This week Yitzhak Aharonowitz Captain of the Exodus passed away. As a tribute to this hero, below is real story of the the Famous Voyage (which is much different from the movie).
With the White Paper of 1939 the British caved into Arab pressure (that would never happen now–would it?) and severely limited the number of Jews that could enter what was then called Palestine.
During WW II it meant that they were causing the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews who could have escaped the Holocaust, had they a place that would take them in. After the Holocaust, many of Hitler’s victims were trying to get in to the Holy Land. The British in their infinite wisdom threw these refugees back into camps this time on Cyprus.
Boris Agulnik was one of those refugees, he ended up on a ship called, The Exodus.
Boris Agulnik says that in 1947, after months of travel by train, foot and cart, his family made its way from the Russia-China border to Poking Pine City, the second largest German DP camp after Belsen. Their plan was to reach Palestine. “There, my sister Yudit was born and… I finally had my brit mila, at age three. There was no anesthetic and they said I screamed in Russian, ‘Mommy, mommy it’s painful.’ Afterwards, I’m told, I used to proudly go around and boast, ‘Now I am a Jew and I am going to Israel.'”
Few immigrants to Israel can claim that the story of how they arrived entailed a lengthy sea journey that was chronicled in daily newspapers around the world. How many have kept the El Al tickets from their aliya flight? But Agulnik proudly shows Metro his Exodus boarding pass.
While still in the camp, Agulnik senior was approached by the Hagana. Having been a battle-hardened colonel in the Soviet army, he was needed in Palestine. The family boarded a truck that was part of a convoy bound for Sete, a port near Marseilles. From there, they would be joined by other Holocaust survivors and displaced persons and would board the President Warfield, bound for Palestine.
“At the German-French border we were told to get out of the trucks and cross by foot. Scared that they would not allow us through with a three-month-old baby, my mother hid little Yudit in a box and left her on the truck. At the other side, after [the] nerve-wracking process at passport control, my anguished mother rummaged through the boxes until she found my sister, who was crying from hunger and fear,” Agulnik recalls. “One of the French soldiers noticed the commotion, but when he saw [my mother] breastfeeding Yudit, he tactfully looked away.”
“Looking away,” however, was something the British refused to do. After setting sail on July 11, the President Warfield soon had company. The British Royal Navy began tailing the vessel, despite its Columbian flag. Soon, there was little point in pretense. The destination was Palestine, and the ship – under the command of young American Yitzhak Aharonowitz and his mainly American crew of Jewish ex-servicemen – was ready to convey a message to the world.
One can imagine the outcry after the ship’s real name was revealed in bold lettering: EXODUS. If any on board the British ship failed to understand the reference, they would have understood the unfolding drama when the Columbian flag was lowered and the Israeli one raised. The course of not only a ship, but a whole nation, was at stake.
“What was different about the Exodus,” explains Agulnik, “was the massive number of passengers on board. Generally, the ships that had been bringing in illegal immigrants before were relatively small, carrying at the most a few hundred passengers. With over 4,500 on our vessel, the Hagana had upped the ante. The stakes were high!”
The British government, which wanted this evolving drama to reach a finale of its own choosing, ordered its Navy to hijack the ship.
“One of the destroyers came alongside and called over the loudspeaker to our captain, ordering him to sail for Haifa,” relates Agulnik’s father, Boris, a resident of Haifa. “As time passed, they could see that the Exodus was not changing course. The instructions from the Hagana were to sail directly to Tel Aviv, as far [as possible] from the British naval base at Haifa. Then the British made their move.”
Some 40 kilometers offshore and outside the jurisdiction of Palestine, the British destroyers surrounded the Exodus – one even ramming into it. They forced their way on board the Jewish vessel, caring little for the 655 children on board, many of whom were war orphans. Challenged by the Exodus’s passengers and crew, a fight broke out in which three shipmates, including first mate William Bernstein – a US sailor from San Francisco – were killed.
“The British had truncheons and were bludgeoning left, right and center. What did we have to fight with?” sighs Boris, “Our bare fists – and some hopelessly fought with tin cans. Yitzhak, our captain, lost his finger.”
In the end, the British took control of the ship and towed their battered- and-bruised prize into Haifa port. Little did the Mandate Authority realize that they were creating the images that would swing the world’s sympathy toward the Jewish people.
Ruth Gruber, an American journalist, was waiting on the wharf as the Exodus limped into harbor. In a dispatch, she described her first impressions: “In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off and lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles.”
The rafts must have been hanging very precariously, because one of them dislodged and drifted over to another ship, the Drom Afrika, which had left Cape Town three months earlier carrying seven young Jewish men trying to reach Palestine. Metro spoke to Issy (Greenberg) Granot, a retired architect, who was on board that day and helped lift the Exodus’s errant life raft onto the deck of the Drom Afrika – a former mine-sweeping vessel that had been converted into a fishing trawler in an attempt to fool the British.
“As we sailed into Haifa, we saw the Exodus being towed into port. We watched as the Holocaust survivors on board were transferred onto three British ships. That night, Haifa Port was alive with activity,” Granot recalls. He describes how police patrolled the harbor, dropping depth charges to scare off the Jewish frogmen who were working to sabotage the British ships.
But the British had no intention of sending the Exodus passengers to Cyprus. “They wanted to make an example and humiliate us. What better way than by sending us back to Europe?” Agulnik asks. Exhausted from the sea journey as well as the battle on board, all 4,515 passengers were transferred to three freighters converted into prison ships – The Empire Rival, The Ocean Vigor and The Runnymede Park.
Not only reporters, but also some members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) witnessed the events in Haifa Port. They later said that what they saw influenced them to press for an immediate solution to Jewish immigration and the question of Palestine.
The next day, the three ships left. The Agulnik family was crammed into the belly of The Empire Rival. Boris describes the conditions on board. “We lay crammed together in the bare hold of the freighter and the food was inedible. Nevertheless, under the command of the Hagana, we began to build an organization. It was decided that all passengers were to remain on board and not disembark when we arrived in France. We were repeatedly encouraged to resist [the British]. Even little Eli went all out to make a nuisance of himself. He used to climb all over the place, particularly on top of the makeshift toilets on the deck, and scream, ‘Englander, I’m here. Now come pull me down.'”
But the Hagana members who had slipped on board disguised as refugees were plotting other acts of resistance – some more serious than others. “No sooner were we out at sea, when one of them climbed the mast and removed the Union Jack, replacing it with the Star of David. If they could, they would have lynched the fellow. In the end, they released him, never suspecting that he was a Hagana plant.”
“What we later found out was that the three Hagana chaps had brought a bomb on board. Unfortunately, they had no timer, so they drew lots as to who would sacrifice himself should they decide to use [it],” Boris adds.
When the ships arrived at Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles on August 2, the emigrants refused to disembark. The French refused to cooperate with the British attempts to force them off the ship. “So the British Consul came on board and tried ‘friendly’ persuasion. If we voluntarily left, they’d arrange French papers for us, find work and so on. People were booing and screaming. Someone shouted, ‘We know all about British promises,'” Boris relates. He says the scene reached a head when a passenger showed the consul a plate of that day’s food. “You call this food. Look at it. Can you tell the worms apart from the spaghetti?” he asked the official, who left in a huff.
Following a hunger strike by the passengers, the ships were ordered to proceed to the British-controlled sector of Germany. Boris reveals that he had been told that the Hagana managed to smuggle a clock on board to use as a timer for their bomb. The plan dictated that if the Jews were ever forced to leave the ship, the Hagana would detonate it once all were safely off. The plan was executed when the ship reached Hamburg and all the refugees were finally forced off the ship into DP camps.
“The British suspected something and conducted a search of The Empire Rival. We heard afterwards that they found the bomb in the engine room, removed it, and placed it on a small dingy with the aim of dropping it somewhere safe in the sea. Reports filtered back that the bomb exploded, killing all the British personnel,” Boris relates.
One day, David Ben-Gurion visited the camp. “After he addressed the people, I introduced myself and we spoke in Russian,” says Boris, who at that time knew no Hebrew. “BG spoke with such vigor. He assured me, ‘Don’t worry. There will very soon be a Jewish State, and you, the passengers of the Exodus will become its honorary citizens.'”
Eventually, in 1948, the Agulnik family returned – but not to Palestine, rather to Israel. The captain of their ship was Yitzhak Aharonowitz, Former Captain of the Exodus.
Yitzhak Aharonowitz’s Second Mate was Jack Johnson. In 2007 Johnson and Aharonowitz had a reunion in Israel (In the picture on the left Johnson is on the left and Aharonowitz is on right. Below is an interview with Johnson that appeared in the Anchorage Daily News Published onApril 2, 2007 (available in the paper’s Paid archives) where he talks about the voyage of the Exodus and his reunion with Yitzhak Aharonovitch
Alaska sailor lauded by Israelis for 1947 Exodus mission BRANDON LOOMIS ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A young Alaskan named Jack Johnson sailed into history and an Israeli hero’s stature in 1947, but never really realized it until he returned to the Mediterranean this winter at age 80.
Johnson, a Seward resident who in December retired from piloting ships around Alaska, had a dizzying youth during World War II and then found himself at the right bar in southern France to help Jews press their case for a homeland. While he was ashore in Marseille after ditching one sailing gig and pursuing a young lady, he said, the Zionist group trying to slip Jewish refugees past a British blockade into Palestine asked him to join their crew.
The Orthodox Russian Christian originally from Kodiak had witnessed the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, he said last week, and he wanted to help Jews any way he could. He signed on to crew aboard the Exodus, a ship that attempted to move some 4,500 refugees and in so doing is widely credited with evoking the world’s sympathy toward formation of Israel.
But the British, who governed Palestine at the time and responded to Arab fears about immigration, turned the refugees back while killing one crew member and two passengers. For all these years Johnson thought his mission was incomplete.
“I figured we failed,” Johnson said after returning from a February tour of Israel that he bought at a fundraising auction to help establish a Jewish museum in Anchorage. “We didn’t get them in there. I was there and the next thing I knew I was back in Marseilles looking for another ship.”…Johnson had been a young sailor involved in shipping arms to the Soviet Union during World War II when his ship was sunk and he was stuck in Archangel, Russia. While waiting to be repatriated, he said, he was inspired to join the Soviet army, in which he served during the liberation of Polish concentration camps. After the war he went back to crewing on freighters, which is how he found himself at Marseilles.
Home in Alaska in 1953, Johnson scarcely thought about the “Exodus” events for decades, though he remained a supporter of Israel.
“Sailors are funny,” he said. “You get off one ship and say, ‘Maybe we’ll see each other again,’ but you never do.”
Except, 60 years later, he chanced to see the captain with whom he had served for those 12 pivotal days. At the museum fundraiser he bid $18,500 for a guided trip with Anchorage Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, and once they reached Israel they discovered the captain of the Exodus, now 84, still lived outside Haifa. What followed was a joyous reunion covered by the Israeli media, and a hearty round of thank-yous from Israeli parliamentarians and dignitaries including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I couldn’t understand it at first,” Johnson said. Then those who praised him told him they considered the Exodus ship a crucial point in securing United Nations support for Israel. The Holocaust survivors trying to reach Israel didn’t make it immediately, but their plight reached the world.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot reported the tearful meeting between Johnson and Exodus captain Yitzhak Aharonovitch, though it said Aharonovitch at first didn’t recognize his short-time second mate.
“The two sat together for hours,” according to the Yediot Acharonot report. “Yitzhak brought out his ‘Exodus’ album, and they recalled the difficult battle, how they were surprised by the British who attacked them suddenly in the open sea, how they threw potatoes and canned goods at the British and how they tossed the brazen British overboard.
“Yitzhak chain-smoked. He looked excited, and his eyes were twinkling. Johnson’s tears flowed.”
Johnson said Thursday that he always had wanted to go back to Israel, and that his wife had never been there. His first request to Greenberg was to find the grave of his dead crewmate, beaten by the British boarding party during the riot. To his surprise, a tour guide said he knew Aharonovitch’s daughter, and that the 84-year-old captain still lived.
Johnson’s treatment in Israel has given him renewed appreciation for the events, he said.
“I’m still kind of amazed, looking back and realizing I was a part of it,” Johnson said. “It gives you kind of a strange feeling and strange emotions.”
For Rabbi Greenberg, Johnson turned into more than a museum donor. He’ll be the subject of an exhibit in the museum, for which organizers hope to break ground next spring. Photos from Johnson’s return and information about the 1947 sailing will go into the exhibit.
“We thought it would be a wonderful trip to Israel,” Greenberg said. “But what it turned into — the whole Exodus story — was just unbelievable. Something that was to support the museum becomes part of the museum.”
Rest in Peace Yitzhak, you are a real Hero