4,500 Jewish Refugees Defy British Efforts to Disembark Them in France
Menu JTA Search

4,500 Jewish Refugees Defy British Efforts to Disembark Them in France

Download PDF for this date

Forty-five hundred Jewish refugees, Jammed into the holds and wire cages of three British prison ships, today defied their captors’ efforts to disembark them.

Weary and ill after almost three weeks at sea, except for the few hours break while they were being transshipped in Haifa, the deportees declined with thanks French offers of hospitality and told an official delegation that they would not be taken off the ships alive. They shouted their defiance in the face of armed British paratroopers who patrolled the decks of the “floating concentration camps.”

S.E.Kay, British Consul-General at Marseille, who arrived here this morning, said that if the refugees maintained their refusal to leave the ships, a final decision may have to be made at “Cabinet level,” since it was now exclusively a British responsibility. He indicated that it might be several days before a decision was taken.

Today’s drama began at 7:30 A.M. when the American-built Canadian Liberty Ship Runnymede Park was sighted entering the roadstead here. A French corvette carrying sanitation officials immediately put out to inspect the transport, while hundreds of officials, Jewish representatives and thousands of onlookers — most of them young Zionists from Marseille and other cities — surged around the dock area. Another corvette, outfitted with loudspeakers, and carrying a ten-man French welcoming delegation also put out.


Several small boats, some carrying newspapermen and others representatives of the Haganah, tried to reach the ships, but were chased back to the shore by French naval launches. A Haganah-chartered fishing boat equipped with a loudspeaker succeeded in running the blockade, however, and circled the Runnymede Park as well as the Ocean Vigor and Empire Rival, which were anchored outside the port about 15 miles from shore. It repeatedly urged the refugees to refuse to disembark. From the transports, whose decks were lined with a solid wall of human flesh, came shouts in Yiddish: “We will not leave. We will stay here. We would rather starve to death here than to land anywhere but Palestine.”

The French delegation was greeted in similar fashion, when it boarded the Runnymede Park. At the request of the British colonel in command, one of the delegation began to read the official French declaration offering the refugees care and shelter in France. He was repeatedly interrupted by shouts of “Come down to the hold. See how we are living.”

When the declaration had been read, the delegation asked to be taken down to the hold, to which the British reluctantly agreed. There were two main holds, fore and aft. In the first were 800 people jammed together in stinking, fetid air. Women, children and aged persons appeared wan and ill. Here the declaration was again read and again the refugees interrupted, stating that they did not wish to land in France, Although they appreciated the government’s hospitality. When one refugee asked whether the French would use force to remove them from the ship, the prefect who ##eaded the delegation replied only that the French would care for all who wished to and.


Before the delegation left, the British commanding officer told it: “Come back tomorrow morning. By then more than 1,000 refugees will be willing to get off.” He did not elaborate on the statement, but a grim warning of impending violence was clearly implied.

The prefect decided at this juncture to leave two doctors, two nurses, two French policemen and an interpreter aboard to be ready for any eventuality.

When he returned to the port area, the prefect, who was obviously deeply ##ved by the refugees’ firm stand despite their misery, reported that a spokesman for the deportees had told him: “We are all ex-partisans and ex-fighters in the ##lied armies and survivors of concentration camps, and our main wish was to return to Palestine, our homeland.”

The prefect said that the refugees had complained that conditions aboard ship were frightful and that they had been treated like cattle They stressed their appreciation of France’s kindness, but said that they felt sure that the French people would understand their feeling that the only course which would safeguard their future would be to immigrate to Palestine.

When the prefect asked what could be done for the sick, he was told that they would get well when they returned to Palestine. At the conclusion of their conversation, the prefect shook hands with the Jewish spokesman and the hundreds of refugees began shouting “Vive La France” and singing Hatikvah. As he was leaving, one refugee in the cages that lined the deck shoved a pamphlet at the prefect. It was written in Yiddish and had been distributed aboard the ship as it left Haifa. It informed the refugees that they were being taken to Cyprus.


Another member of the delegation told the JTA correspondent that he had never imagined that the refugees would take such an heroic attitude. He said that conditions on board the ship, which was running short of drinking water, were so bad that it was worse than concentration camps in which he had been during the Nazi occupation.

He reported that troops bearing tommyguns and Sten guns patrolled the decks and those off duty carried heavy clubs. He was told by one young refugee that there had been a clash while the ship was at sea, during which the soldiers fired into a group of deportees killing several, including children, but he could not confirm the report.

The dock area was a scene of bustle and confusion. Several hundred French police and about 1,000 troops kept the thousands of spectators from the piers. Inside the cordon workmen were setting up kitchens, and the Red Cross and the OSE were preparing medical facilities. Andre Blunel, French Zionist leader who is here as part of the official delegation sent from Paris, reported that the refugees had told him that the British had refused to allow representatives of the International ## Cross to come aboard the ships.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund