“Tolerance is what keeps humanity together, I believe.”
—Anne Willem Meijer, Member of the Dutch Resistance
The Exodus 1947
Two men who now live in Southern Ohio were aboard the most famous of the “illegal” ships that sailed to Palestine after World War II, the Exodus 1947. Irv Szames, who survived the Holocaust as a child by hiding in the forests of Poland, was among 4500 Jewish passengers crammed into the worn-out coastal passenger ship originally owned by the United States. Bernie Marx, an American Jew, volunteered to serve on its crew, having been a deck officer in the US Navy during World War II.
In 1947, Bernie was enrolled at the University of Cincinnati when he received a phone call that changed his life. The next day he was on a train to New York, and the following week on a boat to Europe, where he joined the crew of the Exodus 1947.
When asked why he volunteered, Bernie replies, “I had had enough of all this Nazi business. If not me, who? If not now, when? Isn’t that what Judaism says?” More than fifty years later, Irv still looks at Bernie with adoration: “We thought that the crew members were like gods. We looked up to them. They gave us the enthusiasm to fight.” And what did the crew think of the young passengers on board the Exodus? “These kids were full of spirit. They were wonderful, “grade A plus plus plus.” With regret, Bernie adds that he was so busy that he never got the opportunity to really know these courageous survivors.
We salute both Irv and Bernie for their courage and tenacity as part of the Aliyah Bet.
Aliyah is a Hebrew word meaning to ascend, to go up. It was first used to describe immigration to Palestine in 1882, when modern Zionist ideals began to take hold and motivate Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, to move to Palestine. The term Aliyah Bet describes the illegal immigration that began just prior to World War II, in direct contravention to the British White Paper of 1939, which severely limited the number of Jews allowed to enter Palestine.
David Ben Gurion, the first and longest-standing Prime Minister of Israel, summarized the policy of those involved with the Aliyah Bet: “We will assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” The leaders in Palestine refused to abandon their brothers and sisters in Europe. They arranged covert operations, bringing “illegal” immigrants into Palestine by land and by sea.
The British continued their restrictive immigration policy even after it became clear that the Nazis were carrying out a policy of genocide against the Jews. When the British captured Jews fleeing certain death, had they remained in Europe, they would transfer the Jews to desolate detention camps located on the islands of Cyprus or Mauritius.
During World War II, aside from the British restrictions, the efforts of the Aliyah Bet were constrained by the lack of contact with European countries, the hazards of maritime travel under wartime conditions, and the difficulty of obtaining seaworthy vessels for transport. Several boatloads of immigrants who actually managed to reach Palestine were sent back by British authorities to Nazi Europe.
In total, some 16,000 illegal immigrants arrived by sea and another 4,000 by land during World War II. This immigration, conducted under the most difficult circumstances, demonstrated the resolve of the Yishuv to bring immigrants to Palestine and the fierce desire of the immigrants themselves to reach the country.
After World War II ended, liberated Jews were desperate to leave Europe by any means. Some 250,000 Jewish refugees- Holocaust survivors- began making their way towards central and southern Europe, with Palestine as their final destination. This mass migration converged on the ports of Europe and became known as the Bricha, “the flight.” Members of the Aliyah Bet in Palestine, joined by soldiers from a wartime British unit called the Jewish Brigade, members of Zionist youth movements and former allied soldiers and sailors, joined together to secretly move the survivors to the Jewish homeland.
Once the Jews completed their difficult trek over the Bricha routes in Europe, they faced a sea odyssey involving considerable danger and suffering. Despite the best efforts of the organizers, conditions on the ships were difficult. The sleeping bunks allotted to passengers were never over half a meter (19.5 inches) wide, and several levels were built one above the other. Overcrowding and sanitary conditions were horrific, and food and water rations were severely limited. To make matters worse, the sea voyage often stretched from an expected few days into a nightmare lasting several weeks.
In the three years from the end of World War II until the establishment of the State of Israel, most Jewish immigration to Palestine continued to be illegal. Sixty-six sailings were organized, but only a few managed to penetrate the British blockage and bring their passengers ashore. Many vessels were stopped by the British authorities, and the passengers were interned once again behind barbed wire. While approximately 80,000 illegal immigrants reached Palestine during 1945-48, most of them arrived in Israel after the establishment of the State.
For Bernie Marx, it was his duty as a Jew to take part in Aliyah Bet. For Irv Szames, it was “the voyage that would take us home. It was the most important trip of my life.”