Exodus 1947

Summarized account, including links to several third-party sources, of the Wikipedia article SS Exodus 1947

Exodus 1947 was a ship that carried Jewish emigrants, that left France on July 11, 1947, with the intent of taking its passengers to Palestine, then controlled by the British. Most of the emigrants were Holocaust survivor refugees, who had no legal immigration certificates to Palestine. Following wide media coverage, the British Royal Navy seized the ship, and deported all its passengers back to Europe.

Early history

The ship was built in 1928 by Pusey and Jones for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company and named President Warfield after the company president S. Davies Warfield. It carried passengers and freight on the Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia from 1928 until July 12, 1942, when the ship was acquired by the War Shipping Administration (WSA) and converted to a transport craft for the British Ministry of War Transport[1][2]

President Warfield enroute to Europe in 1947, where she would be renamed Exodus 1947

Voyage history

On November 9, 1946 the WSA sold President Warfield to the Potomac Shipwrecking Co. of Washington, D.C., who were acting as an agent of the Jewish political group Haganah.[2] The ship eventually ended up with Hamossad Le'aliyah Bet—the underground Jewish organization in Palestine intent on helping underground Jewish immigrants enter Palestine. It was renamed Exodus 1947 after the biblical Jewish exodus from Egypt to Canaan.

The ship left Baltimore February 25, 1947 and headed for the Mediterranean.[2] With Palmach (Haganah's military wing) skipper Ike Aronowicz as captain,[3] and supervised by Haganah commissioner Yossi Harel as the operation's commander[4], it sailed with 4,515 passengers from the port of Sète, France, a fishing town near Montpellier on July 11, 1947, and arrived at Palestine shores on July 18. The British Royal Navy cruiser Ajax and a convoy of destroyers trailed the ship from very early in its voyage, and finally boarded it some 20 nautical miles (40 km) from shore. The boarding was challenged by the passengers (the ship was in international waters where the Royal Navy had no jurisdiction), and so the British soldiers used force. Three shipmates, including 1st mate William Bernstein, a U.S. sailor from San Francisco, died as a result of bludgeoning and several dozen others were injured before the ship was taken over.

Due to the high profile of the Exodus 1947 emigration ship, it was decided by the British government that the emigrants were to be deported back to France. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin suggested this, and the request was relayed to General Sir Alan Cunningham, High Commissioner for Palestine,[5] who agreed with the plan after consulting the Navy.[6] Before then, intercepted would-be immigrants were being placed in internment camps on Cyprus, which was at the time a British colony. This new policy was meant to be a signal to both the Jewish community and the European countries which assisted immigration that whatever they sent to Palestine would be sent back to them. Not only should it clearly establish the principle of REFOULEMENT as applies to a complete shipload of immigrants, but it would be most discouraging to the organisers of this traffic if the immigrants... end up by returning whence they came.[5]

The Exodus, formerly President Warfield, arriving at Haifa (British Admiralty photo)

Return to France and then Germany

The British sailed the commandeered ship into Haifa port, where its passengers were transferred to three more seaworthy deportation ships, Runnymede Park, Ocean Vigour and Empire Rival. These ships left Haifa harbour on July 19. When the ships arrived at Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles on August 2, the emigrants refused to disembark, and the French refused to cooperate with British attempts at forced disembarkation. Realizing that they were not bound for Cyprus, the emigrants conducted a 24-hour hunger strike, refusing to cooperate with the British authorities. But the British government had no intention of backing down or relaxing its policy.

During this time, media coverage of the human ordeal intensified and the British became pressed to find a solution. The matter also came to the attention of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) members who had been deliberating in Geneva , and which led directly to the crucial vote in the UN in November that year when the required two-thirds of all member countries approved the dividing of British Palestine into two provisional states, one Jewish and one Arab, with a framework for an economic union.

But back in France, after three weeks, the ships were sailed to Hamburg, Germany, which was then in the British occupation zone.

Documents released from the British archives show that after much soul-searching, the British concluded that the only place they could send the Jews was to the British-controlled zone of post-war Germany, where the Jews could be placed in camps and screened for extremists; the decision to land the Jews in Germany had been made because it was the only suitable territory under British control that could handle so many people at short notice.

The British diplomats and military officers knew perfectly well that sending Jews back to Germany and putting them in camps so soon after the Holocaust would set off a fire-storm of protest.

On August 22 a Foreign Office cable warned diplomats that they should be ready to emphatically deny that the Jews were to be housed in former concentration camps after they were offloaded in Germany, that German guards would not be used to keep the Jews in the refugee camps and, further, added that British guards would be withdrawn once the Jews had been screened.


The Exodus 1947 passengers were successfully taken off the vessels in Germany, although a number were injured in confrontations with British troops that involved the use of batons and fire hoses. Although most of the women and children disembarked voluntarily, the men had to be carried off by force.

By the time they had docked at Hamburg, many of the refugees were in a defiant mood. When they first set out on their historic quest, they had believed they were days away from arriving at a Jewish homeland. The prospect of being sent to prison camps in Germany represented a pitiful failure of their original mission and for many of the Holocaust survivors, it was almost impossible to bear. The British had identified one of the ships, the Runnymede Park, as the vessel most likely to cause them trouble. A confidential report of the time noted:

"It was known that the Jews on the Runnymede Park were under the leadership of a young, capable and energetic fanatic, Morenci Miry Rosman, and throughout the operation it had been realised that this ship might give trouble."

One hundred military police and 200 soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters were ordered to board the ship and eject the Jewish immigrants. The officer in charge of the operation, Lt. Col. Gregson, later gave a very frank assessment of the success of the storming of the ship, which, according to a secret minute, left up to 33 Jews, including four women, injured in the fighting. Sixty-eight Jews were held in custody to be put on trial for unruly behaviour. Only three soldiers were hurt. But it could have been a lot worse.

The would-be immigrants were sent to DP (Displaced Persons) camps in Am Stau near Lübeck and Pöppendorf.

Camp Conditions

At the camps, the treatment of the refugees caused an international outcry. Although there was no German commandant or guards, there were German staff carrying out duties inside the camp, in accordance with the standard British military practice of using locally-employed civilians for non-security related duties.

The illegal would-be immigrants to Palestine were housed in Nissen huts and tents at Poppendorf and Am Stau (near Lübeck) but inclement weather made the tentage unsuitable. The DPs were then moved in November 1947 to Sengwarden near Wilhelmshaven and Emden. The Brichah then managed to smuggle many of them into the U.S. zone via which they reached Israel before the Israeli declaration of independence. Within a year, over half of the original Exodus 1947 passengers had made other attempts at emigrating to Palestine and those who failed were detained on Cyprus. Britain continued to hold the detainees in Cyprus until January 1949, at which point it formally recognized the State of Israel.

Cultural impact

In 1958, the book Exodus by Leon Uris, based partly on the story of the ship, was published, though the ship Exodus in the book is, of course, not the same but a smaller one.

In 1960, the film Exodus directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman, based on the above novel, was released.