Dawn on the Horizon: Survivor of Sobibor on the Exodus Journey
Excerpted from Dov Freiberg, The Last of the Freibergs.
Translation of “Sarid Sobibor”, Privately published in Hebrew by the author in 1988, Translated by Selwyn Rose
Dawn appeared on the horizon. The ship rolled from side to side until I thought I was drunk. Hebrew songs, played through the loudspeaker system had woken me up. The sun shone through the portholes. I looked out and saw only sea and sky. The singing stopped. A voice asked us to listen to an announcement by the Hagannah. The voice congratulated all of us - the refugees - and described all the obstacles that we had to overcome on the way, on the efforts of the British to prevent us sailing and on Ike's success in conning the ship out of the harbour without a pilot. We broke out into a spontaneous round of applause and the emotion-filled voice on the loud-speaker continued to explain that the ship, named 'Exodus 5707', sailing under the command of the Haganah was the largest ship and carrying the largest number of refugees ever, in the history of the Haganah immigration enterprise. The announcement ended and closed with the playing of Hatikvah.
I felt a tremendous uplifting of mood. Every word that had been spoken seemed to have come from deep down in my own heart. While we were still talking about the events of the night, the sound of an aircraft circling overhead broke into our conversation, moved away and came in much lower, made one or two more passes and disappeared. The aircraft had British R.A.F. markings and there was little doubt that it was making photographic reconnaissance of the ship. The British never left us for a moment and knew exactly where we were but the mood on the ship was untroubled and high-spirited. Last night we showed them - we successfully evaded them, and all their efforts to obstruct us and stop us sailing had been signally in vain.
Over the loud-speakers came announcements instructing us how to use the washing- and toilet-facilities. People began adjusting themselves to the special, cramped conditions, went to wash, arranged their bunks for a prolonged stay, youth groups were called for different jobs, here and there people's faces began to pale and they rushed somewhere to vomit - hopefully arriving there in time.......
A few hours passed and on the horizon a ship appeared, nearing rapidly. So many people rushed to that side of the ship to watch, that the ship rolled to that side until the sea was almost level with the port-holes. We were quickly ordered by loudspeaker, to return each to his place and the ship righted itself. In the meantime, the other ship had neared us sufficiently to be identified as a British destroyer, painted all over silver-grey, cannon and machine-guns sprouting all over her decks. The destroyer hove-to a few hundred metres from us, matching her speed with ours, sailing in parallel as if attached to us with a cable. “That destroyer won't leave us, now,” someone said. “It'll accompany us all the way to Palestine.”
Already on our first day of sailing we were being watched by the British, without any possibility of getting away from them but it didn't especially worry us. We were imbued with a blind optimism, which sprang from a belief in the justice and righteousness of our cause, a justice that had to be victorious. It was the sea, which had become a little rough - that bothered us!
Our ship, which was 'loaded down to the gunwales', began rolling from side to side like a cradle. Many people began to feel sea-sick and there was an unending rush to the sides of the ship of people relieving themselves. There were many who couldn't find access to the sides of the ship or who just couldn't get there in time.......People lay helplessly on their bunks, moaning and groaning. I prayed that I would be spared the same fate but in the afternoon I was attacked by nausea, stomach pains and dizziness.
The ship rolled playfully from side to side. One moment I saw just the sea and the next just the sky. When I was called on deck for a leaders' briefing, I told myself that I must overcome it. I got up from my bunk and went up on deck, my head spinning and my legs failing me, avoiding everyone's gaze lest they say: “Dov! You as well?” Once on deck, it felt even worse at the start - the dizziness became such that I couldn't stand properly, but after a while I began to feel a little better and the nausea receded somewhat.
Our first day at sea came to a close. Most of the people were lying on their bunks, feeling bad. The sun slowly sank. Night fell and darkened the sea. Everything was so black that it was impossible to distinguish between the sea and the sky. Only the British destroyer, illuminated from stem to stern and from port to starboard, could be seen in our vicinity, like an illuminated house suspended in the air. In the dead silence we could hear the thrash of our ship ploughing through the waves and the waves smashing against her sides.
In our corner, a few of the crew got together, among them the captain, in his shorts, and all around some of our boys and girls. Someone brought a guitar and struck a few melancholy chords and we all joined in singing, as loud as we could. One of the crew members, a thick-bearded American, brought a bottle of whiskey and we all started taking swigs from it.
With gentle probing, came the first attempts at contact between the Palestinian born Sabras of the Haganah, the American volunteers in the crew and between us, the survivors of the Holocaust; embarrassing questions, innocently asked and left unanswered, laughter which covered pain and embarrassment - all emphasized the chasm that yawned between us but sitting together, the exchange of a few words, calling each other by name, the desire to know and to understand, the mutual feeling of affection - all this brought us closer together and lowered the barriers.
The following morning a second British destroyer appeared, resembling the first, and sailed along on the opposite side of us. We were surrounded but it didn't bother us particularly and we even managed to make fun of the situation, a wag suggesting: “What? One destroyer isn't enough for them to take care of us?” In fact, the second destroyer gave us an additional object to look at on the featureless sea.
The ship's commanders, who were trying to improve the toilet facilities and keep everything clean, were helped by the kibbutz members, who were easier to organize and mobilize for different tasks. We did the best we could but the toilets just couldn't cope with the enormous demands made upon them by so many people. The number of sick people grew from day to day. The ship's tiny hospital worked non-stop day and night, treating people and dispensing medicines, but neither could that department stand the strain of the overload. The toilets and wash basins, became useless. The human possibility of maintaining any standard of public or personal hygiene worsened from hour to hour. We managed to put up with the difficulties only because we knew that we would have to cope with the situation only for a matter of two or three days and our good mood and high spirits helped to keep us going. In the evenings we sat together with the crew, sang songs, accompanied by the guitarist and a mouth-organ, told jokes and drank coffee until all hours.
There was no place on the ship for Sarah and me to be alone together. We exploited the late hours of the night by sticking our heads out of adjacent port-holes and speaking to each other in whispers, until the chill, night air eventually drove us inside again each to his own bunk.
The inevitable, unavoidable confrontation between us and the British came closer. No one had any illusions about the possibility of getting away from our 'escort' and landing secretly and peacefully on the shores of Palestine. On the third morning, yet another two British warships joined our little flotilla. It was clear that the moment that we entered the territorial waters of Palestine, we would be attacked. Our plan of operation was that we should prevent the British from taking over our ship by fighting them with any means at our disposal, while, at the same time we would continue to sail our ship at maximum speed, with full power, straight at the Tel-Aviv coast, and there we would deliberately beach the ship. The Jewish community would be called in its multitudes to come to the beach and obstruct all efforts of the British to command and control the area and the Haganah men would get us disembarked onto the beach where we would become irretrievably mixed up with the crowd.
An additional aim before the organizers of the Exodus 5707 operation was to excite public opinion throughout the world, into support for the plight of the refugees and their struggle for the right to come to Palestine, so putting pressure on the British to open the gates of Palestine.
Now we began with practical preparations for the decisive moments of our whole operation. We worked mainly at night, so that the British, who were constantly observing us, wouldn't be able to see our activities.
We closed off all possible approaches on to the deck from the sea, with barbed wire, boards and whatever else came to hand. On the lower deck, which we were unable to close off completely, we spilled thick oil all over, and sealed all hatches with nails and boards. In this fashion, we hoped to compel our attackers to approach us only from the upper deck, where we would all be waiting and prepared, men and women, to fight them for as long as we could.
The work, at night, in the darkness, was hard and slow. My hands were injured from the barbed wire and the hammer I was using, but I had a good feeling - we all worked with religious dedication.
The last day before zero hour dawned. The tension was in the air from early in the morning. Another two warships, bigger than its four predecessors, joined the convoy. A reconnaissance plane flew overhead, occasionally diving for a closer look - perhaps also to frighten us or convince us that resistance was a waste of time. A general mobilization was ordered on board.
The main work was to bring up onto the upper deck all our available 'armaments' and 'ammunition' - sticks, which were our 'personal weapons' various canned preserves, potatoes, onions, iron bars. We emptied the stores below decks of every and any item that could be held in the hand or thrown; food we wouldn't need any more. Piles of 'ammunition' were arranged along the whole length of the deck.
Many of us packed their belongings and got dressed as if ready to disembark, in spite of the fact that no order had been given to do so and, moreover, quite a few hours still remained before the confrontation on the shores of Palestine. Here and there an argument broke out between people on totally insignificant issues; the tension was unbearably high for some.
At three o'clock in the afternoon, we were all assembled on the upper deck for a final briefing. Present were all the Haganah men, the crew of the ship, leaders of the Kibbutzim, youth group leaders, group heads and other people with special tasks. The Haganah commander described the fight as he foresaw it. The supposition was that the British would not use firearms against us, and we were ordered not to use firearms or knives under any conditions, nor to cause the death of the British. But nevertheless, the instructions were to fight with all our strength to stop the British from taking control of the ship.
I followed every word with the closest attention. I tried to imagine to myself exactly what was going to happen. The upper deck was divided into 'sectors'. A sector was delegated to each kibbutz or youth group to defend. Our kibbutz was allotted the stern area, especially the blue-and-white flag, which flew from the stern pole. We were filled with pride that we had been chosen for that task. Never, not in Sobibor, nor later, in the forests, did I dare to dream such a fantastic dream.
I was convinced that if the Germans were beaten and I would survive and remain alive, the free world would receive me and other survivors, with open arms and we would all live together in a 'Paradise-on-earth'. And now, just two years after the liberation, fate finds us, my colleagues and I, sailing the seas as if ostracized from human society, in terrifying conditions, asking only to be allowed to settle in our own country - a country full of difficulties and dangers of its own - with no chance of success. We are surrounded by threatening warships which could sink us on the spot with one salvo.
And in those same moments, a thought flashed through my mind - what magical power there is in the words 'Land of Israel' and in the blue and white flag, that we are so ready to fight to the last, without hesitation, refusing to accept or consider all and any reasonable estimate of the obvious results of the imminent confrontation between these unequal forces. We, who during the war years, had struggled with seemingly supernatural powers just to remain alive, stood, now, ready to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our sovereignty over a land which did not yet exist and on whose ground we had not yet trodden....
The tension continued to increase and the loudspeakers spewed forth regular instructions: “Tonight we'll arrive at the coast of Palestine!'; “Everyone must be dressed and ready to disembark!”; “Everyone please remain lying on your bunks!”; “Do not block the gangways and do not come up on deck!” and more besides.
Evening fell. On board the ship an unnatural silence fell. I parted from Sarah, who was in charge of order within the ship, below decks. A few of us were called to close an opening which had been found on a lower deck and we worked quickly to finish the job. We didn't want to be isolated from all the others. I wanted to be on deck, with everyone else. The work progressed slowly and seemed to me as if it would never be completed and I was afraid that I'd 'miss something'. At last, we were told to leave it and go on deck..
The upper-deck, dark and quiet, seemed, at first glance, to be almost empty but as I proceeded along its length, I saw that, in fact, it was full of people, sitting and lying alongside the piles of 'ammunition'. The members of our kibbutz were congregated alongside the flag and there I joined them. The wind dried the perspiration which had been caused by the hard work below decks. It was totally dark. The destroyers' lights were extinguished, unlike the previous nights. Our own ship was also sailing under a black-out. The darkness and the silence spread an aura of mystery over everything and my wild imagination began to picture all sorts of different and strange ideas. According to the programme, we should reach the territorial waters of Palestine sometime towards dawn and then the battle between the British - the rulers of Palestine - and us, would commence.........
Suddenly, the darkness was shattered. Searchlight beams shone on us from somewhere out there, and rapidly raked us from stem to stern - it was one of the British destroyers, sailing parallel to us. Its loudspeaker system came to life and informed us that we were approaching the territorial waters of Palestine and were required to obey the instructions of the British fleet, otherwise we will be stopped by force..
The announcement was repeated several times. At once, the upper deck woke to life, everyone got up on their feet and one of the crew members came out of the bridge-house, a loudspeaker in his hand replying 'piquantly' to the British messages. We all started whistling and shouting; the lights of the destroyer were extinguished and the ship sailed away and disappeared..
Again pitch blackness enveloped us, but we knew: it had begun! We continued to stand and watch, waiting for the next move. Within a few minutes, the destroyer returned, switched on its searchlight and repeated its message to us. We continued to whistle and shout until again it disappeared, this time for more than an hour. Silence returned. Only the sound of the bow waves broke the quiet. In one of the corners, I saw Uzzi connecting up one of the hose pipes used in fire-fighting. His face and his reddish hair were blackened over..
I sat together with my friend Yisrael and we smoked. “If only we had a bottle of vodka now,” I said, while he roundly cursed the British Imperialists. In the middle of our comments, we heard a ship approaching us and at that moment our ship was lit up by a strong light directly in front of us - and very close by a British destroyer appeared with all lights blazing. All along her decks stood a long line of soldiers..
We all jumped to our feet - and as we did so we were fired on with a shower of tear-gas and flares illuminated the area. The upper deck was covered in smoke. Here and there a fire broke out. The smoke burned in our eyes and throats until it felt as though we were choking to death. Can it be - the thought flashed through my mind - that after all that I'm going to die by gas.......?.
A woman who was standing near me began to shout: “My eyes! Help me! Help me!” Next to her was a fellow who received a direct hit on his forehead from a gas-bomb or flare and blood was streaming down his face. Our ship's siren was moaning non-stop which made the ship take on a resemblance to some wounded animal. (Later, we learned that the siren had been damaged and there was no way of stopping it). We quickly rallied and began a counter-bombardment - we threw towards the destroyer - whose deck was lower than ours - everything that came to hand from our piles of 'ammunition' and our shouts mingled in together with the wailing of the siren. We hit the soldiers who were standing ready on deck and we saw them running to take cover. The British again fired a salvo of tear-gas, which made us feel as though we were choking, but this time we were more prepared. There was even one guy who picked one up and managed to fling it back over to the destroyer's deck. We all continued to pelt the destroyer's soldiers with cans of preserves..
Suddenly, the lights of the destroyer were extinguished and she disappeared. Everything fell silent as if all that had happened only a minute before had been a figment of the imagination..
The British, apparently, hadn't bothered to wait until we crossed the boundary into territorial waters, but had attacked us on the high seas. It was true, that one way or another, we weren't going to win the battle, but not for one moment had the thought entered our minds to surrender. We continued to sail in the direction of the coast at full speed. The feeling after the first round was good. We showed them - and they ran! After the first difficult minutes we learned that it was possible to cope with and overcome tear-gas attacks. Everyone had his own story of the battle and his own discovery of how to overcome the gas. In the meantime, the injured were attended to and bandaged, where necessary. Most of them stayed on deck but here and there a few were taken to the hospital. Our stocks of 'ammunition' were depleted somewhat but our general feeling was that we could withstand our attackers. Uzzi, who was the ship's communication officer, broadcast a moving message to Palestine that the British had attacked us far outside territorial waters. He then appealed to other peoples and governments to condemn Great Britain's action and demand that they stop their attacks. He then appealed for all ships in the area to come to our assistance..
Not much later a massive shudder ran through the whole ship and she heeled over to one side. The piles of the 'ammunition' collapsed on themselves and spread all over the deck. Loud shouts were heard coming up from below decks. One of the British destroyers had rammed us amidships. Its sharp prow had sliced into the wooden upper sections of the hull, penetrating into the bunk area, destroying some of them. People were injured, crushed between the bunks and many fell to the decks from the force of the impact. Water began to flood into the ship and for some minutes there was near-panic. There were shouts and crying. There was some fear that the ship may founder. and people ran up on deck shouting at us to surrender. The destroyer which had rammed us had disappeared but a second one appeared on the other side of us. Again we were lit up and a fresh bombardment of tear-gas fell on us for a period of some minutes. The whole ship was enveloped in a cloud of gas. There was nowhere to go. There was nothing with which to defend ourselves. Someone urinated in his handkerchief, covered his eyes and nose with it and said that it helped. We all did the same. One girl asked someone to urinate in a handkerchief for her. I hid my face in my hands and felt a tear-gas cartridge hit me in the back and managed to kick it away from me with my foot. I peeped between my fingers at the destroyer - its decks were empty. The bombs were being fired at us from within protected positions..
While we were still in the midst of fighting the tear-gas someone shouted: 'The English! The English!”.
In one moment, the strangling gas was forgotten - maybe the British had stopped lobbing them over, or perhaps the wind had drifted the gas away, or both these things together - and we all ran to the gunwales of the ship. The destroyer was closing in on us and her crew were placing ladders on her decks which reached up to the height of our own decks, and were trying to get boarders on to our decks. In the heat of anger, we rushed to the ladders and threw whatever came to hand on the heads of the men trying to climb up. Soldiers half-way up, rapidly retreated back down to the decks of the destroyer; a few of them fell into the sea. Only very few of the British soldiers managed to get up on our decks..
They seemed to be somewhat afraid and surprised and they looked a little ridiculous - they all wore white steel helmets, most of their faces were protected by strips of hard leather and their hands protected with pieces cut from tyres. In one hand they carried a shield and in the other a truncheon of sorts. It didn't look as though they were going to attack us, but the anger which had accumulated inside us was looking for some way of breaking out and a few fellows jumped them. One of the Haganah men quickly stopped the attack and had the prisoners taken to a closed cell and put under guard. In the meantime, the British soldiers who had fallen into the sea from the ladders had been retrieved and the ship again moved off..
Although we had managed to repel the British attack and had even taken some prisoners, our feeling at the end of the second round was not as good as it had been earlier. Our attackers had tired us out and we were getting weaker. The number of our wounded was growing and there were some among our number who weren't able to hang on and had left the deck. I had completely forgotten that on board the ship were thousands of people and among them Sarah. I had the impression that we had been rammed just where all the bunks were. No one of us knew the extent of the damage, or if we had any injured in the ship. I went up to the bridge-house where the Haganah men and the crew were, in order to hear something about the situation. On the way, I saw a man whom I had seen earlier wandering around the deck, filming the battle. Now, dressed as a priest, he was urging some of our youngsters to leave the deck but they were refusing. I got to the bridge and at that moment a destroyer approached us and a new attack began. Apparently it was now the turn of this ship to have a go. A large quantity of bombs fell on the deck and for the first time a stream of machine-gun fire passed over my head. A fire broke out on the roof of the bridge. My cautious instinct, which had developed during the war, made me jump for cover, but at the same moment I was attacked by shame - what was I doing? Hiding? I got up and ran forward. The British again tried to transfer boarders and we were fighting them with sticks and bare fists. Face-to-face and hand-to-hand fights were taking place the whole length of the deck. The bridge fell to the British. One of the members of our kibbutz, running like a mad-man, a large plank in his hand, was hitting soldiers right and left, screaming like an injured animal..
Two soldiers ran and jumped into a life-boat, suspended from its davits. We ran after them and cut the tackles. The boat overturned and the men jumped into the sea. From time to time I heard the sound of shooting but paid no attention to it. The battle which was much longer and extensive than the two previous ones, ended. The British ship moved off and again darkness covered everything. The results of the battle were bad. A young fellow of about fifteen and a crew member - the tall American with the thick beard, who used to keep us company in the evenings, had been shot and killed. And we had injured people in all states of seriousness - bullet wounds, bomb-bursts, their heads flowing with blood, broken arms and legs. They said that the youngster had drawn a knife and stabbed a soldier, getting shot at the same instant by a sniper on the British ship..
The situation was bad. We had been fighting some hours, now, and we were still far from the shores of Palestine. Even though there was still no thought of surrender, we were doubtful of our ability to withstand another attack. There was just one hope - perhaps the British were also tired and wouldn't attack so soon - except that it was more reasonable to suppose that they knew they had to control us quickly, or we'd reach the coast. And so it happened - again we were assaulted by a destroyer and this time our people were so exhausted didn't even have any 'ammunition' left to throw, or even energy to shout abuse..
Then came the order to stop fighting, and not to resist the British any further. 'Haganah Ship - Exodus 5707' surrendered to the Royal Navy..
Silence fell in one swoop. British soldiers began to climb aboard with no resistance..
I looked at the soldiers. I hated them with a boundless hatred. When I saw Uzzi, who appeared to be on the point of collapse, I asked him if it was all over and weren't we going to do anything. He replied:.
“No, no, we can't do any more than we've done. We've got too many wounded, the ships taking in water and listing badly. We can't endanger the lives of the passengers any further. They've won, the bastards!”.
Dawn appeared on the horizon. The British ships put all their lights on and could now be seen clearly. The faces of our own people showed clearly what had been happening during the night. Suddenly I felt cold. I sat down curled up, shaking all over, dozing and rousing by turns, until the sun rose. The deck filled with people. Young British soldiers appeared, many of them with heads and hands bandaged. I looked at their faces and no longer felt the hatred that had attacked me earlier. One soldier stood surrounded by children distributing sweets to them. British medical teams were attending to our wounded. I remembered the Germans, in the ghetto and in Sobibor and thought to myself - the British are different - their behaviour, their responses, both during and after the battle was measured and correct. When I recalled the experiences of the night, I laughed to myself. The battle we had fought was more bloody than a film I seen about pirates in the cinema And yet I saw myself as lucky to have taken part in this struggle. I didn't know what would happen to us but I supposed we'd be taken to Cyprus. If so, there wasn't much to worry about. What bothered was the knowledge that we had been beaten. The fight wasn't even. We'd had no real chance of winning against the British. Nevertheless, the feeling of being beaten, prisoners in the hands of the enemy, was awful..
The ships of the British fleet which had escorted us all the time now sailed much closer to us and we could see what was happening on their decks. From the shores of Palestine, motor-boats arrived and officers from them came on board our ship. On the horizon, we could see mountain peaks rearing up, as if from the sea itself. Suddenly we noticed that the British were running around nervously. What happened was, that when the British had taken over the ship and the bridge, a British seaman had been put in charge of the helm and began steering the ship towards Haifa. The ship, however, continued on its way towards the coast at Tel-Aviv. Only then did the British realise that the wheel was useless and de-activated and all the time, one of our own men was continuing to steer the ship from a hidden, emergency wheel towards Tel-Aviv. A panic-stricken search was made and the second wheel was found. So ended the last attempt of the Haganah to get the ship beached at Tel-Aviv..
The British officers wandered among us studying our faces, here and there asking for identity papers in their search for Haganah men, but they knew how to take care of themselves and had simply 'disappeared' as if the sea had swallowed them up. The mountains before us got closer and closer, bigger and clearer, until it was possible to distinguish houses and see smoke rising up to the sky and a car climbing the mountainside. With yearning and disappointed eyes and an aching heart, we looked at the shore that looked like a heaven on earth. This is the country that we so much want to get to, the country that for thousands of years we have prayed, three times a day to return to. And now, here we are, so close to it - and yet through its gates we will not enter. Above our heads a flock of sea-gulls, which had come out from the shore to greet us, wheeled and danced. The destroyers had disappeared and in their place some small guard boats. The ship entered Haifa Port. We were so close to the land that it seemed to me as if we were entering into the streets themselves and any moment now I would be able to touch one of the houses. Everyone standing around me was wiping the tears from his face. I felt that my throat, too, was choking me with unshed tears..
The ship tied up at the jetty on which a company of soldiers, row upon row, wearing red berets, was drawn up as if for inspection. Armoured vehicles, with mounted machine-guns and military ambulances stood by in a long file and a large group of officers was there looking at us. The transfer of four-thousand five-hundred refugees from the 'Exodus 5707' to the three British transport ships, 'Runnymede Park', 'Ocean Vigour' and 'Empire Rival' was conducted quickly and efficiently. First the sick and seriously injured were taken off, the large number surprising me. Next all the rest of us disembarked..
We walked between two rows of soldiers. What a fool I was to think that the world would greet all the survivors with joy, sympathy and open arms! I took a last backward glance at our injured ship. Through the great tear, yawning in its side from the ramming of the destroyer, the remains of the destroyed bunks could be seen. Above was a large sign, in Hebrew 'Exodus from Europe 5707' and underneath in English 'Exodus - 1947'. An overwhelming feeling of affection for that ship flooded me..
We were led to an awning where some men, dressed in yellow overalls and wearing masks on their faces were waiting for us. We were instructed to open our shirts and trousers. Using a hand-pump, as if spraying against mosquitoes, we were sprayed with DDT. The strong smell caused us to break into fits of sneezing and the grey colour which our hair turned from the spray, made exchange smiles, but I felt badly humiliated. From the awning, we were taken to a large transport ship, which was surrounded by barbed wire and taken below decks to a large hold, which, even though it was full of people, the British were still cramming more of us inside. It was hot and stifling. Sarah's mother fainted and the British allowed Sarah and her brother Yitzhak, to remain on deck with her. Everyone found some means of sitting on the deck. We were convinced, that we had only a short journey and that in a few hours we'd be getting off at one of the ports in Cyprus..
When we were captured by the British fleet and felt so defeated, we never knew that we had achieved one of the major targets of the Zionist Movement - 'Exodus 5707' (later, after Leon Uris wrote his world-renowned best-seller, 'Exodus', the original Hebrew name was forgotten) - public opinion, in all the civilized countries of the world was shocked to the depths. That same day, the whole Jewish community in Palestine declared a general strike and Jews demonstrated in different places throughout the world. Foreign journalists flocked to Haifa and even though the authorities wouldn't allow them to get close to us, they photographed the damaged ship, the disembarkation of the refugees, the injured, the transfer of the refugees to the transport ships, the faces of the men and women which the British army had overpowered in the night-long, violent struggle. The story of the events was told to them by our Haganah men who had directed our fight and who, on reaching Haifa, had managed to 'disappear' mysteriously from the ship and were now somewhere on shore. Radio stations and newspapers throughout the world brought descriptions and pictures of the events surrounding 'Exodus 5707', relating how thousands of men, women and children, survivors of the Holocaust, fought a desperate battle against the British fleet in their attempts to reach Palestine. The naval victory of the British was, for them, a major diplomatic disaster and a political failure of enormous proportions..
When we were transferred to the transport ships, we thought that within a few hours our journey would end in Cyprus where we would be imprisoned in one of the arrest-camps, like all those who had gone before us. Not one of us imagined for a moment that we were facing yet another sequence of events that had quite a long time to run before reaching its conclusion..
The heat and crush stretched our nerves. People argued over a piece of deck space on which to sit until, through pushing and shoving, like sheep in a pen, they somehow had found a place to sit. Yisrael and I found a place in one of the corners, next to a bulkhead but because the sun outside had heated it so much we couldn't lean against it. People began to strip off layer after layer of clothing. An unpleasant odour began to spread throughout the hold. We were all involved so much in our immediate position that we didn't notice that the ship had begun moving away from the quay and the harbour. I wanted to see Sarah, who was on deck. On the companionway stood a line of people waiting in line to go to the toilet, which was on deck. At the top of the companionway leading to the deck, was a closed hatch at which was stationed a soldier on guard, letting people out two at a time. The queue was long and slow-moving. There was only one hand-rail along the ladder and those who didn't grip it adequately were likely to slip all the way down. One girl had already slipped down to the great amusement of the onlookers..
On deck a cool breeze blew. The part of the ship where we were imprisoned was cut off from the rest by a partition of netting and barbed-wire. We were in a floating prison. Through the netting I could see the two other transports following along in line astern, and on either side - again destroyers. I exchanged a few words with Sarah and returned to the hold. We sailed for hours and according to the calculated guesswork of many, should have reached Cyprus. Were we being taken somewhere else? Doubts and fears began to creep into people's hearts. If not Cyprus, then where? People began arguing; there were those who claimed that, according to the position of the sun, we were not sailing in the direction of Cyprus, while others claimed exactly the opposite. In the meantime the sun began to set on the debates and on the horizon, with no shore line in sight! The British brought us buckets of tasteless soup and stone hard toast which gave off a mildewed smell. When we asked where we were being take we were answered with unknowing shrugs of the shoulders. What a turn-around for us during the space of one day! Yesterday, at this time, we were on board our own ship, full of confidence in our own strength, prepared and ready to fight the British, believing that we'd end up on the shores of Palestine. Now, we were imprisoned on a British ship, without sufficient space for everyone to lie down, without even the minimum of privacy, men and women forced to lie down, it at all, crushed one against the other, being transported to who-knows-where..
Eventually, fatigue overcame me and I fell asleep. In the night I awoke suddenly and a strange shout escaped from my mouth. My heart was pounding and a cold sweat covered my body. People sleeping around me awoke, looked at me and went back to sleep. For a moment, I didn't know where I was. I wanted to sit up but couldn't because something was lying across my body - the girl who was sleeping opposite me had her leg draped across me. I gently removed it , trying not to disturb her. Two British soldiers came at a run, opened the hatchway, shone their torches round the hold in an inspection and then took themselves off again. For a long time I hadn't dreamt about the Germans and now, here I was again, in Sobibor. And again, like in the previous dreams, I was amazed, within the dream itself, how I came to be again in that place, knowing that I had escaped from there. I am standing next to Compound Three, near the gas-chambers. I see Oberscharf?hrer Bollender and Oberscharf?hrer Getzinger standing in the doorway. They are both looking at me and the thought crosses my mind that this time I'm really finished. They won't let me return to Compound Two from here. I am angry with myself. I can't understand how I let them catch me. I know that I have to run but my legs are paralysed. I can't lift them. Getzinger climbs up on the hoist that lifts the bodies from the pits and drops them on the funeral pyres. From the end of its arm the chains drop down to the open jaws of the grab. I try as hard as I can to move from the spot because the grab was coming right down onto me from above, while Bollender, his face covered with smiles, directs Getzinger in lowering the grab until it is level with my hips, when he tells him to stop. Now the two jaws begin to close together and I feel them start to crush my body between them. I want to shout but can't get a sound out of my mouth. With some kind of tremendous effort I manage to let out one shout - and I woke up..
I was afraid to fall asleep, afraid to return to Sobibor. In the faint light, coming through the port-holes and illuminating part of the hold, I sat and gazed in wonderment at the scene around me; the appalling picture of hundreds of people lying everywhichway, higgledy-piggledy, crammed together, in strange contorted positions, awoke within me the most awful feeling, a nightmare quality which was in keeping, somehow, with my dream. It seemed to me as if I were sitting among a mass of corpses. With an effort, I pushed the terrible thought away from me and remembered at that moment, a film I had once seen about a slave ship. We all looked like slaves. I looked round me again. People were sleeping crammed together, in all sorts of peculiar and strange attitudes. It all began to seem so funny that it was with difficulty that I stopped myself laughing..
Again I woke up. Again on the high seas, but not sea and sky before my eyes, only iron bulkheads. The queue for the toilets was long, stretching all the way down the companionway and then some. Anger increased. Judging by all the signs the ship was undertaking an extended voyage - the British warders distributed eating utensils and blankets, a group of officers visited the hold and gave orders to remove from the hold all personal belongings and kit-bags in order to make more space available for people..
A man I remembered from the deck of the 'Exodus - 1947' came into our hold. It was Mordechai Roseman, a leader in 'The Young Guard' movement in Germany, who was imprisoned in the next hold. He stood on the companionway and delivered a fiery speech: “We were not beaten,” he said, “In spite of the fact that we were forced to surrender, in spite of the fact that we are here, where we are, in the hands of the British, being transported like slaves, our struggle has not yet ended and we will continue it until we are victorious!”.
We were all in need of a few cheering words, and Mordechai Roseman did well to supply them. His words were interrupted several times by intermittent stormy clapping. On deck, the British gathered and listened to the speech and when it ended we all stood up and sang 'Hatikvah'. In his speech, Mordechai Roseman attacked the British for imprisoning us in closed holds, in a floating prison, under humiliating conditions, without even allowing us the possibility of fresh air on deck, a deck which in any case is surrounded by a fence and barbed-wire - and all on the high seas, with nowhere to escape to. “We will not accept it!” He declared decisively..
The hint was well understood. Again we were ready to fight. Within a few minutes of his speech a large group of youngsters congregated on the companionway ladder and as soon as the soldier opened the hatch, burst their way out onto the deck and wouldn't allow the hatch to be closed. The deck filled with young people, who led the soldier, helpless, as far as the opening in the barbed-wire fence surrounding us. At the same time, the people from the other hold, broke out onto the deck. A siren was heard. Soldiers with steel helmets on their heads and truncheons and shields in their hands and arranged themselves on the other side of the fence and it looked as though any minute a battle was going to break out between us. Even though our hands were empty and we were prisoners on a British ship, we were filled with the knowledge that we had no choice, that we had to fight our jailers, whatever the results..
An officer approached the gate in the fence and asked to speak to our representatives. After a short debate among ourselves Mordechai, together with a fellow who had been active in the partisans and another soldier. The officer took them to the captain. Along the fence stood serious-faced soldiers, waiting for the order to charge us, while we waited, facing them like a wall. A couple of our chaps began baiting the soldiers but they were restrained and silent. After a few minutes the tension eased between the two sides and they even began talking with each other..
The captain told our representatives that what we had done amounted, legally to mutiny on the high seas and he had the right to punish us accordingly; we were obliged to obey the laws of the ship, if not he would use force to ensure law and order..
Mordechai answered him by telling him that we had no wish to enter into direct physical conflict with the military presence on the ship, but we were not going to be treated as slaves. It was not acceptable that people should not have reasonable facilities for their natural needs, fit for cultured, human beings, and that people who felt unwell below decks because of the lack of ventilation and extreme heat should be allowed on deck. If the captain wanted us all to 'live in peace' during the voyage, he would do well to leave the holds open to the air..
The captain discussed the matter with the squadron commander and later announced that it been decided to leave the holds open..
During the conversation, Mordechai had attempted to elicit from the captain some information regarding our destination but the captain claimed that he couldn't supply us with an answer to that. Mordechai stated that if an answer was not forthcoming during the day we would begin a hunger-strike..
The surrender of the British over the question of opening the hatches, raised our spirits. We could go out into the fresh air and also make contact with people in the other hold. But I couldn't rid myself of the troubling night-images. The sight of Sobibor - the opening to the gas-chambers, Bollender and Getzinger, the grab coming down on top of me - kept coming back and appearing before my eyes as if I were, at one and the same time, both in the camp and on the ship..
With amazing speed we became adjusted to the special conditions on the transport ship. Everyone among the hundreds, who was in the large hold, made himself as comfortable as was possible in the minimum space at his disposal. The heat forced everyone to strip off layer, by layer, garment after garment until most of the men were only dressed in their trousers or even underpants. The women were also forced to strip somewhat, many of them ending up in brassières and short trousers, or improvised swimming costume. Modesty disappeared in a moment and it's possible that if one had taken the initiative to strip naked, others would surely have followed..
After the stormy emotional days that we had just passed through a certain relaxed air came upon us and we became somewhat resigned to our fate for the time being. Towards evening we all congregated together and Mordechai announced that he had not received any reply to our demand to know where we were being taken. His proposal, that we should commence a hunger-strike and maintain it until we are informed of our destination, was accepted unanimously. We got to our feet and sang 'Hatikvah'..
That evening, Yisrael managed to borrow a chess-board from somewhere. Everyone went to sleep; the deck was completely empty. The two of us sat alone and played chess until the early hours of the morning. The soldiers on guard duty, offered us cigarettes during the night and we exchanged a few friendly words with each other. From time to time, when I peered around me in the darkness, I could see the lights of the other two transport ships, all of us accompanied by the destroyers..
We were sailing westwards, but to where?.
The following morning, when the British called to us to come and get our breakfast, nobody moved. After a while, they themselves brought the buckets of coffee, the toast and the jam into the hold but as soon as they went out, we picked the lot up and carried it back to the opening in the fence. The same performance was carried out a second time at the lunch hour. Although during the morning hours, there were already a few among us who opposed the strike and the number increased as the hours went by. There were those who were disturbed by the children having to go hungry, as well as the pregnant women and sick. Some said that, in any case, we were not going to be able to hold out indefinitely. Towards evening, Mordechai was invited to meet the captain who informed him that we were being returned to the place from whence we had come - France..
The information was received with mixed feelings. There was great disappointment and frustration at the unsuccessful attempt to fulfill our hopes of immigrating to Palestine and also that we were not being taken to Cyprus, which was close to Palestine and afforded some hope that that, because of its nearness, we would immigrate in the not-too-distant future. The frustration was deepened because the total failure of our attempt to immigrate was being emphasized by our being returned to our starting point. At the same time, the fact that we knew where we were going, broke the extreme tension we had felt and put an end to all the rumours and guesses which had multiplied among us, especially the frightening ones that we were being exiled to some deserted place in Africa or Asia..
Almost spontaneously, a sort of secretariat came into being amongst us, at whose head was Mordechai Roseman and with him, the group heads and movement leaders. There was also a Haganah member among us, Micah, who had hidden his identity and tried to remain inconspicuous, but was active the whole time behind the scenes..
I had lost track of the accurate passage of the days since we had embarked on 'Exodus 1947'. I didn't know the actual date or which day in the week it was but it was the fourth day of our voyage on board the British transport 'Runnymede Park'. If, indeed, we are sailing to France, we should be there in a matter of two days..
Friday came. From early morning the ship displayed increased activity. The members of the Secretariat held a meeting in the other hold of the ship. In one corner of the hold a choir was practising for the Friday evening service which the Secretariat had decided would take place. When evening arrived we all met together, both holds, crowded into ours..
It was hot and stifling. People were sitting crammed together like sardines, half-naked. Mordechai Roseman invited the captain who attended, together with some of his senior officers, all attired in dress-whites. The accordionist stood at the top of the companionway ladder and opened the programme with Sabbath hymns. The whole congregation joined in the singing which warmed the heart and shook the ship. Suddenly, the accordionist slipped, lost his balance and fell all the way down the ladder. Tumbles of that nature had occurred occasionally, and had always evoked a natural laugh, even though sometimes the victim injured himself in the fall. This time no one laughed. There was complete silence. Everyone looked at the accordionist who stood up quickly, climbed back up the ladder and continued to play to the wild cheers of the audience..
After the community singing, Mordechai Roseman stood up and made a moving speech. He opened by surveying the history of the Jewish people throughout the generations and passed to the period just before the Second World War, commenting that only a small part of the Jewish people had joined the Zionist Movement, which had voted on the dissolution of the Jewish communities in exile as a solution to the problem of the Jewish People's problems. He then spoke of the Holocaust, on the position of the Governments of the world community in the face of the destruction of the Jewish people, and here, now, two years after the end of that war, we, the survivors, caged in a British prison ship on the high seas only because of the great crime of wanting to live in the land of our fathers and build our lives there, in Palestine, the country lying desolate, waiting for our coming these hundreds of years. The speech attacked the British because, out of their interest in oil, they were reneging on their promise to allow the Jews to create their National Home in Palestine and to end his speech, referring to our captors' intention to disembark us in France, he warned the British Government, that if she thought that we would go ashore of our own free will, she was gravely mistaken. we would fight. The British will have to remove us from the ships, one by one - and by force..
We sat as if hypnotized. We absorbed every word that came out of the mouth of the speaker and here and there could be seen people surreptitiously wiping a tear from their eyes. The soldiers, too, who had gathered on deck above our heads, listened with great attention, although they couldn't understand a word of the Yiddish. The audience clapped enthusiastically..
Then began the various entertainment pieces that had been prepared. A children's choir from an orphanage sang a few songs in Hebrew. A girl recited a story of I. L Peretz and then Lola Folman, a woman of about thirty, slightly plump, dressed in short trousers fashioned, apparently, from an old floral dress and an open, sleeveless shirt - the finest of feminine fashion on the ship - climbed to the top of the companionway ladder. It was hard to guess, from her appearance, why she had gone up there, but when she opened her mouth and began to sing in a lovely clear strong voice, folk-songs from a world no longer extant, a shudder ran through the audience..
The wonderful evening, in the bowels of the ship 'Runnymede Park', somewhere on the high seas in the middle of the Mediterranean, came to a close with the singing of 'Hatikvah'..
Living conditions on the ship were difficult and there were those among us who claimed they were the most difficult they had ever known. For me, like for all those who had passed through the German hell, it was a bit of a pleasant adventure, dotted with difficult moments, that I was glad to be taking part in. There was no comparison whatsoever between the Germans and the British - and that, in spite of the fact that I hated them for closing the gates of Palestine before us. I could not but admit that from the moment that I saw and knew my first German, he had come to symbolize Death in my eyes, while at the same time, never, for one moment, throughout the entire episode of 'Exodus 1947' did I ever feel under threat of being killed by the British. Because of that I couldn't tolerate some of our people who compared the British soldiers to the Nazis. During the voyage, we even made friends with some of them, and played various games to pass the time..
The days crawled along. For hours on end I played card-games that I had learned on the ship, and in the evenings Sarah and I would sit together on the deck, telling each other more about ourselves and weaving dreams about the rosy future that was awaiting us..
Every morning, I would go on deck and look through the netting enclosing us, towards the other two transport ships, sailing, with us, in line astern, accompanied by the destroyers. In vain I searched the horizon for a strip in the haze that would indicate land; all round, just sea and more sea. Thus passed a whole week and again it time for a Sabbath eve party, especially another inspiring and heartwarming speech by Mordechai Roseman, followed by another performance of our amateur artists. But, even so, sadness reigned. What will be the end of us? According to our calculations we should have arrived at the coast of France long ago but the voyage went on and on without end, until it seemed as if it had been decreed that we should continue sailing the high seas till the end of time......
One morning, the ship stopped moving. We rushed on deck. Dawn had barely begun to break but through the early morning mist we could see lights twinkling. Land! The sun rose and swallowed the light mist and there, only a few hundred metres away was a small port, Port de Bouc. Small motor-boats passed by not far from us. Do their crews know who we are? Does anyone know that we've arrived at this place. If they would get just a little closer, within hailing range, we would call out to them that “....we are the people off the 'Exodus', tell everyone that we're here!” Suddenly, one of the boats came close up to us and an elderly man in a hat, called out to us through a hand held microphone: “Don't get off the ship! Nicht arrupgehen! We are with you. The whole world is with you! Hang on and be strong!”.
Later, we learned that the man was Mosheh Sneh (Later a member of the Israeli Parliament - The Knesset)..
The people on the small boat waved their hands to us as a sign that they identified with us and moved off to the other two ships. A British motor boat, with soldiers on board eventually appeared and drove it off. But there had been no need for the warning to us not to disembark. We had long been firm in our decision not to do so but the immediate contact with our people from 'outside', the knowledge that we had clearly not been left to our fate, was very heartening and strengthened us considerably. Spiritually and psychologically we were prepared for any opportunity which presented itself, to exploit the situation to our advantage. One of the worst things during the whole of the war was that not only did we not receive the slightest help from any outside source, but that not a voice was raised anywhere to offer us the slightest encouragement, either. No one came to say: “We're with you! Hang on! Be strong!” The isolation, the feeling of being 'unclaimed' and 'ownerless', as it were, the feeling that no one was standing beside us, or with us, or even behind us, was soul-destroying. I remember hearing during the first days of the war, people saying, “The world won't allow Hitler to do whatever he wants!” Later on, as well, there was a general felling that the world would react to the Germans' behaviour, and in the Warsaw ghetto, when hundreds of people were dying every day from hunger and disease, when the situation was getting worse from day to day, we still expected to hear a few words from 'the world' -”Where is the big world?” they asked. “Where is world Jewry?” I am sure, that if they had only smuggled into us from there - from 'the world' - a simple piece of paper with a few words of encouragement and identification with our plight, it would have it would have given many the will and strength to fight on and survive; it would have saved many and prevented many more, from just walking passively to their deaths accepting the concept that there was no point in resisting..
No word came then. not from anywhere. Right up to the present day, I am unable to understand that. And here, now, it was enough that one small boat, with a few people waving their hands in a sign of togetherness with our distress, who said only:” We're with you!”, to instil into our hearts new strength and courage..
Mordechai Roseman called us all together for a short briefing. “As we have seen,” he said, “our institutions have not abandoned us. We must be patient and operate only according to instructions.”.
Towards noon, a supply ship, loaded with fresh white bread, fruit, vegetables, cheeses and chocolate, cigarettes and other things, closed with us and began transferring them onto the deck of our ship. The aroma of it all spread throughout the ship. The British examined every crate, every sack every basket, searching for what they considered to be forbidden articles. They confiscated every newspaper - every scrap of paper. The ship quickly became one vast gorging area. We had not eaten satisfyingly fresh food for such a long time, especially bread. We sat down wherever we were and consumed vast quantities of food. I had the impression, to my great satisfaction, that the British soldiers were jealous of us and when I offered a piece of chocolate to one of them, he dithered quite a bit until he stretched out his hand and took it, thanking me in rather an embarrassed fashion. That evening we had a loud sing-song, hoping to be heard as far as the harbour. In spite of the precautions taken by the British, a constant stream of information was getting through to us from 'outside' and contact was made between our secretariat, on the ship and the immigration 'authority' on shore. We now knew, that from the moment that we had left Haifa, the 'Exodus Affair' had not left the headlines of the world press; world public opinion supported us unreservedly and criticized Great Britain with unheard-of severity; the British Government demanded from the French Government to receive the 'Exodus' back onto French territory but the French refused and it was because of this that our ships had been kept at sea for so long, sailing here and there. The British pressure on the French continued and in the meantime the little Port de Bouc, which overnight became world famous, drew to itself swarms of writers. Jews from every country of Europe came to see us and to demonstrate solidarity with us. Extremely heavy pressure was exerted on the British to allow newspapermen to visit us on the ships and examine the conditions in them..
The information from 'outside' was cheering indeed and strengthened our faith in the justness of our cause. It was a wonderful feeling to know that public opinion throughout the world, crossing virtually all boundaries and borders, was supportive of us. Articles describing us as heroes were, in my opinion, exaggerated, as were those which described our appalling suffering. In the face of these articles we began to call each other 'hero' as a joke, to our own great amusement. It is also possible that I was exaggerating too much in the other direction as well, with my reservations, after all, my own yard-sticks of measuring suffering, may have been totally different to most of the others; the suffering endured by the people on 'Exodus 1947' was certainly bad enough and perhaps was even worse than as depicted in the press. In any event, every piece of newspaper on which was written a single word concerning us, became the most highly prized commodity in the ship. In the meantime - what an upside-down world: while the British were trying to get us off the ship, shore activities were doing everything to supply us with the wherewithal to remain where we were for a protracted stay. They were sending, in addition to good, fresh food, we received Study books for the children, writing materials, reading books and games..
After being at anchor for some time in Port de Bouc, we were told that the following day an official delegation from the French Government would be coming to visit us and many newsmen would be trying to join them. Someone came with an idea to surprise the visitors. Early in the morning, we cleared a corner of the hold and spread out four blankets, stitching them into one large sheet. Using red and white toothpaste from our supplies and donated by the users, we fashioned a large swastika united with the British Union Jack. The result was impressive both in its appearance and its significance. When the work was completed we carefully rolled it up and hid it until the appropriate moment..
Around noon, a flotilla of boats was seen approaching us from the shore. Tension spread like wild-fire. “They're coming! They're coming!” were the shouts from every side. The 'flag' was quickly brought from its hiding place and spread along the netting enclosing our prison and tied firmly and securely to prevent it blowing away in the wind. On the deck all our younger people gathered, ready to fight the British if they made a move to remove it. But the British were far too worried about the visit. We could see very clearly how the visitors' attention was drawn to, and focused on the caricatured British-Nazi alliance. Tens of photographers pointed their cameras at it. The operation had succeeded!.
The captain and a guard of honour stood at the entry port to receive the guests - a long line of well-dressed civilians and a few military personnel. After them came a small group of journalists who had received permission to come aboard; all the rest remained in the small boats moving hither and thither around the ship. After a short stay in the captain's cabin, the retinue came into our enclosure and stopped at the entrance to the hold. The guests, sweating in their suits, looked at us, embarrassed. The captain informed us that there was a delegation of representatives of the Government of France, on deck and they had brought with them a declaration from their Government. One of the members of the delegation read the declaration to us, from the document and it was translated word by word into Yiddish. The declaration was long and contained many articles. In principle, the French Government, aware of the suffering we had endured, had decided to make a humanitarian gesture and offer to any refugee in the ship, who decided to disembark of his own free will, immediate and full rights as a French National. A British officer, who spoke after the Frenchman, expressed the hope that we would exploit the generous offer of the French Government and leave the ship; the crew of the ship will give every and any assistance required, to those wishing to leave..
Up until now, everything had run smoothly and formally, without any friction. It is quite possible, that both the British and the French supposed that within a short time, a long line would form and people would begin to file down the gangway and off the ship. At that moment, Mordechai Roseman claimed the floor for himself. He thanked the French Government sincerely, for its generous offer to receive us as citizens, “but,” he explained, “we are forced to reject the offer, because there is just one place in the world where we want to live, and that is our Homeland - The Land of Israel - there, and only there, will we disembark of our own free will. There and at no other place.”.
A round of applause and loud shouts of agreement which shook the ship, greeted this speech. All the tension that had been bottled up inside us, broke out in one go. There was no doubt - the guests were surprised by the force of our reaction..
And Mordechai continued:.
“Everyone has the right to decide for himself. If someone wants to get off here he can do so - right now. No one will interfere with him in the slightest degree.”.
Mordechai stopped speaking as if waiting for someone to take up the offer and move out of the ranks. Not a movement; not a soul stirred. Then he continued:.
“I am telling you - not a man is leaving this ship!”.
Again wild cheering and clapping and Mordechai closed with a heartfelt cry to the British to take us to Haifa and let us off the ship there..
The guests were supposed to leave at the end of Mordechai Roseman's speech, but we started singing 'Hatikvah' and both they and the British remained in their places at attention. The faces of the French delegation reflected sympathy and support. The British were seething, but remained standing to attention until we had finished. We were filled with the conviction that we had won decisively this round. And indeed, the following day, the papers reported that in spite of the difficult conditions on board and the extreme suffering through which they had passed, the refugees on the 'Exodus' displayed steadfastness in their stand against the tempting offer of the French and refused to leave the ship..
We had won! But what next? How much longer would we be in this damned ship? The British were certain that the day would come when we would break. They waited by the gangway and the gate to our enclosure, for those whom they were sure would come to ask to disembark, in order to protect them from anyone who might try to convince them otherwise. No one came to them. Moreover, we ridiculed them and laughed at them. In the end, they lost their patience and began threatening us saying if we didn't get off here of our own free will, they would take us off by force in Germany. We found it difficult to take that threat seriously, but in any case, stayed where we were and remained adamant. Only two pregnant women, very close to term, and two single men, left the ship..
In the morning, the three ships hoisted anchors and parting sirens hooting, left Port de Bouc for the open sea. This time we were leaving on a longer journey, under difficult conditions, to a known destination, one that made our hair curl - Germany. In a short while we entered Marseilles to take on stores. All the ships and small boats in the harbour welcomed us with sirens. Sailors manned their decks, men came out of their workshops and warehouses and ran to see us. Every place we passed was crowded with people, welcoming us with waving hands and blowing us kisses..
And again to sea. The land quickly disappeared astern. The sea-gulls which had accompanied us returned to their station closer in-shore and their place was taken by our earlier escort, the destroyers which sprang up from somewhere. Our high spirits dropped like the temperature at sunset. It was Friday. In the evening we were due to have our traditional Friday evening party, the freshness of which had worn off a bit and we were a little tired of it - but it was better than nothing. One thing we were not fed up with was Mordechai's speeches, whose words came from the heart and penetrated deep into ours. We needed them like we needed air to breathe. We always knew that thanks to them our spirits were usually lifted. But this time he didn't have very good news for us. Nevertheless, a lot of thought had been given to it. It clarified, in no uncertain terms, the importance of the stand we had taken and likened our contribution to the Jewish State as being no less than that of the 'front line' fighters in the Haganah and Palmach; everyone fighting on the front to which he had been posted..
We drank his words thirstily, but our spirits were still low. We could see no way out of the blind alley, in which we found ourselves. But at the end of the evening, to close the artists performances a moving surprise awaited us. Lola Folman sang a new song, 'Exodus', which excited all of us and was cheered to the echo. The words were written by her husband Yitzhak Perlov. Perhaps she composed the melody, but whether or not, we didn't let her go until she had sung it again and again and again, until we all knew it and sang it together with her. At last we regained our high spirits and good mood. The sadness had departed..
Now, on the high sea, the days of fresh French bread rolls, vegetables, fruit and cigarettes, all had gone as if they had never been. The days of the tasteless, dry British rusks returned, the eternal tea and jam. Boredom was endemic. I had long since grown tired of the interminable card games and not always did I want to play chess. The founts of Sarah's and my stories had dried up completely. We sat looking each other in the eyes saying nothing. Even the hundreds of pairs of eyes gazing at us failed to encourage a conversation. The only thing that would have helped was a book from among those that we had received at Port de Bouc..
The weather worsened. Strong winds swept the deck like a powerful broom and the waves got higher, striking the sides of the ship, while we were carried up and down, up and down. Many people again began to be sea-sick and vomit uncontrollably and painfully; most people lay on their bunks trying not to move, not eating and not drinking. In the evening it began to rain and those who had been staying and sleeping on the decks, Sarah and her family among them, now came down into the hold and Yisrael and I made room for them. The following day, we entered the Straits of Gibraltar and towards evening approached a range of picturesque, high mountains which hid the sun. There, we anchored, in the great naval base of the British fleet, which was full of all sorts of warships..
A platoon of soldiers came aboard and relieved the guard that had been with us since Haifa. They were grave-faced and uncommunicative, refusing any contact with us. They didn't respond to our approaches and stood guard like zombies. With nightfall a powerful searchlight was turned on us, guard-boats patrolled round the ship and occasionally a depth-charge was dropped which exploded with a dull thud, shaking the whole ship. No one on board managed to sleep the whole night. Outside we could hear the sound of a generator which reminded me of the first night in Sobibor and the sound of the generator in Compound Three..
In the morning, when the base awoke, a ship approached us and hove-to alongside. Some senior officers came on board and brought with them many cartons which they placed near the hatchway of our hold. While we were still trying to think of what it was all about, Mordechai was invited to the captain's cabin, who told him that the Base Commander had asked him to forward to us gifts which had been donated by several Jewish families living in the Gibraltar community - one for each refugee. In each carton were a rain coat and a packet of cigarettes..
Since we had left Port de Bouc, we had all been somewhat low spirited. Being returned to Germany was the cruellest thing that the British could possibly do to us - the very thought of treading on German soil again, humiliated by our new status in the eyes of the Germans, was painful beyond suffering. The stormy weather we had experienced on the way to Gibraltar only succeeded in adding more misery and now, here, in this great British base - the very jaws of the lion itself, in a place where we felt ourselves entirely cut off from the world - were found warm-hearted Jews, of whom not one of us even knew of their existence, demonstrating their solidarity with us. The feeling that even in a place like this, we were not alone, immediately raised our spirits and Mordechai made an emotional speech that same evening on the topic, which brought tears to many eyes..
I spent hours the next day gazing at the beautiful mountain rising up above us and imagined to myself that I could see Jewish people standing at their windows in the houses strewn across the slopes, waving their hands at us in greeting....I wanted to wave back but I was afraid that my friends on the ship would think that, at last, I'd gone crazy and was talking to the mountain..
Our own guard detail came back from leave and took over from our hard-faced temporary platoon, which then left the ship. The ship raised its anchor and we were again on our way, this time into the Atlantic ocean, the English Channel, the north sea and our final destination - Hamburg. The Atlantic was angry and mighty waves that none of us had experienced in the Mediterranean washed over the decks again and again. Most of the people were ill and I, who had thought myself to be now proof against sea-sickness, was forced to vomit several times and lay hours on end on my bunk, not moving..
Day followed day, unchanging. Around us from horizon to horizon, only sea. We managed to keep an account of the days we had spent at sea according to the number of Friday night celebrations we had in honour of the Sabbath, which we still held every week. People were lying down sick and weak. The smell of vomit hung in the air of the hold. We, the younger element among the hundreds, tried, in spite of everything, to spread a good mood around us and at the same time prove to the British that we were not going to break. As a palliative against boredom and depression, we tended to play high-spirited, childish games on deck, on more than one occasion with our guards, the soldiers, while below decks, in the hold, people were laying down groaning with their sea-sickness. Longing for the land grew until I began to imagine to myself, that in my constant gazing at the horizons, I had seen the thin strip of land, even mountains and villages, cattle in pastures, towns, where none existed. When we reached the North Sea, which was also stormy, we came across a gigantic shoal of fish, which skipped about above the water, breaking somewhat the monotonous view..
Day by day, we drew closer to Germany, to the port of Hamburg, which was under British control. There, as overlords of the place, with no interference from others, they could do with us as they wished. Mordechai Roseman instructed us how to behave at Hamburg - not to leave the ship willingly, to make it as difficult as possible for the British and to engage in passive resistance against being taken off the ship - they will take us off one by one! But not to resist the British soldiers with force, in case, we have to pay too dearly for it. “We don't want any more battles,” he said..
One morning, I woke up and when I went on deck I discovered before my eyes an unbelievable scene: our convoy was sailing along the middle of a river, in calm water - almost like glass - with green fields, towns and villages on either side. On the river, itself, close to the shores, passenger- and cargo-vessels plying to and fro. At first I thought I was dreaming but it soon became clear, that during the night we had left the stormy seas and turned into the mouth of the River Elbe and were now on our way up-stream to Hamburg. The pleasant river scene gladdened my heart and filled me with pleasure but the feeling quickly dissipated and I was left with only pain and sadness - the defeated Germans were living on their own land without interference of any kind, while we, the remainders of the Jews of Europe, had been wandering and roaming for two months now, on the high seas, full of suffering are being returned, against our will, to the land inhabited by our murderers, after our attempt to get to our own country..
We stood ready for the coming struggle, even though we didn't know what form it would take. Everyone gathered together his belongings and on every face was an expression of worry and anger. In the face of the approaching crisis, we all went down into the hold of the ship. In order to make things even more difficult, should they try to take us by force, we dismantled the companionway leading from the hold to the deck, except for one flight, which we left in place, should the old and sick need to be taken ashore. British officers came at the run in an attempt to prevent us from completing the dismantling, but were far too late and took themselves off fuming with anger. Groups of youngsters congregated at the foot of the one remaining ladder, ready to check the advance of the British when they came to take us..
The ship stopped, but we didn't know where. The British removed the tarpaulin which was partially covering the hold and could see almost everything that was going on. The waiting, doing nothing, and the expectation of what may be going to happen, tightened everyone's nerves. People lost their patience, and the slightest thing caused an outbreak of anger and a loss of control. In order to relieve somewhat the tension, we played cards, made a noise, laughed, but it would be difficult to say that we managed to raise our spirits; many just became even angrier and shouted at us: “How can it be that you're not ashamed of yourselves, sitting and playing cards, at a time like this and even laughing!”.
After an hour, or more, we heard footsteps and orders being shouted in English. A unit of Military Police was stationed above our heads. Its men took positions in front of us, placed machine guns and fed ammunition belts into the breeches. We didn't believe for one moment that the British were going to open fire on us but, nevertheless, the feeling was extremely unpleasant. Then came an announcement over the loudspeaker, telling us that we had to leave the ship in ten minutes - or we would be taken off by force. Our reply was a hearty and loud singing of 'Hatikvah', the only weapon we had to hand. Tens of times, during the voyage we had operated that 'weapon' and every time I sang it I felt the same degree of enthusiasm and emotion as I had at first..
A small group of elderly people, sick and pregnant women disembarked and again silence reigned. We, the remainder, moved away from the companionway towards the farther reaches of the hold. The British waited above for others who might want to leave of their own free will, but in vain. No one moved; no one went up on deck. Again the loudspeaker advised us to disembark willingly, this time within five minutes. We replied with cat-calls whistles and shouts..
Within a few minutes a few of soldiers came down into the hold and tried to drag people up on deck. An uproar took place. Everyone shouted. There were some who allowed the British to take them and some who struggled getting hit for their pains. Women were laid on the floor and taken out on stretchers. Time after time, the soldiers slipped on the companion ladder and fell down into the hold together with the one they were dragging. Those remaining retreated even further into the corners of the hold, joined hands, row after row and formed a solid dense block of bodies. Resistance grew. Every man and woman was struggling against the British who were trying to get hold of them and take them above. In reply, the British exerted more and more force in order to overcome the resistance but it was very difficult for them to break the solid mass that we had formed. They called a short break and moved away from us. and then, from above came a powerful jet of freezing water, directed on us from a fire-hose. And again we made use of our powerful 'weapon' - soaked to the skin, shaking and shivering with cold, we raised our voices in singing 'Hatikvah' as loud as we possibly could..
The British waited but as soon as we finished, they charged us and began hitting us with clubs and truncheons on the heads and arms. In the mêlée it was my turn. Two British soldiers got hold of me, two picked on Yisrael and we were dragged quickly up on deck, where they left us. We stood there for a moment, free, between two rows of officers and men. I said to Yisrael, “Come on, let's go back down to the hold!” and in stead of marching passively, between the rows to the quay, we turned on our heels and ran as fast as we could, back the way we'd been brought. Soldiers started after us and tried to catch us. The crowd remaining in the hold shouted at us in encouragement. We struggled forcefully with the soldiers getting some wallops in return for our pains. Four soldiers grabbed hold of my arms and legs and carried me on deck, hitting me with their truncheons as we went. Behind me, I heard Yisrael cursing them healthily in Polish: “You Godamned sons-of-bitches, stop hitting me!” And in spite of myself and my position, I just couldn't stop myself from laughing. What good was it for Yisrael to curse them in Polish, they couldn't understand a single, solitary word?.
This time, they didn't allow us to go down onto the quay-side by ourselves: they were taking no chances, they took us all the way down and there they put us in a military ambulance standing alongside. The ambulance was full. There were a few of our leaders among the people including Mordechai Roseman, and also Yisrael, Ya'acov and myself and other members of our kibbutz who had resisted too much. We were kept there for an hour, waiting for others to be dragged out and from time to time thrown in with us. All the others from the ship were loaded onto railway carriages, guarded by soldiers, while the ambulance transported us to one of the buildings of the port, where we were taken into a room where all the walls were made of glass. In the centre was a large table with benches round it. We were about twenty people. Armed soldiers guarded us from outside. We sat round the table looking at each other. Our faces all reflected bitter disappointment. The long struggle, already measured in months, had ended in failure. All the suffering and effort had been in vain. We had returned to the same country from which we had started our journey, and now we were also separated from our colleagues with no idea of what awaited us..
A group of officers came in and asked who is Mordechai Roseman. No one answered. The British went from man to man, looking at each one of us from head to foot and left the room. Mordechai Roseman had previously changed his appearance - exchanged some of his clothes with others, shaved his moustache off and altered his hair-style. Within a few minutes, the officers returned, stood us all in a row and one of them said that they knew Mordechai Roseman was in the room. Again we were examined visually, again we were asked our names, again no one answered. and again our captors left the room, disappointed. When they entered the third time, they ordered us to take down our trousers. They immediately approached Mordechai Roseman and told him to accompany him. Mordechai had been injured above the knee and the ship's medic had treated him. It was through this injury that he was immediately identified. We tried to prevent them from taking him, or at least to take us all together but the soldiers stood between us and separated him from us. Our mood worsened. We felt helpless. Having got so used to his confident behaviour and turning to him whenever we needed help, we felt as if we had been orphaned. Nevertheless, we decided unanimously, to go on an immediate hunger strike until he was reunited with us, and when they brought us food, we refused it..
The atmosphere was tense. We sat at the table without talking, as if we'd declared a strike on talking, as well. The British were also tense. Every movement of ours caused them to jump in reaction and point their rifles at us. Time after time, officers came in and looked at us over the glass walls surrounding us. Time dragged by. The heavy mood got to me, as well. More than once, when I found myself in a deep depression like this, one that I had never believed I would experience after the war was over, I would wonder to myself if it wouldn't have been better for the four of us, Jurziek, Mannik, Semen and myself, to have remained forever in the forest. Then Mannik would not have been killed, Semen would not have been sent to serve in a 'Punishment Brigade' and I wouldn't have become a British arrest-prisoner..... and, perhaps, it would have been better to have committed suicide after the war with a smile on my face for, having, it is true, beaten the Germans, hadn't all the taste had gone out of my life with the death of my family? And how could I explain the fact, that during the days when I had stayed in Harry's and Ula's home, when I had everything I wanted and needed and I was enveloped in their love, I felt unhappy and miserable - a feeling that hadn't been with me during all the days of 'Exodus 1947'?.
Our spirits revived somewhat during the evening, when Mordechai was returned to us. Our hunger-strike ceased. We ate the soup from lunch-time together with the bread and jam from supper, and waited for the next step. Our glass cage was strongly illuminated. It was impossible to sleep. The British, it seemed, didn't know what to do with us and we didn't know what to do with ourselves. Deadly bored, Yisrael, two other guys and myself, began to play an excited game of cards that we had learned on the deck of the 'Runnymede Park' - 'Derdl', it was called - and became totally immersed in it, excited beyond measure, shouting and laughing, to the amazement of the British. During the morning hours, we were put into a closed vehicle and driven off in convoy, in front of us a small armoured truck and a Jeep and behind us a similar armoured truck and a motor-cyclist. In this fashion we crossed Hamburg, sirens going non-stop, clearing the way in our honour. Really, it was a long time since the Germans had seen Jews being conveyed somewhere, and with a guard of honour!.
I felt sure, taking into account the guard placed upon us, that we were being taken to some prison or other. The journey went on for some time until our little convoy left the city and eventually entered the gates of a military camp. There, to our surprise, pleasure and relief, we found ourselves together with all the refugees of the 'Exodus 1947'. We were welcomed back with roars of greeting, hugs and kisses, like heroes..
As if drunk, I felt myself swept along with a great crowd which collected round us, until we got to the barracks-block which had been allocated to our kibbutz. There, we were told that from the moment that they had arrived there, there had been a hunger strike and a demand that we be returned forthwith. We had not been alone..
Our arrest camp, surrounded by barbed-wire and guard towers, was near the town of Pansdorf, and resembled from the outside a German concentration camp. Armed soldiers guarded us night and day. People went in and out only with special permits. In the huts - two rows of bunks with a narrow passage between them..
It was beyond my understanding why we were being held in a closed camp. What were the British afraid of - that we would again go on board a ship - 'Exodus 1947, Mark II' - and start it all over again? At the same time there was a positive aspect to our stay in a closed camp. It prevented us from an embarrassing meeting with the Germans, face to face. The comparison which was drawn by newspapermen between the camp at Pansdorf and a German concentration camp, were not to my liking. It seemed that they had no idea what a German concentration camp was like. The outside appearance, it was true was similar, of course. And we were under arrest. But in the British camp neither death nor the remotest fear of death, hovered over our heads. When a British soldier walked passed, no tremor or shiver of fear ran through you. And no one ever treated us with cruelty..
After a break of two months, Sarah and I could at last walk alone together during the evenings, far from the cramped huts, free of the stares of tens of pairs of curious speculating eyes. And it was good to tread on solid ground, too, without being swung up and down and side to side, forwards and backwards. It was good to smell the scent of wild flowers, hear the rustle of the poplar trees, to pluck a leaf and crush it between one's fingers and taste its bitterness; It was good to hold Sarah, to hold her to me and feel her warm lips, just the two of us, together under the stars. To forget everything - the past, the present and the future, as if there were no world around us, just the two of us sharing some moments of happiness beyond the sovereignty of the ticking of a clock..
.........the beam of light that suddenly fell on us and the shout of the sentry in the tower - “Get away from the fence!” brought us back to the 'British-German' reality..
The event which has been recorded in the history books as 'The Exodus Incident' did not end with the return of the refugees to Germany. We, the refugees, still had to endure weeks and months of difficult conditions in the camp, struggling with the British while the affair sent shock-waves round the world undermining the stupid policy of our jailers, who were struck blind by their own anger into being unable to cope morally with the extensive humanitarian enterprises of the Escape and immigration movements. Newspaper writers hurried to us from all over the world, the 'Joint' sent at us a mountain of clothes, games, sports equipment, books and educational material. Behind the barbed-wire fence and the watch-towers surged a forceful wave of desire to continue living, which was given expression in the number and variety of educational sports and cultural activities which took place. While all this was going on, the immigration authorities assured us that they were doing everything they could to get us to Palestine as quickly as possible..
The British authorities had no rest or peace from us. They wanted to issue us with personal identification papers and to impose some kind of administrative order, but we had received instructions not to cooperate with them. They made use of a Jewish translator, whose name was Bolek. He was driven round the camp in a Jeep from which he made their announcements in Yiddish. But Bolek was a Haganah man and he tacked the Hagannah's own variations on to the British official ones. When he was ordered to inform us to report to the camp command-post to register ourselves for the issue of these cards, he added the words: “Nicht mitt ein Aleph!” - “Don't even add the first letter!”. And so, when we appeared at the office to register and were asked our names, each one of us gave the name of a famous film-star or other famous personage and when asked where we were born, we all answered “Jerusalem”, “Tel-Aviv” or “Haifa” and the British were forced to cancel the operation. Eventually we were all issued a numbered card with a photograph attached, without any personal particulars, but indicating that the holder was one of the refugees off the 'Exodus 1947'. Later, when our arrest came to an end, people paid great respect to the holders of these cards and treated them with some awe. The cards 'opened doors' which might otherwise have been closed or at least very difficult to open. It happened, that on showing the card, ticket inspectors on trains, withheld asking for the travel-fare. More than once I heard people in the street pointing at us and saying: “They're the Jews of the 'Exodus” and tried not to approach us too closely.......
After some time, we were transferred from Pansdorf Camp to a camp in the suburbs of Emden, which was an open camp, without guards, like all the other displaced persons camps throughout Germany. The conditions in this camp were better. We lived in brick buildings, not in tin-roofed Nissen-huts, and were allowed to come and go as we pleased..
The staff of the Immigration Authority stood by their word. Within a relatively short time, they obtained for us preferential treatment in the issue of 'Certificates' - the document issued by the British Mandatory Government in Palestine - and placed at our disposal a number of certificates which had originally been issued to others and according to those, we were issued with false passports. The passports bore the names as they appeared on the certificates of those who had been in front of us in the queue to immigrate. Our kibbutz was allotted twenty 'certificates' and Sarah was among those chosen to receive one. My friend Yisrael was also offered one but stood down in my favour..
The night before our immigration a five-fold wedding took place. We celebrated the whole night long. The following morning, we again found ourselves setting out on a journey - again to the Land of Israel, but this time legally, albeit with false documents. Our first stop was Bergen-Belsen - a German army camp used, since the end of the war as a refugee camp for displaced persons and thousands of Jewish survivors from the concentration camps of eastern Europe. At that place we received our new passports and we learned for the first time our new identities (my name, as far as the British certificate was concerned was Sigmund Schatzker). We underwent a medical check as new immigrants to the country, by the British authorities, and waited for our turn to go on board..
The armed struggle of the Jewish underground in Palestine was at its peak during that period and another fateful struggle was taking place in the United Nations, which was sitting at Lake Success, near New York, debating the political future of Palestine. On the 29th of November 1947 most of the members of the United Nations at that time, especially the two super-powers, the United States and Russia, recognized the right of the Jewish people to create its own state, in part of Palestine. Endless considerations were debated and the Council decided as it decided. But it was clear that the conscience of those states which had not lifted a finger to stop the Nazi extermination, or at least to brake and impede its ferocity, states which had locked their gates in the faces of the hapless people fleeing for their lives from an unimaginable hell, had awoken and was finding expression in that historic moment. When we heard the results of the voting, even before its full significance hit us, a group of us youngsters went out into the streets of the camp, for a midnight parade, waking everyone up. Bottles were drawn from pockets and we all drank a toast to the Jewish State, singing and dancing until dawn. Equipped with the falsely named passports, supplied to us by the British, we travelled to the transit camp at Buchholz, where I had been before starting out for Palestine the first time. Now, openly and as free men, we continued on our way to Marseilles. In that town, not like the first time, we stayed in a hotel; we could wander round the streets to our hearts' content, without the slightest need for secrecy. From Marseilles, we were transported, for some reason, to Genoa, so we had the chance to travel by train along the French and Italian Rivieras. Within a day-or-two, we boarded the Italian ship 'Argentina'. The women were in cabins for two, in the third-class, the men - all of us together in one of the halls on the lower decks, not on bunks, like on the 'Exodus', nor on the deck, like on the 'Runnymede Park' but in properly arranged beds..
The 'Argentina' sailed first to Alexandria, where we were asked by the captain not to wander around the deck, because of the tense atmosphere between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine and the Middle-east in general. But my curiosity quickly got the better of me and forced me out on deck, where I got my first glimpse of an eastern Mediterranean scene of bare-foot porters, working lazily, singing monotonous-sounding music which repeated itself endlessly - everything seemed sleepy and slow - what a contrast to the European experience.