Samuel Schulman, the last surviving American crew member of the celebrated ship “Exodus 1947,” which attempted to bring thousands of Holocaust survivors from Europe to pre-state Israel, passed away Friday in Richmond, Virginia. He was 91.
From the end of World War II until the establishment of the State of Israel, “illegal” immigration — known by its code name the Aliya Bet — was the main way of getting around the United Kingdom’s strictly enforced policy at the time of allowing only several hundred Jewish refugees a month into British-controlled Palestine.
From 1946-1948 more than 60 Aliya Bet ships were organized, but only a few managed to penetrate the British blockade and bring their passengers ashore. Most were stopped and sent to detention camps in Cyprus. The more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors on the Exodus were forced onto prison ships in Haifa and sent back to Europe.
American journalist Ruth Gruber, author of Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation, sent dispatches as the drama unfolded, helping to bring worldwide attention to the immigrants’ plight and influencing events leading up to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Although the Exodus was the most famous of the Aliya Bet ships, Schulman also sailed on other lesser known but equally important ones like the “Pan Crescent” and the “Pan York,” which together brought over 15,000 immigrants from Burgas, Bulgaria, in December 1947. Both were stopped by British warships and forced to anchor at the Cypriot port of Famagusta (today in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus).
Schulman was detained by the British in Cyprus for several months before being smuggled on a boat to Haifa. Once there he made his way south where he helped establish an agriculture collective, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Negev. He then went on to train seamen in navigation at a naval base in Haifa during Israel’s War of Independence. He remained in Israel for a year before moving to New York.
“I’m proud of the role I played,” Schulman once said about his contribution to help Jewish immigrants get to Israel. “Those were important days of my life.”
The Exodus was celebrated in the 1958 bestseller of the same name by Leon Uris, later made into a Hollywood film based on the book starring Paul Newman.
Schulman was born to Polish Jews in Terra Haute, Indiana, on July 8, 1928. Following the untimely death of his father, he moved with his mother to Warsaw, Poland in the early 1930s — prior to the start of World War II — to be with her family. After his mother remarried, he spent a short time there before moving to Paris, France. When war broke out in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, Schulman was an 11-year-old French schoolboy. The following year Germany occupied France, taking Paris in June 1940.
Despite the food rations, curfews and anti-Jewish laws, Schulman and his mother Sarah (his step-father was on a business trip in the US when the war broke out and couldn’t return to Europe) managed to keep a low profile until a major round-up of Jews in July 1942 — known as the Vel D’Hiv raid — in which over 13,000 Jews were arrested, including more than 4,000 children.
Narrowly escaping capture, it became clear to the two that Paris was no longer safe. With the help of a local Jewish agency, they were smuggled by train to the rural village of Pionnat in the heart of the Vichy-controlled “free zone,” in essence, an area controlled by a French puppet government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain but under the watchful eyes of the Nazis.
About 75,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, were deported from France between 1941 and 1944; only around 2,500 survived. Drancy, outside of Paris, was the primary camp for Jews being deported to Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.
Schulman and his mother survived the war in hiding for three years in Pionnat – located 250 miles (400km) south of Paris in the central Creuse region. Despite the village’s remoteness, there was the occasional brush with German soldiers and French gendarmes, but they were warned ahead of time by the local resistance movement and had time to hide in the fields for a day or so until it was safe to come out again. The local priest knew they were Jewish but didn’t report them.
Aside from the fear of being caught and not knowing where the rest of the family was, Schulman and his mother had it relatively easy. When recalling that period of his life, he would often think about how lucky he was. “Despite the danger, I think the hardest part of my time in hiding was probably the isolation and the loneliness,” he said.
Unfortunately, most of his relatives who remained in Poland – his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – as well as family members in France were not as fortunate and perished in either the Warsaw Ghetto or the Auschwitz extermination camp. “I was at the wrong place at the wrong time [Europe during World War II] but somehow I survived,” he once remarked about his lost childhood.
After the war, Schulman returned briefly to Paris before immigrating to New York with his mother. He remained there for a short time before being recruited to join the Aliya Bet on the Exodus, which left from Baltimore, Maryland, on February 25, 1947.
He once recalled his mother’s response when he told her that he wanted to go back to Europe to help other Jewish refugees. “You’re an only son, why do you want to go to Palestine? Let somebody else go,” she pleaded. His response: “I want to go, I have to go.”
Upon his return from Israel, Schulman — who was born in America and had US citizenship but left when he was 4 years old — was drafted to the Korean War. Because of his experience in Israel’s War of Independence, he spent two years training soldiers at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, rising to the rank of Sergeant First Class.
After the war he studied at Brooklyn College and then at the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking in Queens, NY, on the GI Bill. Schulman went on to set up a jewelry-watchmaking business in the old diamond exchange district on Canal Street and the Bowery in lower Manhattan where he worked for 40 years.
A long-time resident of Larchmont, NY, Sam Schulman is survived by his wife, two sons (including this writer) and five grandchildren.