The ship Exodus 1947 became the symbol of Aliya Bet – the organized clandestine immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel during the British Mandate of Palestine. The "Golden Age" of Aliya Bet was after WW-II, between the end of the war in Europe in mid 1945 and the declaration of Israel as an independent state in May 1948. During this period, 66 Aliya Bet voyages took place, involving over 70,000 ma'apilim (the Hebrew word for the "illegal" immigrants). The Exodus' voyage is by far the most famous of them.
The dramatic story of the Exodus' ma'apilim – 4,500 Holocaust survivors who endured a bitter and bloody battle with British forces, refused to disembark the deportation ships that took them back to France, in spite of dreadful conditions on board, and eventually forced back into detention camps in Germany – generated a huge wave of sympathy around the world for the struggle of the Jewish people to establish their own independent state in the Land of Israel.
Following are the main events that took place as the story of the Exodus folded (note: the famous book and movie "Exodus" tell a story of a fictitious Aliya Bet ship; that story has little to do with the real story of the ship Exodus).
A ship named President Warfield – an old pleasure lakes steamer – is purchased in the USA on behalf of Ha'Mossad Le'Aliya Bet ("the Mossad" , the Hagana's arm in charge of all Aliya Bet operations) in Nov. 1946. The crew comprises mostly of Jewish volunteers from North America. John Grauel – a Methodist minister/reporter from the pro-Zionist American Christian Palestine Committee – joins as an observer. At the end of March 1947, after refitting and one failed attempt to sail, the ship heads to the Mediterranean under a Hondurian flag. The press in the USA "discovers" the story, the purpose of the ship is exposed, and the British intelligence starts to follow her closely.
After a short stop in Marseille, France, the ship arrives at Porto Venere (near La Spezia, Italy) on April 23rd. The ship stays there for about 7 weeks, during which she is being prepared for her special mission (installation of sleeping bunks, kitchens, showers, toilettes, etc. for about 5,000 people). The British puts pressure on the Italians and it becomes clear to the Mossad that the ship will not be able to depart from Italy. Shaul Avigur, the head of the Mossad, assigns Yossi Harel to be the commander of the ship. The captain of the ship is, since the stopover in Marsailles, "Ike" Eran (Aharonowitz).
After the French government gives a permit for thousands of Holocaust survivors to enter France, about 4,500 refugees are transferred from DP camps in Germany & Austria to transition camps near Marseille. This move makes it clear that the ship would carry these refugees, and that the departure country would be France. Accordingly, the Mossad orders the ship to return to France.
The ship arrives at Port-de-Bouc, France, on June 13 and stays in it for almost a month. The preparation works continue feverishly. The British pressure on the French government increases, and with it the fear that the French would cave in and won't allow the ship to leave. On the evening of July 9 the ship leaves the port and arrives after a short while at the port of Sete - the intended port of embarkation & departure.
The ship arrives at the French port of Sete on the night of July 9, and a dramatic operation to embark the ma'apilim starts immediately. On the night between the 9th and the 10th, some 170 trucks move 4,530 ma'apilim from the camps to the ship. Embarkation is completed around noon. At the very same time, Bevin - the British foreign minister - arrives in Paris, puts enormous pressure on the French, and the Mossad gets a hint that the ship is about to be physically blocked from departing, and that a demand for disembarkation would follow. Shaul Avigur orders the ship to leave immediately and without permit.
Following is the report Yossi Harel sent to the Mossad on the morning of the 11th: "Today at 6am we managed to escape the port... a pilot was scheduled to arrive at 2am, but we waited till 3:30 and he failed to show up. We decided to make it on our own. When we started to move it became apparent that a foreign object, probably a cable, got tangled into the propeller. After attempts that lasted a hour the cable snapped and we could continue. At the entrance to the port the ship ran aground. After a hour and a half of desperate efforts the captain ["Ike"] managed to free the ship and we got to the open sea".
A British destroyer escorts the ship right from the beginning. She is soon joined by the famous cruiser Ajax and few other destroyers, and this massive close escort continues all the way to the Israeli coast. It is a rather uncommon sight in the Mediterranean: a formidable naval fleet sailing around a strange-looking ship – exceptionally narrow & high with 3 wooden decks and a sole huge smokestack rising at her center – overloaded with refugees.
The voyage continues with no special events, except one delivery in which the mother dies of complications and is buried at sea. The baby is ok, and so is another new-born. A lot of attention is given to perfecting the resistance plan. A plan to run the blockade is worked out: the ship would go from south to north 10 miles off the coast (well over the 3 miles of territorial waters), starting off Gaza, and then would suddenly break towards the Tel-Aviv shore, dodging the British destroyers by taking advantage of her relatively low draft and her ability to develop relatively high speed.
The ship is moving eastbound along the Egyptian coast. There is a lot of ship traffic in the area related to the Suez Canal, and the route ensures the ship and her escorting fleet are seen by as many ships as possible. This route is also part of the plan to reach the Gaza coast area first and then start moving northbound until the appropriate moment for breaking to the east and running aground.
It is the 17th of July, and the ship name is changed to Hagana ship Exodus 1947. The radio operator on board organizes a historic broadcast, a 1st of its kind, directly from the ship to the Jewish community in Palestine. The broadcast lasts about 20 minutes and is heard all over the country. The minister John Grauel adds a call in English to the members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) – who are visiting Palestine at that time – to come to the ship and talk directly with the refugees.
The battle over the ship starts 20 miles west of the coast of Gaza. On July 18, 02:00am, the British Navy suddenly opens an attack on the ship in an attempt to intercept her. A bitter fight that lasts about four hours ensues, in which three people from the Exodus find their death: Bill Bernstein, an American crew member of the Exodus, and two ma'apilim. Over 200 ma'apilim are injured. In light of mortal danger to some of the injured, the commander Yossi Harel orders to cease resistance. The British bring medical help, and the ship, now off the coast of K'far Vitkin, continues under British control towards the port of Haifa.
It is July 18th, and the ship enters the port in the early hours of the afternoon. Members of UNSCOP who are present there are quite moved by the sight of the shattered and wounded ma'apilim, the battered ship, and the immediate transfer of the immigrants to three deportation ships. The next day the deportation ships leave the port, but instead of heading to Cyprus as expected they are heading back to France, following a new British policy termed 'Refoulment' – deportation back to the country of departure.
The deportation ships – floating jails – reach Port-de-Bouc area on July 29th. The British try to persuade the immigrants to disembark using the stick & carrot method: on one hand they promise them freedom to stay and work in France - a concession they got from the French government, and on the other hand they make the living conditions on the ships even worse. The August heat of one of the hottest summers on record adds to the suffering. But a decisive majority of the immigrants are determined not to disembark, embracing the motto "either the Land of Israel or death on the ships". The French on their side makes it clear that they will not force the immigrants off the ships. The affair becomes the center of world attention, and the immigrants and their cause are enjoying an unprecedented sympathy of world public opinion.
The Mossad establishes a special headquarter in the area, and its people organize the delivery of food and medicine to the ma'apilim, and encourage them to stay on board the ships. Three Mossad members infiltrate the ships in order to strengthen the leadership of the ma'apilim and make sure they won't accept the British proposal. External guidance or not, the immigrants develop their own strong leadership. They carry out a one day warning hunger strike on Aug. 18th, and threaten more to come. The British gives up and on Aug. 22nd the ships depart towards Humburg, Germany which is still under British control.
On Sep. 9 the ships arrives at the Hamburg, Germany, area, and the immigrants are forcefully taken off the ships, and are sent to the detention camps Papendorf and Amstau. The British suffers yet another blow in the battle over world opinion which is now furious at the news of Holocaust survivors being forced back into Germany. Within half a year, the majority of the immigrants reach Israel in various ways; the last ones reach Israel only after the establishment of Israel as an independent state.
The painful deportation to Germany so soon after the Holocaust raised the issue of the Jewish question on the international arena, and it was clear to all that the problem required an immediate solution. This solution was found when, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations resolved to create an independent state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
The stamp was issued in 1997 to commemorate the Aliya Bet enterprise. It shows the Exodus at Haifa Port in July, 1947. On the left side is a photograph of the "Shadow Fleet" at Haifa Port - clandestine immigration ships that were captured by the British fleet and whose passengers were detained in camps in Palestine and Cyprus. The stamp tab bears a quotation from the last lines of the Natan Alterman poem "We Were As Dreamers" ,first published in the Davar newspaper on September 1, 1934. The poem discusses the first clandestine immigration ship which landed on the shores of Palestine in the summer of that same year. Alterman finishes his poem with the message that the Return to Zion – immigration to the Land of Israel – will be realized as in the spirit of the prophecy in Psalms, chapter 126.
The stamp was issued in April 1997. Designer: D. Ben-Hador.