JERUSALEM (Jul. 5)
During a three-day sea voyage from Brindisi, Italy, to Haifa, North American teen-agers learned a lesson in Zionist history they will not soon forget.
On their way to Israel to participate in a variety of summer programs, the teens traveled to Italy, where they boarded a ship bound for Haifa.
Once aboard the ship, which set sail June 30, the teens re-enacted the voyage taken by the Exodus ’47 — one of the many ships engaged in Aliyah Bet, or “illegal” immigration of Jews to pre-state Israel during the 1930s and ’40s.
Organized by the Joint Authority for Jewish-Zionist Education of the World Zionist Organization as a means of bringing Diaspora youths closer to their Jewish roots, the cruise proved to be an eclectic mix of fun and education.
The adventure began during the long bus ride from Rome to the port of Brindisi, during which WZO staffers and leaders from the eight participating youth groups described the hardships faced by Holocaust survivors in the years following World War II.
As the buses approached the port, the leaders drew the shades and began role-playing:
“Soon we will attempt to board the ship. There will be many British soldiers and spies who will try to stop us from getting to Eretz Yisrael. If asked, tell them you are sailing to Colombia. Never utter the word Palestine,” they said.
Forewarned, the teens were prepared when mock British soldiers suddenly appeared and began to question their presence on the dock.
Already living the fiction, the teens refused to give away the fact that they were indeed bound for Israel.
After boarding the Atalante, a circa-1950s ship that the WZO had renamed the “Exodus ’94,” the teens settled down into a routine that included seminars, workshops and sunbathing around the swimming pool.
GRAPPLING WITH DIFFICULT ISSUES
Divided into their respective youth groups — among them Young Judea, National Federation of Temple Youth, Habonim and United Synagogue Youth — the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel before it became a state. Habonim, National Federation of Temple Youth and Young Judea — the teens nonetheless shared many of the same experiences.
At different times throughout the trip, each group was forced to grapple with difficult issues.
In one of the role-playing workshops, the teens had to imagine themselves as refugees living in Europe after the war.
“What would you do if you were a refugee?” asked a youth leader. “You’ve lost your home, your business, but France has agreed to give you citizenship. Do you stay in Europe and start again, or do you try to get past the British blockade of Palestine?
“There’s a good chance that you’ll be caught and sent to an internment camp in Cyprus. What would you decide, if it were up to you?” the leader asked.
In another scenario, the teens were the leaders of Aliyah Bet. They were told, “You are the leaders. It is you who will decide on a passenger list.
“You will be faced with difficult decisions. On the one hand, you have wealthy Jews who found refuge in Sweden before the war. On the other hand, you have sick Holocaust survivors who may not survive the six-day journey at sea. Who do you take, and who do you leave behind?”
While grappling with these dilemmas, the teens had the opportunity to meet some of the real leaders of Aliyah Bet.
Ike Arranne (Isaac Aronowicz), the captain of the actual Exodus ’47, was on board to share his experiences, as were a handful of American ex-servicemen who had volunteered on Aliyah Bet ships after World War II.
Frank Lavine, who had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps before joining the Exodus ’47 crew, told his mesmerized listeners that Leon Uris novel “Exodus” bore little resemblance to the real-life Exodus ’47.
In addition to other discrepancies, he noted that “the refugees of the Exodus ’47 weren’t sent to Cyprus. They were sent back to France, and then to Germany.
‘THEY HAVE BROUGHT THE STORY TO LIFE’
“The trip itself was rather uneventful until we came within 25 miles off the coast of Palestine and encountered the British blockade.
“I remember that two children were born during the voyage, and that one of the mothers died in childbirth,” Lavine said.
Sherri Lewis, an 18-year-old Young Judean from Chicago, said of the lectures, “The speakers have been incredible. They have brought the story to life. While I was listening to the history, I could really imagine what happened back then.”
Before the trip was over, the teens had their own opportunity to meet “the British blockade.”
Within sight of the Haifa Port, a two-seater plane from the British Mandate period suddenly swooped over the ship’s deck and distributed hundreds of leaflets telling the “refugees” to surrender without a fight.
A few minutes later, a dangerous-looking missile boat — in reality, part of the Israeli navy’s arsenal — circled the ship and demanded a surrender. In response, the teens, who were now gathered on the deck, began to wave banners and chant anti-British slogans.
Though they play-acted with gusto, several of the travelers said they felt a bit silly shouting at an Israeli navy boat in the middle of Haifa Bay.
Yet, as the Haifa shoreline drew nearer, even the skeptics seemed to get into the spirit. Spontaneously, the teens joined hands and danced around the deck.
While most of the participants expressed enthusiasm about their adventure, some had reservations.
Hannah Greenstein, a member of Habonim, said, “I learned a lot, but I thought the experience would be more realistic.”
Referring to the swimming pools, good food and air-conditioning on the ship, Greenstein said, “The experience would have had greater impact if the conditions had been harsher. There was too much luxury. The trip was too much fun to be realistic.”