load these 4,554 peo­ple we would have had se­ri­ous prob­lems,” a leader of the truck con­voy, one of five Sete res­i­dents at the time who at­tended the an­niver­sary cer­e­mony.

“Ha­ganah was be­hind this en­tirely clan­des­tine oper­a­tion, very few peo­ple in Sete were aware of what was go­ing on,” said Gus­tave Brugi­dou, pres­i­dent of a Sete his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety. Most res­i­dents were fo­cused on the Tour de France rac­ers as the cy­cling race passed through the city on July 10, and “were as­tounded to see all these peo­ple ar­riv­ing on Mole Saint Louis dressed in win­ter clothes in the mid­dle of sum­mer,” he said, re­fer­ring to the port’s jetty. The pas­sen­gers, rep­re­sent­ing a mul­ti­tude of na­tion­al­i­ties and in­clud­ing about 1,700 women and 950 chil­dren, squeezed them­selves onto the boat still known as the “Pres­i­dent Warfield”. Their goal was to break through a Bri­tish block­ade on Jewish im­mi­gra­tion to Pales­tine, where the Zion­ist move­ment hoped to cre­ate a Jewish state, and the ship was re­named the “Ex­o­dus 47” on July 16, a ref­er­ence to Moses’s bib­li­cal ex­o­dus, and a flag bear­ing the star of David was hoisted.

Two days later, a Bri­tish navy ves­sel that had been trail­ing the Ex­o­dus seized it just a few dozen kilo­me­ters from the Pales­tine coast, in a con­fronta­tion that re­sulted in at least two deaths. “The ship’s com­man­der asked them to stop the fight, he said, ‘My mis­sion is to bring Jews to Is­rael alive, not dead’,” Yossi Bayor, who was 15 when he boarded the Ex­o­dus, told the cer­e­mony in He­brew.

The pas­sen­gers were rounded up and put on prison ships bound for the French coast, where they re­fused to dis­em­bark, and after sev­eral weeks were brought to Hamburg, Ger­many, in the Bri­tish-con­trolled zone where the Holo­caust sur­vivors were put back in camps. “The con­di­tions were ter­ri­ble, we had no sleep­ing berths, every­one was on the floor,” Bayor re­called.

The or­deal sparked a global outcry, and most of the pas­sen­gers were later in­terned on Cyprus, then a Bri­tish colony, and did not reach Is­rael un­til it de­clared state­hood in 1948. “Thanks to - or be­cause of - the odyssey un­der­taken by this ship from Sete, the State of Is­rael was cre­ated a few months later,” said Brugi­dou, un­der­scor­ing its in­flu­ence on the de­ci­sive United Na­tions vote to di­vide Pales­tine in Novem­ber 1947.

Global outcry

— AFP

SETE: This file photo shows an un­dated photo of the Ex­o­dus (Ex­o­dus 1947), a ship which car­ried 4500 Jewish peo­ple, all dis­placed per­sons or sur­vivors of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps to the Bri­tish Man­date for Pales­tine.

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