Sustained by the Zionist dream and spurred by the threat and later the unrelenting actuality of Nazi annihilation, 125,000 Jewish men, women and children made the perilous journey by sea to Palestine during the period 1938-1948 despite the many obstacles placed in their way by the adamant opposition of the British government.
The gathering storm in Europe of fascism, anti-semitism and war in the 1930s provoked the Jews to think about leaving. Avenues of escape were few with many countries limiting immigration as the numbers grew. In Eastern Europe the Revisionists, ardent right-wing Zionists led by Jabotinsky, promoted small groups of youths to go to Palestine to settle the land but able to defend it against enemies. In Germany, Nazi persecutions led many Jews to leave and about 200,000 went to Palestine. This sudden increase in the Jewish population led the British to curtail Jewish immigration, resulting in “illegal” immigration.
When the Germans annexed Austria in 1938, Nazi persecution created a demand to leave. Nazi policy wanted the Jews to leave. Adolf Eichmann berated Jewish leaders for not leaving. But there were few places to go. Most countries, notoriously the United States, closed their borders. Not wanting to inflame further Arab opposition to the Jews in Palestine, the British severely limited entry there too.
Thus was born the “illegal” immigration movement. Many Jews, desperate to leave, voluntarily submitted to traveling in dangerous, old and filthy ships, hopelessly overcrowded. During 1938-39 many such ships set out from ports in Yugoslavia and Romania or down the Danube. Arrangements for landing on a secluded stretch of beach in Palestine often went awry and some ships wandered the Mediterranean with their unfortunate passengers for weeks and even months on end.
Fortunately the majority of these finally made it to Palestine, but even then they were interned in camps for a period by the British. When the war broke out in 1939, the ships continued to sail but then war came to the Mediterranean in 1940 and the Black Sea in 1941. Conditions in Europe went from bad to worse as the Jews were persecuted when more and more countries fell under Nazi occupation.
The voyages became dangerous, ships were hard to find and some ships sank with heavy loss of life. It all came to a halt in 1942 with the sinking of the Struma, lost with only one survivor.
By 1944 the tide of war had changed; Romania saw which way the winds were blowing, and small boats with Jews were permitted to leave again to go to Istanbul.
After the end of the war, thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were left homeless and without families, with nowhere to go. Now they were refugees, survivors of a pitiless extermination policy, heading for the place which meant hope and a future.
“A burning, bitter, all-consuming hatred drove the Jews of Eastern Europe. They hated the Germans who had destroyed their corporate life; they hated the Poles and Czechs, the Hungarians and Rumanians, the Austrians and the Balts who had helped the Germans; they hated the British and the Americans, the Russians and the Christians who had left them, so it seemed to them, to their fate. They hated Europe, they held its precious laws in contempt, they owed nothing to its peoples. They wanted to get out.” 1
And so again Palestine seemed the obvious destination. But British policy had not changed. In fact it was enforced more forcefully than ever. Transports were organized by the Mossad l’Aliyah Bet, an arm of the Haganah. Jewish survivors were in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany, others were in Poland, Romania and other countries. Anti-semitic incidents in Poland occurred, culminating in the pogrom in Kielce in July 1946. Spontaneously thousands of Jews decided to leave and go west. This was the B’richah (Escape) at first disorganized and then organized by the Haganah. These were the people who became the passengers of the Aliyah Bet ships of the postwar period.
In America, many young men, veterans, were recruited and ships were purchased surreptitiously for use in this traffic. Ten ships came from America manned by American volunteers, of which the most famous was the Exodus. The continuation of shiploads of Holocaust survivors arriving in Palestine under the guns of the Royal Navy eventually broke down British resistance, leading Britain in 1947 to give up her mandate in Palestine. On May 15, 1948, it ended and the creation of the State of Israel was announced.
Aliyah Bet was a potent weapon in the fight for Jewish statehood. It was one of the main areas where the Jews could fight the British. The image of Britain’s proud warships fighting impoverished Holocaust survivors could have only one ending. Thousands of people were saved before and during the war, and thousands more rescued from hopelessness afterwards.
1. Jon & David Kimche, The Secret Roads (London, 1954)