There were many seminal moments in the founding of the State of Israel, but perhaps none was as well-known — or misconstrued — as the sending back of the immigrant ship Exodus 1947.
Now, 70 years later, efforts are being made to learn and understand the historical episode — the courage and determination of the 4,515 Holocaust survivors, including 655 children, who reached the Promised Land in an unarmed ship only to be forced back to Germany by the British army before they could disembark. The events turned the tide of public opinion in favor of the creation of a Jewish state.
Ironically, what gave the ship its lasting fame — the Leon Uris bestseller “Exodus” and the Paul Newman film based on it — also served to grossly distort the facts. In reality, the British didn’t capitulate as they did on the big screen, but chose to make an example of the passengers of the Exodus.
While the popular novel and film were enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel, particularly in the United States, the story is historical fiction and fails to recognize the sacrifice of the ma’apilim (the illegal Jewish immigrants during British control of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s) aboard the Exodus and all those who struggled to bring them to Palestine.
Last week the gap in both acknowledgment and education began to be bridged, with a commemorative event on July 18 at the Port of Haifa where the story unfolded. Many organizations worked together to mark the 70th anniversary of the Exodus 1947, but it was the initiative of the Jewish Agency, the Israel Forever Foundation and the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation that drove it forward and shaped it into a powerful tribute.
More than 100 survivors were present — along with their families, various dignitaries, soldiers in the IDF navy and other guests — to view a beautiful exhibit, listen to moving speakers and performers, and witness the installation of the permanent monument dedicated to a difficult event that had a profound impact on this country’s history.
Before the start of the ceremony one could see many elderly people surrounded by loved ones, holding their documents from that fateful occasion: the ma’apilim.
It was incredibly moving to see the survivors taking in all that had been prepared for the special event; imagining what all this must mean to them.
At the entrance to the port were six panels telling the story of the Exodus. Created by event partner, the Israel Forever Foundation, the portable panels were designed with future programs in mind.
In addition to the survivors and many dignitaries, there were other guests including friends and family of the survivors and a group of new immigrants to Israel.
Representatives of three of the many organizations which cooperated to bring the event to fruition. Above, from left to right, Eli Carmeli of the Jewish Agency, Elana Heideman of the Israel Forever Foundation and Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, take a moment before the ceremony.
Among the many dignitaries and guests, the mood was light; the atmosphere very positive. While remembering all that the survivors went through, the focus was very much in the present.
Among the numerous speakers were Israeli MK Yoav Galant joined by his mother, Froma Galant, who had been on the Exodus as a young girl of 12. Yoav Galant spoke of how the Exodus represents the transition from the Holocaust to revival. Seeing Galant up there with his own mother underscored the deep roots and interconnectivity in the founding of our state.
Aryeh Itamar, who was only eight when he was aboard the Exodus, spoke about the feeling of being together with the other survivors and of the incredible moment when they saw the Haifa coastline in front of them.
Legendary folk singer Shuli Natan sang some of her classic songs such as “Al Kol Eileh” (For All These Things). Looking around as she sang it was quite powerful to see all these survivors singing along to words such as, “Bring me back and I shall return to the good land.”
Post-performance, Shuli Natan spent time connecting with the survivors, speaking like old friends.
After the ceremony the permanent monument to the Exodus events was unveiled, a sculpture of an anchor on a base of the map of Israel designed by sculptor Sam Philipe.
A survivor gazes at the new sculpture commemorating the Exodus.
This man came over on the Exodus as a four year old. Now he contemplates the new Exodus installation at the Haifa Port.
As their numbers have dwindled, the survivors of the Exodus are pleased to know that their story will be both remembered and accessible for the future. These survivors are gathered for a 70-year reunion photo.