Nineteen-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native Philip Levine had the same ecstatic reaction as countless other American Jews on November 29, 1947. That was the day the United Nations voted to partition British Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state — the Jewish leadership accepting and surrounding Arab countries rejecting the decision.
“It was shortly after the Jewish holidays and we were all glued to the television listening one by one as they counted the votes,” Levine, now 86, recalled from his home in Jerusalem.
“When it was finalized we all exploded with joy and began contacting former US servicemen asking for binoculars, uniforms, and even guns that could be collected and sent to Palestine because we knew war was imminent,” he said.
Weeks later Levine realized he had to do more and volunteered his services to a Jewish organization called Land and Labor for Palestine.
Land and Labor’s mission was ostensibly to send American Jews to kibbutzim where they would replace the local workforce who were called up to the army. However, from the moment Levine signed up he wasn’t trying to fool anyone.
“I had volunteered at that time to sail to Israel and fight in the pre-state army and was told to take a physical and file for a passport saying I was going to visit Europe,” he related.
He got his physical but the passport was never issued because the FBI began cracking down on American citizens fighting in foreign wars and infiltrated Land and Labor.
Had it worked out as planned, Levine would have been on the US-registered Marine Carp, a former American liberty ship converted to passenger liner, which was making stops in the Mediterranean including Beirut, Haifa, and Alexandria, Egypt.
While the ship was still at sea, the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, and when the Marine Carp docked in Beirut Lebanese officials demanded any Jews on board be handed over. The American captain acquiesced and handed over the men, who were held hostage for nearly six weeks before being sent back to the US.
Meanwhile, Stanley Berger, another New Yorker influenced by the Partition Plan and trying to reach Palestine in late 1947, was denied a US passport as well.
In Berger’s case, the government already had him on file for a 1940 Washington, DC, protest against England’s refusal to permit more Jews into Palestine. Although he ended up serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, that earlier lobbying effort apparently sealed his fate when it came to traveling overseas.
With no way for Levine or Berger to acquire legal exit permits, they teamed up with about 30 other men who formed a crew aboard the Mala, an old luxury steam yacht built in Scotland in 1896 and commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1897.
The presidential yacht
The Mala, previously known as the USS Mayflower, USCG Mayflower and USS Butte, had a long nautical role in American history.
One of the only known ships to be in active commissioned service for the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, it also served as the presidential yacht for presidents Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge.
After decades of world leaders and royalty signing its guest book the Hoover administration had it decommissioned, citing unnecessary expenses.
Having gone through several more resurrections (it sank in 1931 but was raised) the ship was subsequently bought for scrap, but instead of being torn apart was renamed the Mala and underwent major renovations for a new mission: smuggling Jews from displaced persons camps in France into what would soon become the new State of Israel.
Even after the refitting, the Mala had to be registered under the Panamanian flag because, as Berger explained, US regulations stipulated a ship had to have two boilers and the Mala had only one left. At the time ships that could not get an American flag went to one of a handful of central American countries who sold theirs for extra cash.
While such schemes were risky, Levine suggested protocol was simply lax back then. But according to Berger the entire operation had a bit of luck involved, most notably the day they set sail.
“We were working hard to get the ship ready and one day in late May were told the coastguard was going to pull our sailing papers — and without sailing papers you can’t leave,” he recalled. “We tried to keep what we were planning a secret but guys talk, they tell friends and friends tell friends, and by then the authorities had a pretty good idea of what we were doing,” said Berger.
Needing to leave quickly the Mala’s Italian American captain and Belgian Jewish chief engineer decided to do a test ride into the harbor. The ship stalled and had to be towed back in. By evening the problem was fixed and the Mala, seeking to stay a step ahead of the coastguard, setting out late into the night.
The ship reached Ambrose Light, about 25 miles east of New York, when the rudder broke in the middle of what was then one of the busiest shipping lanes in the region. Unable to steer, the crew thought they would have to be towed back but somehow they managed to get everything working again.
As the ship continued across the Atlantic Ocean each day another piece of equipment broke down, lengthening a week’s journey into 30 days.
Arriving in Marseilles
Eventually, the Mala reached Marseilles, where it docked for two weeks. There it was outfitted further with sleeping platforms both on and below deck and little cubicles off deck for use as bathrooms.
DPs from a local camp were brought in to do the work, but getting permission from the shipping union was not easy. The unions feared they would lose money, but after learning about the Mala’s mission a heavy Russian presence tipped the vote, as anything against England was enough for the Russians to sign off on.
Berger was the one who drove the workers back and forth each day often using packages of cigarettes to bribe officials and purchase materials along the way.
On one occasion the truck was stopped and searched, and when the cigarettes were found Berger was arrested for smuggling.
“Since I was the only one with legal papers, in order to protect the DPs I took the blame and signed a statement saying it was all mine, that I smuggled it in,” said Berger. “I went before a judge a few days later and said it was not mine. He said, you signed the paper. I said the paper was in French and I didn’t know what I signed. Then the judge asked how much money I had and when I said a couple of hundred francs he fined me 300, confiscated all the cigarettes, and I was freed.”
Levine’s experience was not as harrowing, but admits while he and the rest of the crew took turns with guard duty they were not always successful in keeping a low profile.
“We screwed around town and as a result everyone knew who we were and where we were going because one night we went to a nightclub and one of the songs the woman sang for us was ‘My Yiddishe Momme,’” he said.
By late June the work was completed and the Mala set out down the coast of France to a little town called La Ciotat, where it docked in the middle of the night and loaded truckload after truckload of immigrants. Mainly from the Grand Arenas displaced persons transit camp, there were almost 1,250 men, women and children who boarded — some from the famous Exodus ship which was turned away from Palestine a year before, sending all its passengers back to Germany.
During a weeklong voyage to Israel (it should have been shorter but the ship kept breaking down) each passenger got the equivalent of one and a half liters of water a day, ate bread which got more stale with each passing hour, and as Levine described “were fed from a big tank of mush.”
Eventually, the Mala docked in Haifa in early July 1948. Just after the last passengers disembarked three Iraqi jets flew overhead dropping bombs at the ship, but the jets were too high and the bombs missed, hitting a warehouse instead.
Levine and Berger went on to join the Israeli Air Force with the former being sent to a base down south and the latter assigned to the IAF’s top-secret radar stations being set up across the country.
Much of the radar equipment was bought US surplus material in Europe bought by Israel’s pre-state army representative in Washington, former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
As for the Mala, it returned to Europe bringing more refugees to Israel on September 3, 1948.
In 1950 Israel purchased the Mala and used it as a patrol and training vessel. It thus became one of the only known ships commissioned by the navies of two countries, the United States and Israel.