Zev Meir Siegel, a veteran of the illegal Jewish immigrant ship whose 1947 voyage from Europe to Eretz Yisrael inspired the Leon Uris book and later the Otto Preminger film "Exodus," will be the guest speaker at a special showing of the film here this Sunday afternoon.
Rami Levi (right) with Yossi Harel (left, commander of the Exodus 1947 ship, and Malcolm Hoenlein.
Siegel, who served in the Haganah, Israel's pre-state military force, and who was among the first agents of its Mossad, or secret service, has some issues with the movie "Exodus." It does, after all, feature a fictionalized version of the British blockade-running Aliyah Bet ships aboard which Siegel in fact served. For one thing, Siegel says the shipboard action in the film actually most closely approximates the story of a different Aliyah Bet ship, the Knesset Israel, and not the Exodus 1947.
But the thing that rankles Siegel most, perhaps, is the film's depiction of the British Navy officers who encountered Jewish refugees fleeing Europe for the nascent Jewish state on board ships.
"The high moral point of the movie 'Exodus' is that the British did the right thing and let them go," Siegel said. "It never happened. ... That is so much B.S. I think that story line was designed for the British market."
Nevertheless, Siegel said, he likes the remainder of the film very much.
"The other part is an extremely accurate depiction of what life was like under the British in Palestine and how the resistance fighters - the Haganah and Menachem Begin's Irgun - fought back," Siegel said. "That is accurate, especially the Acre prison break."
Siegel should know.
'It was outrageous'
The son of ardent Labor Zionists, Siegel was a George Washington University student in 1946 when that school's Hillel director contacted him about undertaking a mission on behalf of the Jewish people.
"Rabbi Greenberg, the head of Hillel at George Washington University, was a recruiter for Haganah. It's as simple as that," Siegel said in a telephone interview this week with The Chronicle. "The crew of the Exodus came right out of his efforts."
Siegel said that he and some others attended a meeting at the home of journalist I.F. Stone "and there was the future captain of the Exodus, Ike Aronowitz, and he and a few other people of the Mossad asked us to give up a year of lives to help Jewish people - to get them out of the camps. The British weren't allowing them out. There were 250,000 survivors in the German concentration camps. They were called DP (displaced persons) camps, but they weren't removed from those places, they just changed the names. ... A year after the war, and they still left them rotting in the camps. It was outrageous."
So Siegel and his fellow recruits went for a time to a paramilitary training camp in the Catskills and then shipped out from Baltimore on the President Warfield, a former passenger ferry ship that was renamed Exodus 1947 for its most famous voyage.
Siegel said he was motivated, in part, to join the rescue and nation-building effort by a desire to learn the fate of some relatives from Lithuania. Siegel said he later learned they had been evacuated from the Vilna ghetto and shot to death by Nazis in a ravine outside of town.
In 1946, though, what he knew was that he wanted to help the surviving victims of Nazism get out of Europe and to their homeland in Eretz Yisrael. But that wasn't easy. Palestine was then part of the British Mandate, and Britain was not allowing Jewish refugees to emigrate from Europe for fear of upsetting Palestinian Arabs.
'I knew we were going to be captured'
And so the pre-state military forces Haganah, Irgun and others were locked in a battle with both British forces and Arabs. In the program known as Aliyah Bet, Zionist groups worked in secret to organize Jewish refugees in the European camps and a fleet of ships to take them to Palestine.
The Exodus 1947 was a famous failure. Others have likened its mission to losing a battle but winning a war. The British boarded the ship filled with 4,500 refugees in international waters off Palestine. They killed three, roughed up others and hauled the ship into Haifa before offloading the refugees and sending them back to Europe on two prison ships.
But world reaction to the spectacle of British military officers physically battling Jewish World War II refugees and then sending them back to European detention camps using prison ships and box cars proved to be a publicity coup for the Zionist effort.
Siegel said that, even as the mission unfolded, he had an inkling this was the purpose of the Exodus 1947 all along. He said he knew that when the ship took off from Sete, France, it would never make its destination unharmed.
"As we cast off, I knew we were going to be captured," Siegel said. "I remember all the obstacles put to us by the British. ... As soon as we left port, a British warship picked us up, and more joined as we progressed. By the time we reached the Palestine coast, we had eight ships, including the cruiser Ajax, which brought down the Graf Spee off Montevideo, on us. We were not exactly a secret operation."
Siegel said the captain had told the crew that, with its shallow draft and great speed, the Exodus 1947, "can get close to coast, and if the British don't attack us in international waters, we can actually beach it in Tel Aviv because they can't go as close as we can. Otherwise we will be boarded and taken over. And that's exactly what happened.
"They boarded us with British royal marines 30 miles out, took over the ship, killed our third mate - an American officer from the merchant marines named Bill Bernstein - beat the hell out of people and killed a couple refugee kids."
At that point, Siegel said, things looked "very bad."
"But this was the beginning of the end of the mandate," he said. "They screwed up tremendously from the point of view of public relations and public opinion. The ship landed in Haifa with a British crew running it on July 18. That was a significant date because UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, had just finished a deliberation there after a couple of weeks, and they were going back to the U.N. to make a recommendation on how to solve the problem. It was all planned that way, by the way. And they saw us being taken off, and that did affect their thinking. Because on Nov. 29, 1947, you had the first legal emergence of Israel as an internationally recognized entity, with the U.N. partition of Palestine."
Freeing the camps
After the British put the Exodus refugees onto prison ships, Siegel was told to stay with them and organize them on behalf of the Mossad, with the goal of eventually getting the refugees back to the Jewish homeland.
"I was a Haganah presence among them," Siegel said. "I was a soldier posing as a refugee, to make sure they didn't scatter. It was lucky I was ordered to do so, because when we got to France, the British tried to unload us in Port de Bouc, and they offered us French citizenship to get off. I helped organize the decision to refuse that offer. There was no disloyalty, but the Brits did everything to dissipate the whole thing, and I and my fellows didn't allow that. The whole thrust was Jewish survivors of World War II, trying to get to our homeland."
The ship wound up in Hamburg, Germany, from where the refugees were taken on trains to detention camps inside the country. From there, Siegel said, it was a piecemeal process of getting people out, a few at a time, through the British occupation zone and into the American one, and then to Palestine.
"And that's how we freed the camps," Siegel said. "Finally when the state of Israel was declared, they released them all, some time in 1948."
After his Israeli military service, Siegel settled down in Moshav Beit Herut, a cooperative farming village on the Mediterranean Sea coast that his family helped to found.
Siegel, who also has a home in the Pittsburgh area, looks back on his Exodus adventure with satisfaction.
"I'm not religious, but I feel I did what God wanted me to do," Siegel said. "I didn't find my own family to rescue, but I sure found other fellow Jews."
At press time this week some tickets still remained for the screening, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at AMC Studio 30 theater in Olathe, Kan. To make a reservation between now and 9 a.m. Sunday call Gail Weinberg, 913-327-8123.
FULL PHOTO INFORMATION // NEW YORK - At the gala 40th anniversary screening of 'Exodus' on Nov. 5, Rami Levi (right), Israel Commissioner for Tourism in North America, poses with Yossi Harel (left), commander of the Exodus 1947 immigrant ship, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Screenings of 'Exodus' are being organized by Blazer Communications of Los Angeles in more than 60 cities worldwide as the result of an initiative by the Israel Ministry of Tourism in North America.
©Kansas City Jewish Chronicle 2001
Eyewitness to Exodus: Veteran of real-life drama at sea will speak here Sunday before film