TEL AVIV (JTA) – One by one, until they numbered more than a thousand, they clambered up the bobbing rope and twine that God-fearing sailors centuries ago dubbed Jacob’s Ladder.
It was Italy, May 1947. A bottomless sea lay below, a dark night sky above. The Jewish refugees finally were leaving Europe and the ashes of the Holocaust. They only had the bags on their backs and the will to climb, rung by rung.
“Don’t lose your footing! Don’t get blown off!”
They climbed higher and higher.
Out of the darkness came pairs of hands and shouts of “Kumarof!” – “Come on!” in Yiddish. Jewish sailors from America – “Imagine, Jewish sailors from America!” the refugees marveled – were reaching down and pulling them up over the sides of a ship called Hope, “Hatikvah.”
“It was like a miracle,” said Irit Avriel, one of those refugees, her face lighting up with the memory six decades later. “For us they were not just sailors; they were angels.”
More than 32,000 Jewish refugees from Europe, just over half of the total 60,000 who came to prestate Palestine, were brought over by North American sailors – most of them young Jewish men who served at sea during World War II.
They were part of a clandestine operation known as Aliyah Bet, which included the famed Exodus ship.
At a gathering last year for passengers of Hatikvah hosted by one of those Jewish sailors, the young people who had climbed the rope ladder to freedom so many years ago were full of questions for the two former sailors who came to share their stories.
“How were you recruited? Why did you leave America to do this? When did you know about the camps?” they asked.
The Jewish ex-sailors spoke about their own European relatives and the obligation they felt to help after the Holocaust.
A new documentary film about North American Jewish sailors from the Aliyah Bet operation, “Waves of Freedom,” which was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, is scheduled to come soon to Jewish film festivals in the United States.
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 Greenfield – “Greeny,” as the survivors would quickly nickname him – had just been discharged from three years in the U.S. Merchant Marines. Others had finished tours of duty in the Navy fighting in Europe or against the Japanese in the Pacific.
“What an idea,” Greenfield, 82, a native of Long Island, N.Y., said he remembered thinking. “I was just discharged and here they were looking for guys who knew how to sail.”
Greenfield, who hosted the reunion in Israel last year, went on to co-author a book on the subject titled “The Jews’ Secret Fleet.” He told his mother that he would not be going to college as planned that fall, but was going to do something for the Jewish people.
It was a secret; he could not say where he was going or for how long. The news of the Nazi genocide was still fresh – horrible reports of death camps and gassings. Greenfield’s mother stroked the arm of her son and gave her blessing.
Harold Katz, a former U.S. Navy officer who spent three years in the Pacific, also decided to join the effort. A first-year student at Harvard Law School at the time, he was so enthusiastic about the journey that he managed to convince a classmate who was Irish Catholic to join him.
Katz went on to become an established trial lawyer in Boston, but the memories of the Hatikvah and his part in history eventually brought him back to Israel as an immigrant in the early 1970s.
“You don’t always know what will be a turning point in your life. You realize it only later on,” said Katz, 86. “When you do, you see how it fits in with the rest of your life. This was a watershed, a transformative experience.”
Katz and Greenfield would sail on a hulking and aging Canadian ice-breaker, one of 10 ships a group of American Jews bought for the operation to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine from Europe.
The details of the operation were worked out through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke on the top floor of a building on East 60th Street in Manhattan, high above the din of music at the famous club below, the Copacabana.
A mix of businesspeople, Zionist activists and representatives of the Jewish community in Palestine hunkered down to figure out how to buy and fix up old ships and recruit sailing crews.
There was the wealthy industrialist to sign the checks, the New Orleans Jew with connections in the Central American shipping industry who managed to bribe the right people in Honduras and Panama to get permission to fly ships with their country’s flags, and the Jewish volunteers who agreed to work only for pocket money to buy cigarettes.
Most of these young men had some experience at sea, but others had been infantrymen, paratroopers and pilots. Veterans of the Pacific theater and the Battle of the Bulge, again they were heading into uncertain waters.
Greenfield pulled out a map and traced the route from which the Hatikvah came – all 13 stops. It set sail in Miami, went to places such as Charleston and Baltimore for repairs, and eventually refueled in the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal. From there the ship sailed to Italy, where the passengers secretly boarded.
The ship never did reach the shores of Palestine. A British destroyer pulled up alongside about a week into its journey and issued the standard warning: “Your voyage is illegal, your ship is un-seaworthy. In the name of humanity, surrender.”
Passengers in the next 14 months would live in Cyprus at a hot and crowded displaced persons camp. Those who had been locked away in concentration camps again found themselves behind barbed wire.
But in Cyprus, at least there were moments of joy – and many marriages. Among the newlyweds were Reuven and Hedva Gil, survivors from Poland who had met in Italy awaiting the Hatikvah. They shared their first kiss on its deck.
“We could not resist,” said Reuven, 81, a sheepish smile creeping across his face. “Maybe it was the moonlight, the sea or maybe our youth.”
By the time Hatikvah’s passengers finally landed in Haifa, the Jewish state had been declared and Israel’s War of Independence was raging.
Greenfield never went back to live in New York. He settled in Israel, where he worked in business and publishing. He also established the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel.
Greenfield smiled as he listened to Fela Shapira, one of the survivors he helped bring to Israel, recount her memories.
“We were proud to have Jewish sailors,” said Shapira, 81. “We did not know such a thing even existed.”