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.
What did you tell your parents?
I told my mother I was leaving to “do something for the Jewish people.” She said, “In that case, you don’t have to go to Hunter College!”
Could those boats really float?
They were hardly seaworthy, and definitely not made for an Atlantic crossing.
Who were the non-Jewish crewmembers on board your ship?
One Christian Polish man had worked in a Jewish bakery and he knew Yiddish. One Irish guy, McDonald, was on my ship. He was angry with the British. He left Harvard Law School. He painted the four-leaf clover on our ship.”
What happened after Cyprus or Atlit?
I went right to Israel. An Israeli family adopted me. “This is your home,” they said. I worked in the fields in Petach Tikvah. I never left. I just fell in. It was bashert.
Why did you write this book?
Decades had gone by and no historian had told this story. Sailors had died, materials had been destroyed and overlooked. Memories had faded. Historians all built upon early accounts that omitted this story. The Encyclopedia Judaica ignored the American role in its entry on “Illegal Immigration.” The Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel made no mention of American sailors.
Something Ben-Gurion said to me put me on this trail. I met him at his house on other business. I was working on bringing in investments from the United States and Canada to help build housing and provide mortgages. He asked me when I had first come to Israel. I told him on Aliyah Bet, as a volunteer sailor. He was dumbfounded. He looked confused. He did not know the story of Jewish Americans and Aliyah Bet! I realized I would have to tell the story. I found the sailors who were still alive. I spent years interviewing them and finding photographs, newspaper clippings, archival material.
You published the first edition in 1987, and a 2010 edition with an introduction by Sir Martin Gilbert and a foreword by Paul Shulman, the First Commander of the British Navy. A documentary based on the book, Waves of Freedom, was released in 2008. Pretty impressive. But who helped you along the way? In the book, you note that Israeli historians and professors were either disinterested or even hostile.
Israelis understand Americans who give money to Israel. They have difficulty understanding Americans who choose to live in Israel, and still greater difficulty in understanding the Aliyah Bet volunteers’ embracing a mission that held no glory but involved hard work and perhaps danger.
What did you do in Israel after Aliyah Bet and working the fields of Petach Tikvah?
As I mentioned, I was interested in having North Americans invest in Israel. I tried to bring capital in to the Palestine Economic Corporation. Then I helped found the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel and pioneered loans for housing and mortgages. This was hard work because investors were afraid that socialism would be more attractive.
I spent seven years as a volunteer working on behalf of the Ethiopian rescue mission. We would obtain fake scholarship promises, pay for an airline ticket to Rome, give them a visa to Israel, and fly them here. My late wife Chana [Lustig] and I founded an art gallery in Tel Aviv. We sold and exported Israeli art globally.
We got involved in the Terezin Ghetto Museum because my wife saw that without her input, that museum would not be teaching visitors anything about the Jews. She created a program that did that. And she published a book, Fragments of Memory. And then I founded Gefen Publishing House, which has become the largest English-language publisher in Israel.
The question should have been: What didn’t you do? You are truly a hero.
The real heroes are the survivors.
About the Author: Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a professor emerita of psychology, a Middle East Forum fellow, and the author of sixteen books including “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003, 2014), “Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews, 2003-2015 (2015), and “An American Bride in Kabul” (2013), for which she won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of memoirs. Her articles are archived at www.phyllis-chesler.com. A version of this piece appeared on IsraelNationalNews.com.
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