Change Region:Northern Ireland

Remembering the Exodus

The Exodus of 1947

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Posted on: 
26 Jul 2017
Remembering the Exodus

The year 2017 is filled with anniversaries of key moments in Israel’s modern history. Foremost among them are the 50-year Jubilee celebrations of Jerusalem being reunited under Israeli sovereignty in June 1967, and the centennial ceremonies marking 100 years since the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. But a third important event which happened 70 years ago will be remembered this July 18th with the dedication of a special memorial to the Exodus ’47, otherwise known as “the ship that launched a nation.”

The Exodus was an old, rickety steamer originally built to traverse the shallow, calm waters of the Chesapeake Bay. But in 1947, she was refitted by the Jewish underground to carry thousands of Holocaust survivors on a desperate voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to break the British blockade and reach the shores of Mandatory Palestine. When the British navy attacked the ship just offshore, the tragic fate of her passengers grabbed world headlines and played a central role in the rebirth of Israel the following spring.

When the Exodus left port in France seventy years ago, she was heavily laden with over 4,500 tattered Jewish refugees who had survived the Nazi genocide and were determined to reach the Land of Israel. But the British had imposed a naval blockade to stop such refugee ships from reaching Palestine, and the passengers knew that, if captured, they would all be sent back to Europe. So the Haganah underground invited a sympathetic American Methodist minister, Rev. John Stanley Grauel, to join the voyage as a reporter who would be free to tell the story of what was about to transpire.

As the overcrowded vessel approached the Israeli coast in the dark of night, a British fleet of six destroyers and a light cruiser closed in. They first sandwiched the Exodus between two destroyers, trying to crush her aging hull. After seven such ramming attempts failed to sink the vessel, British troops armed with machine guns and bully clubs stormed aboard. The defenceless Jews put up what resistance they could. Three were killed and almost 150 injured.

Despite their gallant efforts, the ship was seized and towed to Haifa port, where all of the Jewish passengers were arrested and eventually sent back to Germany.

Yet the British could not apprehend Rev. Grauel, since he was a non-Jew and a US citizen. Instead, he was placed under house arrest at a hotel in Haifa. But this happened to be the very hotel where Western journalists were staying to cover the visit that summer of the UN Special Committee on Palestine, and Grauel began telling the visiting reporters about the brutal ordeal at sea. Then late at night, he was quietly whisked away by the Haganah and smuggled past roadblocks into Jerusalem to tell the UNSCOP committee itself about what had happened.

The UN committee had been holding hearings that summer in order to recommend a solution to the “Palestine problem.” But the eleven-nation commission was refusing to meet with Jewish war refugees still held in displacement camps in Europe. Yet when Grauel described first-hand the British assault on the unarmed refugees aboard the Exodus, it had a profound impact on the committee members.

“The Exodus had no arms,” Grauel told the UNSCOP panel. “All they fought with were potatoes, canned goods, and their bare fists.”

The plight of the Exodus passengers stretched out several months before a worldwide audience, fuelling the committee’s growing sense of its humanitarian mission. Until then, most of its members were leaning against partition and the creation of a Jewish state. But after Grauel pleaded their cause, the committee agreed to visit the camps in Europe to speak directly with Jewish war refugees, who were nearly unanimous in their desire to go to Palestine. Before long, the majority of UNSCOP members concurred that the Jewish people needed a state of their own.

Thus, the testimony of a Christian minister about the British attack on the Exodus became the turning point in UNSCOP’s shift towards accepting Jewish statehood. Grauel would later write of that fateful moment on board the ship, saying it felt as if he were witnessing the battle of “Concord and Lexington… I just knew I was watching the rebirth of a nation.”

Indeed, the well-known journalist Ruth Gruber, who witnessed the commandeered boat docking in Haifa, described the Exodus ’47 as “the ship that launched a nation.”

The vessel remained tied up in Haifa harbour until a mysterious fire burned her to the waterline in 1952. The ship was towed out to deeper waters and sunk. Today, there are markers to her in Italy, France, Germany and Baltimore, Maryland, but ironically there has never been a marker or memorial to the Exodus ‘47 in Israel.

That will be rectified this July 18th when Israeli officials, Jewish and Christian leaders, and the last Exodus survivors will gather at the Haifa Port terminal to dedicate a special sculpture and historic marker in memory of her courageous passengers. The effort is being spearheaded by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem will be there as well to mark this historic occasion. Besides paying respects to the brave Jewish refugees on board the Exodus, the ceremonies will duly note the key role of Rev. John Stanley Grauel in her story. Seventy years after her voyage helped birth the nation of Israel, the Exodus ’47 will finally receive her due.