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The Escape and Clandestine Immigration Organizations

See also in Wikipedia:   Bricha,   Aliyah Bet

It is difficult to understand the Exodus story just by reading the testimony of the Exodus immigrants. It’s not self-evident how 5000 Jews from all corners of Europe, remnants of the Holocaust, were gathered at 11 temporary camps between Bandol (south-east of Marseilles) and Salon and Arles (on the Rhône river).  All this was accomplished within three weeks only, from mid-June 1947 to July 10, 1947. They were taken to Sète harbor in 172 trucks and secretly sailed to the Land of Israel at 02:00 AM, amply provisioned with food and ready to fight Her Majesty’s fleet if necessary to reach Tel Aviv.

The logistics of such an operation requires organization on a scale that only a country can initiate. This cannot be done by a private people, driven by some spontaneous enthusiasm.

To understand the story one must know its background, the various groups in play and the tasks each undertook to execute this complex operation.

The ship President Warfield, or in the bilingual name it received from Haganah headquarters –“ Exodus 1947 - יציאת אירופה תש"ז ” – was one of many Clandestine Immigration ships that strived to land on the shores of the Land of Israel. Starting in 1934 and all through World War II, they defied the British Mandate’s White Book limiting Jewish immigration.

By the declaration of the state of Israel in May 1948, approximately 80 ships carrying 76,000 immigrants reached those shores. Most of these Clandestine Immigrants were caught by the British Navy. They were incarcerated at the detention camp in Atlit, and when that filled up, were transferred in detention ships to camps in Cyprus. Against all these odds, the Exodus initiative was put into operation.

Two special aspects separated the Exodus from all the other ships running the British blockade:

a.       At the time, the Exodus was the first ship carrying 4,554 immigrants, compared to previous Clandestine Immigration ships that carried at most several hundred passengers. Afterwards there were even larger ships, the Pan York and the Pan Crescent, carrying together 15,000 Clandestine Immigrants.

b.       The other special aspect of the Exodus story, different from all ships before or afterwards, was that for the first and last time the British enforced their new policy of Refoulement, meaning returning the Clandestine Immigrants to their ports of origin. In the case of the Exodus, they were returned to Port de Bouc in France. When the deportees refused to disembark, the British led them to Hamburg, Germany, which was in the British Zone of Occupation at the end of World War II.

Obviously, there was no Jewish state until 1948, so we need to ask who organized these operations of escape from Europe and clandestine immigration to the Land of Israel. Who undertook to free the remnants of the Holocaust, 330,000 Jews from all over Europe and Russia, and to release them from the rampant anti-Semitism then prevailing in Europe?

Theodor Herzl in Basel, 1897


In fact, although the Jewish people had no state of their own in those days, there existed a worldwide Jewish leadership that strove continuously to establish the infrastructure for the foundation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

As part of the infrastructure for this state, the Zionist Movement was founded by Theodor Herzl on September 3, 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The Zionist Movement saw the Holocaust remnants in Europe and the Arab countries as a required resource for the future state. In addition, it established the following national institutions:

The World Zionist Organization is an umbrella organization, founded to coordinate the activities of all the world’s Zionist organizations, and as a provisional government for the future state. At the beginning the WZO represented the Jewish community in the Land of Israel versus the Ottoman Empire, and then the entire Jewish people. In 1929 the active functions of the WZO were transferred to the Jewish Agency, and the WZO was left as solely a policy setting organization.

The Jewish Agency was founded on August 11, 1929. Together with the National Council, it comprised the National Assembly, which served in effect as the “government of the state-to-be”.

The National Council, in close coordination with the Jewish Agency, was in charge of the daily management of all the internal affairs of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In addition, it was also the representative body for the Jewish people to the British government which held the Mandate on the Land of Israel.

Within the Jewish Agency there was the Government Department, dealing with external relations of the Jewish community. Other departments were the Security Department, the Immigration Department, and the Education Department.

Among other things, the National Assembly managed the following:

·         The education system

·         The Chief Rabbinate

·         Local districts

·         Relations with world Jewry

·         Relations with the British High Commissioner and the Mandate government

·         Immigration and absorption of immigrants from all countries (including Clandestine Immigration due to the British White Book policies)

·         Fundraising from world Jewry

·         Foreign relations and promotion of support for the founding of the Jewish state

For most of its years of activity, until the founding of the state of Israel, the Jewish Agency was headed David Ben-Gurion (chairman 1935-1948).

c.       The Jewish National Fund purchased land for Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel.

d.       The United Israel Appeal- Keren Hayesod was the financial arm of the Zionist leadership. The United Israel Appeal concentrated on funding the collection of the Jewish remnants of the Holocaust to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe (with other international organizations), funding the escape from Europe, legal and clandestine immigration to the Land of Israel, absorption of the new immigrants, and funding activities of the Jewish Agency in the Land of Israel as well as abroad.

The security Department of the Jewish Agency

The Haganah, Palmach, Palyam, Clandestine Immigration Foundation, Volunteers from Abroad, and the Revisionist organizations Etzel and Lechi

The need for organized security to defend the Jews of the Land of Israel began with the fading of the Ottoman Empire, long before the foundation of the Jewish Agency and its Security Department. Even at that time the Jewish community had to defend itself from attacks of Arab rioters. The story of Kfar Gileadi, Tel-Hai and Trumpeldor which occurred in 1920 was only one of many tales of Arab rioters raiding a Jewish settlement in order to kill as many settlers as possible. At that time the policy of self-defense was based on the principle that each settlement organizes to defend itself, as happened in Tel-Hai. Later on policy changed to area-wide mobile mounted defense forces. Such were the HaShomer (Guardian) forces that operated autonomously throughout the Galilee, the Hebrew Battalions, and the Notrim (Guards) that operated under British command in the Land of Israel after the British and French defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1917, at the end of World War I.

After the 1929 Arab riots and the founding of the Jewish Agency’s Security Department, security policies of the Jewish community changed again. The new approach foresaw the Arab rebellion and attacks against all Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel, and declared that self defense must be organized and centralized. For this, massive recruitment of soldiers, materials, weapons and funds was required. Concentration of all the private settlement and mounted organizations under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, enabled the fundraising required for organizing self-defense for the entire Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

At the beginning even Jabotinsky supported the joint organization under the auspices of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, but since the moderate forces in the WZO favored joint operations with the British in spite of their White Book anti-immigration policies, the Revisionists withdrew from joint operations, together with several Haganah units from the Jerusalem area.

On the other hand, most of the Jewish community was united behind  the Jewish Agency, and its official Jewish community defense force – the Haganah. Starting in 1930, command of the Haganah was transferred to the National Headquarters, which was under civilian oversight, controlled by the Jewish leadership, the National Council and the Jewish Agency under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, its supreme commander. Only under this framework was the Haganah financially supported by the WZO. This enabled the Haganah to organize as a true operational organization, with nationwide order and coordination. The new organization structure included the Palmach(Special Forces), Palyam(Naval Forces), Ta’as(production of weapons and armaments), Gadna(Youth Forces) and other operational bodies.

The growth of anti-Semitism in Europe, the flight of Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime and the closure of all countries to them, caused the spontaneous organization of the Escape Movement, the escape of Jews to Central Asia and to the Middle East. At the head of this Escape Movement were underground leaders from the Pioneer Zionist Movement in Poland. At first there was no connection between this movement and the leaders of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Later, after 1934, the Hagana started cooperating with the pioneer Zionist movements in Europe to bring immigrants to the Land of Israel illegally, and thus started the Clandestine Immigration .

At first, the leaders of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel did not cooperate with the Escape and Clandestine Immigration initiatives, fearing that this will damage the legal immigration that the British enabled at the time, and for the sake of cooperation with the British.  However, after the British White Book was enacted in 1939, limiting Jewish immigration to only 1500 per month, and limiting the purchase of land for Jewish settlements, the Jewish leadership started the Clandestine Immigration Foundation (The Mossad LeAliyah Bet), the operational arm of the Haganah destined to organize clandestine immigration to the Land of Israel. Haganah members participated in commanding and operating the ships, offloading immigrants at the Land of Israel shores, providing logistic support at the European departure ports, and organizing intelligence and communications (the Gideons Unit) to safely lead the ships to the Land of Israel.

In August 1945 the Jewish Agency leadership headed by David Ben-Gurion, in cooperation with the Revisionist movements Etzel and Lechi, decided to openly fight against the British, setting up the Hebrew Resistance Movement to promote Clandestine Immigration, as well as a strategy of military self-defense.  Ben-Gurion called for an open and armed “Battle for  Immigration”, but finally it was decided to call on the Haganah to initiate vigorous activities of Clandestine immigration.

Before WWII the Haganah and the Clandestine Immigration Foundation successfully brought more than 6,000 immigrants in 16 ships, only 3 of which failed to unload their passengers. Additional Clandestine Immigrants were brought from Arab and North African countries, by land and even by air.

David Ben-Gurion

In the years 1945-1948 the Clandestine Immigration activities intensified, bringing more than 70,000 immigrants in 64 ships. Members of the Palyam (the naval section of the Palmach) commanded, navigated and secured the ships, and Haganah members led the immigrants to the shore. The Haganah also started operations among the Jewish refugees in the European DP camps and in the Cyprus detainee camps. Haganah emissaries, some of them soldiers in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, aided the Escape Movement in the transfer of refugees from Eastern Europe to the west and from there – to the Land of Israel.

Later on the Clandestine Immigration Foundation took over the Escape function as well, in addition to organizing the Clandestine Immigration and dispatching the ships. It also provided Zionist, military and mental training for the immigrant youths who were the basis for the Draftees from Abroad (Gahal) in Israel’s War of Independence. Special training camps were opened in Europe for the soldiers-to-be. The Haganah members also enlisted Jewish Volunteers from Abroad (Mahal) to help in the foreseen battles for the new state.

Most of the crew sailing the Exodus were volunteers from abroad, mainly Jewish Americans enlisted when the immigration ships were purchased in the USA by the Haganah. Some of the Jewish crew members that sailed the ships to Europe returned to the USA to bring other ships purchased there.

In parallel to the World Zionist Federation that undertook the preservation of Jewish communities abroad as a human resource for the new state, other Jewish organizations acted to preserve and strengthen the Jews of the Land of Israel as well as Jews in general. One of the largest and strongest of these organizations was the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), created in 1914 with the union of three large Jewish American charity organizations. The Joint is also active today, acting to save Jewish individuals and communities in danger.

Sometimes Joint activities did not agree with the WZO’s goal of preserving Jewish resources in Europe. For example, the Joint acted to extract Jews from Europe to the USA, Canada and South America, contrary to the desires of the WZO. The differences between these two organizations, in spite of their common goal of saving Jews wherever they are, were especially evident in the efforts to prevent the forced disembarkation of the Exodus immigrants from the deportation ships at Port de Bouc. It took the Joint a long time to decide to aid these efforts, which required both funds and provisions to enable the immigrants’ resistance to disembarkation to last. However, once the decision by the Joint was made, the aid came freely and continued to accompany the Exodus internees in the camps to which they were brought in Germany – Pöppendorf , Am-Stau, Emden and Sengwarden.


Escape and Clandestine Immigration map for the immigrant Arieh Itamar and his family, 1941-1947.
The map is interactive. Pressing the blue ellipses transfers you to the exact location in Google Maps.

Explanation of the escape and immigration paths described on the map

The final section of escape of the immigrant Arieh Itamar and his family, describing a 300km journey on foot along the border between Poland and the Russian Occupation Zone in Germany. The journey within Poland was done in order to refrain from contact with the Russian forces in Germany, to prevent their capture and being sent back to Russia from which they had escaped several months before. Entry into Germany was in the American Occupation Zone, near the Austrian border close to the town of Ainring.

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