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by Steve Kramer


By the Fall of 1945, things were getting back to normal in America. The war was won, the "boys" were coming home, and the Depression was a fading memory. Murray Greenfield, who had served in the Merchant Marine, was planning to attend Hunter College in New York City. But something more important came along for Murray and about 250 other young North American men, Jews and gentiles alike: the chance to help some of the 150,000-plus displaced persons in Europe emigrate to Palestine to build the Jewish state.

"In late 1946, word had gone out in the streets of U.S. cities such as New York and Chicago that young Jewish men with sailing experience were needed to help smuggle Holocaust survivors across the Mediterranean to Palestine. The mission was to be top secret because the British had declared such immigration illegal and created a blockade to stop the effort." []

Murray made his snap decision to join the clandestine movement to expedite illegal immigration to Palestine — Aliyah Bet — despite hearing that he might be hanged by the British if he were caught and that there was no pay involved for his efforts. The latter fact clinched it for Murray. He figured that no remuneration meant that the operation must be worthwhile! Murray's mother was mollified by his decision not to attend college by the fact that, as he told her, he was doing something to help the Jewish people. Another shipmate, Harold Katz, just disappeared from Harvard Law School one day and didn't show up for a year — his parents also didn't know where he was or what he was doing. The young men had become part of the operation known as the "Bricha" (escape in Hebrew).

After its victory in WWI and its takeover of the formerly Ottoman Turk province of Palestine, the British decided to drastically limit the influx of Jews to Palestine. The decision was a pragmatic one, baseom their responsibilities in fulfilling the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine of 1922, barely waiting for the ink to dry on the document. The Balfour Declaration, promulgated in 1917 to call for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, was de-emphasized, Jewish immigration to Palestine was severely curtailed, and Arab immigration from North Africa and Arabia was welcomed. As the Nazis gained power in Europe, the limitations on legal Jewish immigration became particularly intolerable.

The effort to populate Palestine with Jews, legally and illegally, predated WWII and continued after its end. Part of the post-war effort to bring Jews to Palestine is depicted in "Waves of Freedom", a wonderful documentary by Alan Rosenthal (available on DVD — see below), an Anglo-Israeli with more than forty films to his credit. We met Alan, Murray Greenfield, and others at a showing of the documentary sponsored by the English Speaking Friends of Tel Aviv University. Shown to a full house, the film about the refugee ship "Hatikvah" (hope in English) elicited many recollections and questions for Alan, the few crew members in attendance, and one of the displaced persons from Romania, who eventually made it to Palestine on the same ship as the young Americans.

By hook or by crook a fleet of 10 ramshackle ships had been purchased as war surplus from American "boneyards, to be manned by the "American Jew-runners", as at least one British naval officer called them. These adventurous young men, many not Jewish, were part of the "Machal", non-Israeli fighters for Israel's independence. Organized and assisted by Israeli members of a Jewish para-military group, Haganah, the intrepid crews sailed the ships to various locations outside of the US for retrofitting. Murray's ship, the Tradewinds (later renamed Hatikvah), first set sail in Miami, was repaired in Charleston and Baltimore, eventually refueled in the Azores Islands (a lucky connection with a local Jew provided fuel after it was unobtainable from the usual sources), then made it to Lisbon. There it was retrofitted to hold more than 1400 refugees, packed like sardines in cubbyholes below deck. The workers who reconfigured the ship were told that the boat would be carrying tropical fruit. Though the crew tried to keep their mission a secret, the captain felt it best to leave Lisbon hurriedly, so quickly in fact that they left port with their anchor still underwater, pulling up electric cables as they went! Finally, in Italy the Tradewinds took on its "cargo" of displaced persons, most of whom had entered Italy on foot via the snow-covered Austrian Alps. While on the last leg to Palestine, the crew took down the flag of Panama, the ship's country of registry, replacing it with a "Jewish flag" and renaming the ship Hatikvah.

Of the more than (approximately) 70,000 "illegal immigrants" transported from European ports to Palestine between 1946 and 1948, about half came on the ten American ships. But there were problems: "Only a handful of ships — not [including] one U.S. vessel — penetrated the British air and sea blockade deployed to prevent any arrivals in Palestine. The blockade, backed up by an assortment of economic and diplomatic obstacles, extended from the Palestine coast through the Mediterranean, to the chancelleries of Western and Eastern Europe, and even to the U.S. Upon reaching the Palestine coast, the ships were routinely apprehended by the Royal Navy. With one exception [the Exodus, which was sent back to Germany], their passengers were transported to prison camps on Cyprus that had been [originally] constructed to house German prisoners of war." []

The Hatikvah was eventually apprehended and its passengers and crew were interred for the next fourteen months on Cyprus at a hot and crowded displaced persons camp, which was not dissimilar from the concentration camps the refugees knew from Europe. Some of the prisoners were lucky and soon got into Palestine in a "legal" manner, but most of the men and women who were of fighting age were kept on Cyprus by the British until the War of Independence for Israel had ended.

Hatikvah crew members behind barbed wire in Cyprus. From Left: Hugh McDonald, Sam Gordon, Harold Katz, Joe Gilden and Murray Greenfield.

Reuven Gil, a survivor from Eastern Europe who met his wife during the Hatikvah episode, answered some questions after the film, as did the other participants. Both Reuven and Murray, who also made Israel his home after his release from Cyprus, symbolize the success of the Bricha. Though the total of those who succeeded to immigrate to Israel on illegal ships was small, compared to the huge influx of newcomers who arrived from European and Arab countries in other ways, their spirit and hopefulness were highly significant and symbolic of the exhaustive effort to build the modern state of Israel.

The DVD "Waves of Freedom" is available from Gefen Publishing House, as is Murray Greenfield's book, "The Jews' Secret Fleet", co-written with Joseph M. Hochstein. []

Steve Kramer and his wife Michel live in Israel. He works in an English language publishing company and writes a weekly opinion piece for the Jewish Times of Southern New Jersey. He writes frequently of Israel's early days and their unsung heroes.

This article was published in the Jewish Times April 02, 2009.


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