Exodus: Ship of Misfortune
Editor’s Note: The war was finally over. But the path of suffering the Jewish people were forced to tread seemed to have no end. Where would they go? What would they do? Those who outlived Hitler’s hell were broken, sick, destitute, and homeless. Many had neither parents nor brothers nor sisters left alive and no way to determine if any other relatives had survived. The Europe they once knew was gone, and the one that remained held memories so horrifying that it seemed only death could blot them out.
Yet one place on Earth still held God’s promise:
I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, . . . all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8; cf. 48:4).
It was to the land of their forefathers they now turned with longing. Could they build new lives there? Could they forget the Holocaust and build a future? Perhaps in their land, God would bless them. It was time to go home.
So on July 11, 1947, the Exodus set sail from France bound for British Mandate Palestine, carrying 4,550 fragile, frightened deathcamp survivors hoping to find peace. The account of the heartbreaking tragedy of their ill-fated voyage ran in the September 1947 issue of Israel My Glory.
There is nothing more tragic for the thirsty one than to have the cup of water torn from his lips. It is an ancient method of classical torture. Many people lost their minds in this way. Already the coast of the future homeland was in sight when the refugee ship Exodus 1947 was rammed by British destroyers. The passengers stood at the rails. Their eyes were filled with tears. There lay the Land—the Land of which they had dreamed in the concentration camps when the guards whipped them, in the nights when the chimney stacks of the gas ovens smoked and nobody knew whether his number would be called the next morning and everyone still hoped that he might be spared. On sweaty beds of straw, in feverish dreams, they would imagine what it would be like to be free once again under the open skies without the fear of death breathing heavily upon them.
Many, many of them, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, had the hope in their hearts, unbelieving and yet believing, that they might be liberated. In the meantime, fathers died, mothers were whipped to death, children were thrown into flames by their feet. But always a few remained alive. And to these few, to these few remaining ones, thin skeletons, eaten up with lice and sickness, freedom actually came one day. Amid thunder of the shelters, the scream of falling bombs, the whistle of the grenades—and suddenly, as loud as it was outside, within, under the parchment-thin skin of these few, all was still. And from the shadow of death, a soft, soft voice whispered, “You are free—free!”
For many it was only a short-lived joy. For them Europe remained a prison. Conferences, cattle dealing, hopeful promises—but to them remained the camp, the scorn, and the hate of the world around them. There remained the senseless falling asleep with the sure knowledge of waking up to a senseless morning. And when they could stand it no longer, when it seemed despair would once again choke them, when one promise after the other
proved to be nothing but headlines in the newspapers—then they began to wonder—these outlaws, these abandoned ones, these souls whom death and apparently nobody wanted anymore.
They turned their longing eyes to the coast, to any beach touched by water, because over there somewhere, hidden on the map, lay the Land of Promise.
They arrived. They were stopped like pirates. Five dead in a row, twenty-nine wounded.Four thousand five hundred fifty despairing souls minus five dead. Four thousand five hundred fifty despairing ones minus five dead had seen the Land.
And now they are on their way back. To France?To Colombia? To anywhere, which is nowhere. People without a home, without a goal, without a course—full steam ahead, again into the unknown, into uncertainty, to the unfriendly—when for a fleeting moment it looked as if into their torn lives, into their broken hearts, some meaning had returned. But nay, they were left naked as before.
The hot sun of the Mediterranean beats mercilessly upon those wretched souls returning to their misery. Their eyes and lips are on fire. Their hearts are on fire. Their thirst is not quenched. Thus journeyed once those on the St. Louis out of Cuba to their European grave. Nobody wants them. Nobody helps them. Who are they anyhow? Only Jews, only Jews—embarrassing reminders, stubborn guardians of the longing for human respect, maniacs who yet believed in human mercy at a time that has apparently no greater consolation for them and their fellow sufferers than the secret watchword: “Throw them into the sea.”
But once before, even the sea was friendlier than human beings. It parted and they walked through. And they reached the Land, at long last, after wandering and suffering. And the reminder is also the message: Everlasting is this people and everlasting its future. And when we, in our comfortable homes, with all our insight into politics and tactics and compromise, often see with horror to where people, fellow human beings are being driven, how can we not be reminded of the words of the poet for men in such a plight:
When the oppressed finds no
And his burden becomes
He reaches courageously
up to heaven
And grasps for his eternal rights
Which hang on high unchanged
And unbreakable as the stars
—Translated from Aufbau
We who have taken hold of God’s promises know how sure and unbreakable they are. We pray that all Israel may claim God’s promises through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom alone is our consolation and redemption.
Editor’s Note: The refugees aboard Exodus 1947 were herded onto a prison ship in Haifa Harbor and sent back to France, where they refused to disembark. They were then taken to Germany, the very instrumentality of their misery, and returned to the displaced persons camps.