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Throughout our history there have been heroes that have helped to save the day. Not all of them have been Jewish. During the Shoah they were called Righteous Gentiles. Jack Johnson, was just as much of a righteous gentile, though his heroics took place a few years after the Shoah. He was the ship steward on the Exodus. Yeah that one–the one dramatized in the Paul Newman movie.

After WWII the British caved into Arab pressure (that would never happen now–would it?) and refused to allow any Jews to enter what was then called Palestine. Many of the people trying to get in to the Holy Land were Holocaust survivors. The British in their infinite wisdom threw these refugees back into camps this time on Cyprus.

The Exodus voyage was an attempt to smuggle some of these Jews into the country, but they were noticed by the British as they approached Haifa.
Upon the ship’s arrival in Haifa on July 18 the passengers were transferred to three more seaworthy ships. These ships, and the President Warfield, left Haifa harbour on July 19th for Port-de-Bouc. Foreign Secretary Bevin insisted that the French get their ship back as well as its passengers. When the deportation ships arrived at Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles on August 2, the emigrants refused to disembark, and the French refused to cooperate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Realizing that they were not bound for Cyprus, the emigrants conducted a 24-hour hunger strike, refusing to cooperate with the British authorities.

The ship’s ordeals were widely covered by international media, and caused the British government much public embarrassment, especially after the refugees were forced to disembark in Germany. It is said that the events convinced the US government that the British mandate of Palestine was incapable of handling the Jewish refugees problem, and that a United Nations-brokered solution needs to be found. The US government then intensified its pressures on the British government to return its mandate to the UN, and the British in turn were more than willing to accept this.

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) also covered the events. Some of its members were even present at Haifa port when the emigrants were forcefully removed from their ship onto the deportation ships, and later commented that this strong image helped them press for an immediate solution for Jewish immigration and the question of Palestine

Below is an interview with Johnson that appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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.” The events inspired Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus” and its Paul Newman-Eva Marie Saint film adaptation, though Johnson said the fictionalized refugee shipments in that story were only loosely based on the voyage he witnessed. 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 Ike 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. “Ike 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. “Ike 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.”

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