Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Exodus 1947

I picked up this book at my local library because it looked interesting, and I remember reading about a ship of WWII refugees in an historical fiction book by one of my favorite authors. I thought perhaps this was the real story.

It's not the ship that was told about in the book I read earlier (I forget the title, but the authors are Bodie & Brock Thoene). But it is the real story of real World War II displaced persons (DPs) from Europe, as told by an eye witness.

Ruth Gruber, the author, was not a DP. She was a correspondent for the New York Post, sent to cover the "Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine" created in 1945 to deal with the DP & Palestine problem. She has an impressive resume - including being the world's youngest Ph.D., at twenty.

Exodus 1947 is not a new book, but a republished book. It was first published in 1948 under the title Exodus 1947, Destination Palestine. But, no matter when it was published, it is a powerful and moving story. In the Acknowledgments, Gruber thanks several people who helped her with the book, "[Naomi] and Helene often had to put the photos down because they were crying;... [Adriana]... often had to stop reading because her eyes were clouded with tears..." (pg 193-194).

I know the feeling. I felt the same thing.

Honestly, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories, I was so grateful for my shower, my clean clothes. I wondered if I would have the same determination of the DPs on Exodus 1947 (the name of the ship on which they sailed) to endure the heat, crowded conditions, and boredom in order to get to a land I had never been before.

These people, these children, had survived Hitler's Europe. They felt they could not remain there - they had lost everything, their homes, their professions, their possessions, their families. They were desperate - determined - to get to Palestine, British or no British. They walked across Europe to the ports where the blockade-running ships would carry them to Palestine illegally, putting their lives on the line.

Ruth Gruber had a front-row seat. In Exodus 1947 she takes inside the overcrowded DP camps in Europe, where you can see the sorrow, the emotion, the hollowness, in the eyes of the adults and the children. She is on the dock in Haifa, when "the broken ship Exodus 1947 limp[s] into harbor", carrying 4,500 DPs on a ship originally designed for 400.

She spends time on Cyprus, where the world expects the British to send the DPs from Exodus 1947. She takes us inside the DP camps on Cyprus and shows us how the people maintain their hope, their lives, through art and Hebrew school, as the thousands there wait for their turn for one of 750 legal visas allowed per month to enter Palestine.

But the DPs from Exodus 1947 never arrive. Soon, the British ships that now house them show up in France, in the port of Port-de-Bouc. The French doctor and feed the DPs, now basically held prisoner on the British ships. France extends a welcome to them - "Come down off the ship! We welcome you in France!" But to a person, the answer is "No! We will go to Palestine and Palestine alone! We cannot return to Europe."

After a month in France, the ships pull out and head back to Germany. The French are horrified. The world is aghast. The British force the people off at Hamburg, force them into a DP camp there.

Words cannot express the horror I felt as I looked at the pictures Gruber took in her journeys as she followed the fate of these Jews. Horror at the way these poor people were treated - especially after surviving the death camps. Horror at the conditions they put up with to pursue their dream of living in Palestine. Horror at my own attitude of irritation when my comfort is disturbed. Horror at the thought that some people today say it never happened.

I picked up the book because I wanted to look at the pictures in this book. The pictures are moving. Gruber's writing grabbed me. The combination of the two took me to a time and a place I will not forget.

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