Exodus 1947

A Ship Full of Jewish Refugees Trying to Reach British-Controlled Palestine

A picture of the Jewish refugee ship, Exodus 1947
The crowded Haganah ship, Exodus, carrying Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe, in Haifa port. (July 18, 1947). (Photo by Frank Shershel/GPO via Getty Images)

What Was the Exodus 1947?

On July 17, 1947, the ship known as Exodus 1947 left southern France on a secret mission to land 4,515 Jewish men, women, and children in Palestine. The Exodus was to be the largest attempt to bring Jewish refugees into British-controlled Palestine.

However, the British discovered the ship and forced it to dock at Haifa. The Exodus’ passengers were then transferred to three smaller ships and sent back to France.

Desperate and stubborn, the Jewish refugees refused to get off the ships, hoping the British would change their minds. The British did not. After three weeks of living in horrible conditions, the Jewish refugees from Exodus 1947 were taken to Hamburg, Germany, where they were forcibly removed from their ships on September 8, 1947.

The plight of the Jewish refugees aboard the Exodus 1947 was featured in newspapers across the globe and became a symbol of the fight for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Background of the Ship

The ship that became known as Exodus 1947 was originally an elegant, American steamboat that toured the Chesapeake Bay, taking passengers between Norfolk and Baltimore. It was rather large, being approximately 300-feet long and 60-feet wide, and sported a single smokestack. Originally painted white (but later a drab gray during the war years), the ship first set sail in 1928 with its original name -- President Warfield.

 

After 14 years of service, the President Warfield was sent to the British as part of the Lend-Lease Act in 1942.  The British Navy utilized the ship for two years and then returned it to the United States, who then used the ship for support operations during the Normandy invasion. The ship was deactivated in the fall of 1945, considerably the worse for wear from her military service.

Put up for sale in August 1946, the old and battered President Warfield was clandestinely purchased by the underground Jewish military organization Haganah.

Preparing the Exodus

Since President Warfield was not fit for an ocean voyage, friends of the Haganah towed her to Baltimore and placed her in a drydock for repairs. For final renovations, she was moved to Pier 5 at the old, rotten municipal wharf in Baltimore.

While the public was told the ship was being readied for transfer to China to once again become a riverboat, President Warfield really underwent the $90,000 overhaul to transform her into a Jewish refugee ship.1

On February 25, 1947, with repairs completed and supplies loaded, President Warfield slipped unnoticed from its dock in Baltimore, heading for Marseilles, France. However, luck was not with her or her crew of about 40 that day as they were caught in a severe storm the day after leaving. Worried about sinking, an SOS was sent. The Coast Guard arrived to help escort President Warfield back to Norfolk, Virginia.

The distress call made the news and reporters began asking unwelcome questions. No longer was President Warfield a secret.

After pumping out water and making a number of fixes, President Warfield once again started on her journey across the Atlantic on March 29, 1947, this time arriving safely in Marseilles, France.

The British had guessed that President Warfield was preparing for a secret mission and were keeping a close eye on her. Leaving Marseilles, the ship tried to hide out in Italy, only to be boxed in by an Italian gunship. After seven weeks, the Warfield was finally able to leave.

After one last stop at Port-de-Bouc, it was time to pick up passengers.

The Passengers

As repairs were being done on President Warfield, covert advertisements had been circulated around Europe to find potential passengers. Men, women, and children answered the call. Most were Holocaust survivors, from camps or ghettos. Others had been in hiding. They all wanted to go to Palestine.

These Jewish refugees converged on the small French town of Séte (located about 90 miles west of Marseilles), to wait for their ship to arrive.

During the evening of July 9, 1947, President Warfield arrived and loading began immediately.

In total, there were 4,515 refugees on board, 1,282 of whom were women and 655 were children.2 Also on board were 36 crew members, most of whom were Jewish Americans while two were non-Jews.

Despite the military precision while loading refugees, it still took until noon the following day to get everyone on board. By then, the British had once again found President Warfield and insisted the French stop the ship.

Desperate, 23-year-old Captain Yitzhak “Ike” Ahronovitch, 29-year-old Yossi Harel (long-time member of Haganah who was in charge of the mission), and other top members of the crew decided to make a run for it in the early morning hours of July 11, 1947.

With an inexperienced captain and no pilot, leaving the tiny port of Séte seemed impossible. With pure luck, the crew got President Warfield clear and into open waters, only to find that a British man-of-war, the H.M.S. Mermaid, was there waiting for them.

The British had found them.

Heading to Palestine

It was time for President Warfield to undergo a name change, as was the custom for all Haganah refugee ships. On this voyage and for the rest of the ship's life, it would be known as Exodus 1947.

Loaded with passengers, there was no way President Warfield could slip past the British. The ship would have to make its way to Palestine while in full view of the British navy. Its only hope was to beach itself at Tel Aviv and hope that as many passengers as possible would reach the shore before the British could get them.

Despite these setbacks, the refugees kept up hope and discipline aboard the Exodus. Living conditions on board were tight and cramped, with not enough latrines, especially once diarrhea struck. Food was dispersed and drinking water was always in short supply; most refugees brought their own water bottles.

The British Intercept the Exodus

After following the Exodus for seven days, the British government finally ordered the Exodus to be stopped.

At 2:30 a.m. on July 18, 1947, while still 23 miles from the shore of Palestine (i.e. while still in international waters), the British navy attempted to use the eight warships that had been following the Exodus to surround the ship and then board her.

Despite the vast superiority of the British forces, the Exodus’s preparations made it difficult for the British sailors to carry out their mission. The British succeeded in ramming the Exodus, using two destroyers along her sides, but Captain Ahronovitch quickly ordered a full stop. The destroyers, who could not stop as quickly, shot past. Using the Exodus’s ability to maneuver, plus frequent speed changes, the crew made it difficult for the British to board.

Still, the British managed to eventually put 40 men on board the Exodus, and these men came armed with batons, handguns, and tear gas.  For two hours, the passengers and crew of the Exodus put up a substantial fight, throwing everything at their attackers, even canned and fresh food. A few of the British attackers were thrown overboard; several others were captured and held in a cabin. A large struggle developed around the wheelhouse.

One crew member, Bill Bernstein was mortally wounded after being hit by a baton on the head. A 15-year-old orphan, Hirsh Yakubovich, was shot while peering through a life raft. Another DP, Mordecai Baumstein, died after being shot in the stomach. Over a hundred other refugees were wounded.

The British continued to ram the Exodus and it was only because the Exodus had been given steel plating along its sides during the war that she did not sink. Still, the damage to her hull was considerable. Unwilling to risk the lives of the thousands of refugees on board if the Exodus were to sink, the crew surrendered.

They were to head to the port at Haifa in Palestine to unload.

Back to France

The Exodus arrived in Haifa around 4 pm on July 18, 1947. To make sure that no one jumped ship, the British set off charges in the water.

The severely wounded were taken off the ship and sent to hospitals. The three dead were buried in Martyr’s Row in Haifa. Four crew members were arrested. Forty-one others, mostly crewmen, remained hidden on the Exodus, to emerge when Haganah agents would later come to clean the empty ship. The rest of the passengers were ordered off the ship.

The refugees came slowly off the Exodus. They were then searched and had to undergo delousing before they were shuttled onto one of three British ships: Runnymede Park, Empire Rival, and the Ocean Vigour.

Each ship took off as soon as it was full, with the last one departing by 6 a.m. on July 19. Everyone believed that the refugees were being taken to British DP camps on Cyprus. That was not the case.

The British wanted to set an example with the Exodus and thus sent the refugees back to France, arriving at Port-de-Bouc on July 28, 1947. By now, the world was watching the events unfold.

The Jewish refugees aboard the three British ships refused to disembark, insisting that they would only get off the ships in Palestine. The British urged the French to force the refugees off the ships; the French refused. The British attempted to starve the people off the ships; the French brought them food and doctors.

The British were in a bad position; however, they believed that the horrible conditions on board would eventually convince the refugees to disembark. For over three weeks, the refugees held strong. Despite the extreme crowding and intense heat, the refugees’ determination grew stronger. They set up a sign, written with lipstick, “We Will Go Ashore in Europe Only as Dead Men.”3

Disembarking in Germany

International pressure bore down on Great Britain. This saga of the Exodus needed to end. Unwilling to acquiesce to the refugees’ demands, the British began looking for somewhere else to take the thousands of refugees.

The British gave the Jewish refugees an ultimatum: either disembark before 6 p.m. the following day (August 22) or be transported to Hamburg, Germany. This came as a great shock. To be taken back to the very same country that had murdered their families and six million of their countrymen was unfathomable.

Just after 6 p.m. on August 22, 1947, true to their word, the British took the three ships out to sea and headed for Germany. The trip took 17 days.

Starting at 6 a.m. on December 8, 1947, the Jewish refugees were forced off the ships. Hundreds of British soldiers boarded the ships, using clubs and water hoses to remove the refugees. Many of the refugees resisted bitterly.

Eventually, all the refugees were removed and taken to two DP camps within Germany -- Emden and Wilhelmshaven. The Palmach, the elite military branch of the Haganah, promised that every one of the Exodus’s refugees would be taken out of Germany; by September 7, 1948, they had done just that.4

After the Exodus

The Exodus was not the first ship seized by the British navy attempting to enter Palestine, nor would it be the last.  What was significant about its seizure was the amount of publicity that the event received in the world press. 

Newspapers worldwide took the side of the refugees and condemned the British as cruel and unsympathetic. The callousness shown to the refugees, who had already suffered immensely during the Nazi regime, by a country traditionally known for its fairness impressed upon the world the need for a Jewish state.

With the help of world opinion, this dream of a Jewish state was finally realized less than a year later, on May 14, 1948.

As for the ship, the Exodus stayed in Haifa harbor for years as a symbol for the fight for independence. In 1951, there were plans to transform the Exodus into a museum, but before that could happen, a fire on August 26, 1952 destroyed her.

 

1. David C. Holly, Exodus 1947 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969) 140.
2. Holly, Exodus, 207.
3. Ruth Gruber, Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947 (New York: Current Books, Inc., 1948) 86-87.
4. Holly, Exodus, 266-267.