The recent passing of the captain of the Exodus, the legendary ship that attempted to bring Holocaust survivors from war-torn Europe to British-mandated Palestine in the 1940s, marks the end of an era and a tribute to the founding of the State of Israel.
I never met the weather-beaten skipper, Yitzhak “Ike” Ahronovitch, but heard stories about him from my father, who was one of Ike’s sailors on the ship made famous by the late American writer Leon Uris in his 1958 bestseller book of the same name and the 1960 Hollywood film version staring Paul Newman.
“As one of the crew members, I was saddened to hear about Ike,” said Sam Schulman, 81, a long-time Larchmont resident. “We were a bunch of kids back then – I was 18 and Ike was 23 – but we grew up fast trying to get refugees out of Europe and bring them to Palestine.”
“What I remember most about Ike,” he reminisced, “was his ability to grasp a situation quickly and make a decision with no regrets.”
The Exodus: Ike Goes It Alone
In particular, Mr. Schulman clearly remembers July 11, 1947, the day when the Exodus was sitting in France’s southern port of Sète with its 4,515 passengers (including 655 children) ready to get clearance from the French to embark on the last leg of their long journey. When a local pilot failed to come aboard and help steer the ramshackle ship through the port’s narrow passage ways (as a result of British pressure to detain the boat), Ike decided to go it alone and improvised a series of tricky maneuvers to get out to the Mediterranean Sea.
“That was a tough call and very risky,” Mr. Schulman said. “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if we crashed against a seawall with all our passengers.”
The passengers had already seen their fair share of hardships; they were all Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust. Schulman himself had survived the war in hiding in France.
“They came bundled up in several layers of clothing plus a backpack, all their worldly goods,” remembered Avi Livney, 83, a fellow crewmate of Mr. Schulman from New York who later moved to Israel and settled on a kibbutz, a collective agricultural community. “Their trek had led them from concentration camps to displaced persons camps, to us.”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing after safely leaving France and making it to sea. Waiting for the Exodus was a British cruiser and a convoy of destroyers, which trailed the ship for several days before stopping it 20 nautical miles from the shores of what is today Israel.
“On our last night, the British ships came in one at a time, rammed us, threw tear gas bombs and stun grenades, and succeeded in getting a large party of club-swinging marines on board,” added Mr. Livney. “Three people were killed, including our second mate Bill Bernstein. Over a hundred were injured. By daybreak, we surrendered and were towed into Haifa.”
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 strictly enforced policy 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 — All except the passengers on the Exodus, who were forced onto prison ships in Haifa and sent back to Europe.
Many of the crew members of the Exodus disembarked in Palestine with the aid of the Haganah (the pre-nascent Israeli Defense Forces), including Captain Ike. Others, like Mr. Schulman, were asked to go undercover and stay with the refugees and help with logistics and coordination.
“We were under the impression that we were heading to Cyprus like all the other ships that had not managed to get through the blockade,” Mr. Schulman said. “We were shocked to learn that we were being taken back to Europe.”
The prison ships returned the refugees to France and then consequently to Germany, amid much controversy. The plight of the Exodus, followed by the international media, became a symbol of the struggle for open Jewish emigration to Palestine. After several months in detention camps, many of them did eventually find their way to Israel.
As for Sam Schulman, he got off in France and stayed in Europe to continue helping refugees get to Palestine. Several months later he reconnected with Mr. Livney and others on another mission.
The Pan Ships: Less Fame, More Refugees
“The Exodus might have been the most famous of all the ships, but what many people don’t know is that the Pan ships brought the largest number of refugees from Europe at one time,” Mr. Schulman noted.
The Pan Crescent (also known by its Hebrew name, Atzmaut) and Pan York (Kibbutz Galuyot), nicknamed the “pans,” left from the port of Burgas, Bulgaria, on December 27, 1947, with over 15,000 immigrants. Several days later they were also stopped by British warships, after passing through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles in Turkey into the Aegean Sea toward the Mediterranean. The boats were forced to anchor at Famagusta, today on the Turkish side of Cyprus, and passengers placed in detention camps. (See: Return to Famagusta.)
Mr. Schulman and Mr. Livney were two of the more than 50,000 interned by the British authorities in Cyprus. Some were detained for only several months and entered Palestine on the limited monthly quota, while others were there as long as two years and admitted only after independence.
The Haganah got Mr. Schulman out on the Jewish passenger liner the Kedmah under the alias of one of the immigrants approved by the monthly British quota. The next morning he disembarked in Haifa and headed south to the Negev Desert to build a kibbutz with friends he knew from his youth movement days in France, and to fight in Israel’s War of Independence.
Several years later, Mr. Schulman emigrated to New York, ultimately settling with his family in Larchmont in 1976.
“I’m proud about the role that I played back then,” said Mr. Schulman about his contribution to help Jewish immigrants get to Israel. “Those were important days of my life.”
Mark Schulman, Sam Schulman’s son, grew up in Larchmont and is currently a journalist in Israel. This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 27 December 2009.