EXODUS─the ship that launched a nation    

The 70th anniversary of the voyage

July 11, 2017, marked the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the Exodus, a ship carrying over 4,500 Jewish immigrants from France to British Mandatory Palestine. The large ship, formerly the steamer SS President Warfield from Baltimore, Maryland, left the southern French port of Sete on July 11, 1947. A majority of the ship’s passengers were Holocaust survivors. They had no legal documents to enter the British-controlled Palestine. When they neared the port of Haifa, the British Royal Navy’s soldiers boarded the ship, attempting to turn the vessel back.

The British vehemently opposed any large-scale immigration to Palestine. They prepared a massive naval and military force to turn back any refugees. Therefore, over half of the voyages (recorded to have been 142) and most intercepted immigrants were sent to internment camps in Cyprus (a British colony), the Atlit detention camp in coastal Palestine, and to Mauritius. An estimated 50,000 Jews ended up in these camps. More than 1,600 drowned at sea, and only a few thousand actually managed to enter Palestine. Thanks to the British declaration, called “White Paper,” Jewish immigration to the Mandate was curbed at 75,000 over a five-year period right before WW2. The British used it as an excuse to keep the Jewish Holocaust survivors away from Palestine.

So it was that Exodus was not allowed to go to Palestine but was turned away to Cyprus and the internment camps. After some weeks, the ship with the refugees was on the way to France. To make matters worse, the British actually lead the ship to Hamburg, Germany, where they forced the passengers to disembark.

Women and children agreed to obey, but men had to be carried out. All the weeks of sailing and camps, the survivors suffered from sickness, heat and food shortages.

Exodus was prepared to endure medical needs and even casualties. Several babies were born during the sailings and one woman died in childbirth. It was manned by a crew of over 30 volunteers, mostly American Jews.

Commemorative plaque at Exodus 1947 launch site in France

The Exodus passengers were part of the “second wave of immigration” that included over sixty ships. Its name and story received much international attention. It took place in the era when the British Mandate was nearing an end and the British withdrew from Palestine. Years later, many of the Exodus refugees settled in Israel. Historians say Exodus 1947 helped unify the Jewish community of Palestine and the Holocaust-survivor refugees in Europe─for the launching of the nation of Israel. (Resources: The Times of Israel and WikiCommons photos)