A Ship’s Waves–Then and Seventy-Five Years Later

From the Rabbi’s Study


A Ship’s Waves–Then and Seventy-Five Years Later

In 1946, a ship, the USS President Warfield, was bought for $8,028 by the Western Trading Company to be used as scrap. She originally carried passengers across the Chesapeake Bay. During much of WWII, she was a training ship for the British Armed forces. Later in the war, she became a U.S. Navy accommodation ship for the landing at Omaha Beach. It was sad that this ship was going to be scrapped.

However, the company did not scrap it; rather, they sold it to the Weston Trading Company for $40,000. That’s when the ship’s history really took off, for the Weston Trading Company was a front for the Haganah, Jewish Palestine’s military organization. The Haganah had a plan, so they spent another nearly $130,000 to overhaul the ship.

The plan was to return to the original use of the ship for passengers: specifically to take immigrants from post-war Europe to Israel, called Aliyah Bet. She was, in fact, the largest of the 64 ships used. The ship was certified to carry 540 passengers; this time it had 4,515, mostly refugees from the Holocaust. Yet the British were committed to their 1939 White Paper, severely limiting the amount of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. The British used naval and military force to prevent Jewish immigration. More than 50 per cent of the 142 voyages these ships made were turned back.

In July 1947 the USS President Warfield was renamed Exodus 1947, immediately connecting the plight of the Holocaust survivors trying to get out of Europe to our people getting out of Egypt some 3200 years ago.

Exodus 1947 was led by two Haganah leaders, Ike Aronowicz and Yossi Harel. Most of its 35 crew were American Jewish volunteers, many with no training. They raised a flag with the Star of David as they left Sete, France, 75 years ago on July 11. Virtually every day the British came close, asking if they were refugees aboard. The response was to play Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance over the public address system.

With the world watching, the British surrounded, intercepted, and jammed the ship on July 18. Intercepted migrants were sent to camps in Cyprus, then a British colony, before deporting them back to France. France, however, refused to participate in a forced disembarkation. The passengers went on a hunger strike. After a three-week contest of wills, the British sent the passengers to camps in Germany after literally beating Holocaust survivors into submission. Publicly beating Holocaust survivors and deporting them to camps in Germany–can anything sound more perverse?

The amazing story continues, even if we cannot recall it all here. The majority of the passengers were smuggled into Palestine. The British left Palestine, as Israel did indeed declare itself a state. The British gave de facto recognition to Israel in January 1949, after a truce in the War for Independence was announced. Following this the remaining passengers of the Exodus 1947 were transferred from Cyprus. (Great Britain extended formal recognition of the State of Israel on April 28, 1950).

The real-life drama of the Exodus 1947 had the world on its edge. The incident helped unify the Jewish community of Palestine and the Holocaust-survivor refugees in Europe as well as significantly deepening international sympathy for the plight of Holocaust survivors and rallying support for the idea of a Jewish state. Those refugees, who had suffered so much, had to endure more, solely because they wanted to live in their homeland.

But we should also note that it was the motivation and efficiency of American Zionists determined to help survivors find refuge outside the displaced persons camps in Europe who made it possible to purchase, navigate, and staff the boat. These American Jews put their lives on the line for the lives of those whom they never met but with whom they felt close affinity. They felt the keen importance of the mission. They were there because they cared. In doing so, they gave living expression to the age-old dictum that kol Yisrael areivim ze ba-ze, that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”[1]


Yes, we Jews also feel a responsibility to help all people in need or distress.

Yes, we want to be “a light unto the nations.”[2]

Yes, social justice is G!dly.


Yet in an age of rising antisemitism worldwide, perhaps especially within our own country, the story of the Exodus 1947 continues to inspire us. It is emblematic of the multiple ways in which we connect as k’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people. It teaches us how collective memory inspires us to action, honoring our commitments to Jewish history and Jewish suffering, to our sisters and brothers in Israel and throughout the world.

Let us remember the Exodus 1947, and may this lead us to remember our commitments to Jewish history, to Jewish suffering, to Israel, to justice and righteousness, and to each other.


[1] BT Sh’vu-ot 39a.

[2] See Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6. Cf. as well Isaiah 60:3.