I sit here savoring a treasure. It is a book about Jewish-American and Jewish-Palestinian heroism in the 1940s – a little known story and one I nearly didn’t read.
The title is The Jews’ Secret Fleet: The Untold Story of North American Volunteers who Smashed the British Blockade of Palestine. The author, Murray S. Greenfield, is the founder of Israel’s Gefen Publishing House and of much else. Joseph M. Hochstein wrote it with him.
Here’s how the book came into my possession. Someone named Murray kept calling me. He said he wanted “I should interview him,” like I’d interviewed fellow pre-state activist David Gutmann, a”h, in these pages (“Israel’s Rebirth ‘A Boring Story to U.S. Jews,” April 2, 2010).
He called at a particularly hard time and I could not meet with him – but then he sent a messenger bearing this book. It was then that I realized this was a living hero of the Jewish people who wanted to meet me. Duty called. We met the very next day.
Murray was wearing a cap and a jacket-sweater that I recognized as belonging to another time, perhaps the 1930s or 1940s. He spoke in English and Yiddish. He was charming, witty, energetic, and a living repository of vital historical information.
When this 87 year-old Jewish-American grandfather was young, he was an “illegal” volunteer sailor, part of a group (1946-1948) that brought European Holocaust survivors to Palestine by sea. The boats and ships were barely seaworthy.
Few of the volunteers were experienced sailors, (Greenfield had been in the Merchant Marine). Few were Zionists. Some were not Jewish. Nevertheless, for idealistic reasons, they faced death-dealing storms, dispiriting seasickness, failed engines, failed water tanks, little food, poor sanitation, and a hostile British blockade.
Jewish-American businessmen bought these “rust buckets” under fake company names, had them refitted, flew Honduran or Panamanian flags, left New York, Baltimore, and Miami and sailed for European ports in Italy, Yugoslavia, Sweden, France, and Bulgaria. Then, after many bribes and last-minute disasters, and often under cover of darkness, they made for Haifa or Tel Aviv.
British planes and war ships and troops stalked them, fired on them, rammed them, gassed them, and boarded them. After hand-to-hand combat with the superior British forces, nine boats were captured in striking distance of Palestine. The Brits sent all on board to prison camps in Cyprus or to jail in Atlit. Savagely, vindictively, the British returned one boat, the famed Exodus, to Hamburg, Germany.
The ingenuity, boldness, idealism, and bravery of these “illegal” volunteer sailors and their Palestinian officers in HaMossad L’Aliyah Bet was beyond belief. It was a real David and Goliath story because they took on the cruel and mighty British fleet—and, despite losses, hardship, and unimaginable danger, they won, as the illegal boats and ships brought so many of the European Jews who survived the Holocaust into Palestine –well, mainly into British prison camps in Cyprus, but close enough.
And they drew world attention and, ultimately, sympathy by publicizing British heartlessness, the tragic plight of the post-concentration camp refugees, and the extraordinary derring-do of the volunteer sailors.
Murray inscribed his book to me:
We sailed for freedom.
Now, we settle for greater freedom.
The Jewish Press: How did this all come about?
Greenfield: It was very secretive. Only few of us were Zionists but everyone wanted to do the right thing. A guy, he didn’t tell you his name, talked to you, very shh-shh and said: “We are getting the Jews out of Europe. You might get arrested or killed.” I asked: “What’s the pay?” There was no pay. They wanted people they could trust, who were doing this for the right reasons. I had to go.