The Exodus (the 20th Century Edition)
The ship Exodus 1947 became a symbol of Aliya Bet — illegal immigration. After World War II, illegal immigration increased and the British authorities decided to stop it by sending the ships back to the ports of embarkation in Europe. The first ship to which this policy was applied was the Exodus 1947.
The ship sailed from the port of Site, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, on board. As soon as it left the territorial waters of France, British destroyers accompanied it. On July 18, near the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and boarded it, while the immigrants put up a desperate defense. Two immigrants and a crewman were killed in the battle, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced onto deportation ships bound for France. At Port-de-Bouc, in southern France, the would-be immigrants remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heat wave, refusing to disembark despite the shortage of food, the crowding and the abominable sanitary conditions. The French government refused to force them off the boat. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany, and on August 22 the ship left for the port of Hamburg, then in the British occupation zone. The immigrants were forcibly taken off and transported to two camps near Lubeck.
Journalists who covered the dramatic struggle described to the entire world the heartlessness and cruelty of the British. World public opinion was outraged and the British changed their policy. Illegal immigrants were not sent back to Europe; they were instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.
The majority of the passengers on the Exodus 1947 settled in Israel, though some had to wait until after the establishment of the State of Israel. (Jewish Virtual Library)
All told, a fleet of 60 ramshackle ships transported more than 60,000 "illegal immigrants" from European ports between 1946 and 1948. Among them were 10 American ships, acquired as war surplus from U.S. boneyards and crewed by 250 volunteer sailors and contract officers. The ships carried 30,000 would-be immigrants. Illegal immigration increased the Jewish population of Palestine by more than 10 per cent. Placed in a contemporary perspective, it was like adding 26 million people to the current U.S. population. (Jewish Virtual Library)