Sunday, January 27, 2008

Zev Siegel was a 17-year-old George Washington University student in late 1946. A few months later, he found himself on the other side of the world, witnessing history after he joined the crew of a boat that would attempt to carry European Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

“I had no choice, from the point of view of my conscience,” says Mr. Siegel, 79, a native Washingtonian who lives near Pittsburgh. “Here I was, this kid living fat and sassy, driving around D.C., when there were 250,000 survivors of the Holocaust who were living in the same kind of camps as the concentration camps. I felt God had given me the privilege to do something.”

The mission Mr. Siegel joined is more commonly known as the Exodus 1947, a journey glamorized in American culture through novels and movies such as the 1960 epic “Exodus.” The reality was much less romantic, Mr. Siegel says.

The voyage had 4,500 passengers and crew members crammed onto a dilapidated Baltimore-based boat officially named the SS President Warfield. Mr. Siegel describes the boat, originally built for cargo and about 500 people, as a “lopsided barn tied to a moth-eaten pier.”

The volunteer mission outfitted the boat and sailed to Europe to pick up supplies and passengers. The goal was to take the refugees — who had nowhere to go after losing their homes in World War II — to Palestine, then a British territory.

The night of July 18, 1947, the British Royal Navy rammed the boat and boarded it in international waters to keep it from entering Palestine. After a struggle with passengers and crew, three shipmates were killed, including one crew member. The boat was towed to Haifa, where the passengers were put on three other ships and sent to France. The passengers refused to disembark and went on a month-long hunger strike.

Eventually the passengers, many of whom had survived the Nazi concentration camps, were sent to displaced-person camps near Hamburg, Germany. It wasn’t until 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, that the refugees were allowed to enter Israel.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), in conjunction with several groups in Israel, is working on a project to find surviving passengers and crew members of the Exodus 1947. There never was an official passenger manifest, and so much time has passed that this is not an easy task, says Genya Markon, the museum’s curator of collections.

The museum has the names of about 2,300 people who were on the ship and has made contact with 270 passengers and four crew members. Most of the known survivors live in the United States or Israel.

With the 60th anniversary of Exodus 1947 recently passed and preparations under way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, remembering the past is important, Ms. Markon says.

“The Exodus was a turning point in world interest, the survivors of the Holocaust and the need for a homeland,” she says. “One and a half years after the liberation of the concentration camps, you still had survivors being treated as they were during the war.”

Remembering Holocaust history was rather quiet for the first 30 years or so following the war, says Walter Reich, former director of the USHMM and Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University. Many survivors preferred not to talk about what they had suffered, he says.

However, following the television miniseries “Holocaust” in the late 1970s, consciousness was raised and it became much more important to get the oral history and testimony of survivors before it was too late. Projects such as Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which has videotaped the testimonies of 52,000 survivors; Yad Vashem in Israel; and the USHMM have since been organized in part to capture that history.

Eyewitness testimony is extremely valuable for teaching the lessons of history, Dr. Reich says.

“Certain kinds of history can be written through documents,” he says, “but it is not a history of the Jewish experience. There were diaries that were kept during the war. They were kept hidden, and whatever was found was found. What is left remains in the memory of survivors, either in a memoir or in their minds.”

Irene Parkinson was one such eyewitness. She was a teenager in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Her father was taken to Auschwitz and later killed. Her mother was able to find refuge for Mrs. Parkinson and her younger sister, Monique, in an orphanage for the duration of the war. They stayed there using false names and identities, she says.

“No one knew we were Jews,” says Mrs. Parkinson, 76, who lives in Nyack, N.Y.

After the war, Mrs. Parkinson’s mother, sister and brother made it into Palestine. Mrs. Parkinson, then 16, tried to join them by getting on the Exodus 1947.

“We were crammed in like sardines,” she says, “but I liked to be up on the deck, talking to people. I had my belongings in a little rucksack. We hung it over the side of the boat.”

Mrs. Parkinson recalls the battle with the British: “The British had firearms. We did not have any guns. We fought them with sticks, potatoes and cans of food. All my clothes went into the water.”

Mrs. Parkinson recalls the journey back to France, with only the bathing suit and sandals she was wearing, then landing in Hamburg “where they used a huge hose to get us off the boat.”

“For many people, it was horrible to be in a camp with barbed wire again,” she says. “I stayed in Germany for 18 months. The Red Cross came. They gave us blankets, cigarettes. The cigarettes were like money. You bought things with them — a skirt, some pants. We weren’t kids anymore. We didn’t have youth anymore.”

In 1948, Mrs. Parkinson made it to Israel, where she joined the army and trained as a nurse before immigrating to the United States in 1954.

Mr. Siegel, meanwhile, stayed overseas for decades, working on several other refugee missions to Israel and at a refugee camp in Germany.

Rafael Medoff, director of the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, says lessons of the Exodus 1947 still ring true today.

“The important role of American volunteers on the Exodus is a reminder that the struggle to establish Israel was supported by a broad coalition of Americans of all faiths — and that support for Jewish statehood continues among Americans to this day,” he says. “It is no surprise that many Americans sympathized with the Jewish immigration struggle, given its strong parallels to American history. Refugees from persecution were trying to build a country based on liberty and equality, only to be blocked.”

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