In 1947-1948 I lived in Boro Park where, against parental and rabbinic advice, I joined a Zionist group. By 1950 I was packing machine-gun parts for Israel in a home not far from the Young Israel. But what I did as a child does not compare to what my friend and colleague David Gutmann did for love of Zion at that very time on the dangerous open seas.
Dr. Gutmann was a 21-year-old Jewish-American volunteer sailor for Aliyah Bet, the name given to “illegal” Jewish immigration into British-controlled Palestine (1934-1948). Hundreds of boats tried to run the British blockade. One was stranded on the Danube and its passengers later sent back to Vienna and executed, another boat was bombed by the Soviets.
Once Hitler was defeated, British disdain for Jews quickly became visible. Some Jews made it, many (more than 1,600) drowned, and most were captured and imprisoned on Cyprus. The British actually sent some boats right back to Europe, to Germany, as was the case with the SS Exodus. This public relations fiasco backfired; my friend Ruth Gruber’s on-board photo of the SS Exodus made the cover of Life magazine.
The Jewish Press recently met with Dr. Gutmann. Although he is no longer young, he is a large and sturdy man, a solid presence. He is also very witty. His generation of heroes is mainly gone but he is still here.
The Jewish Press: How did you become a sailor?
Dr. Gutmann: I served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.
The ship manifests list you as serving on two ships, the Paducah-Geulah and the Ben Hecht. Were they the same kind of boat? Who served with you?
I served first on the Hecht, after that on the Geulah. I was an engine room oiler on the Hecht, a second engineer on the Geulah. The Hecht was purchased and run by the Irgun. She was a German-built twin-diesel luxury yacht originally named Abril (April). She sailed for the U.S. Navy on anti-sub patrol during World War II.
After the Brits left Palestine, the Hecht/Abril became part of the Israeli navy and was used to launch frogmen against Egyptian naval craft off Gaza. Last I heard, she was running tourists between Naples and Capri.
The Hecht/Abril’s crew was a mix of Jews and non-Jews, kids and veteran seamen, crazies and idealists . We ended up in Acco (Acre).
The Geulah was purchased and run by the Haganah. A twin-screw steamship built around 1905, she served during World War II as, I believe, a gunnery-training vessel on the Great Lakes. She was scrapped in Naples in ’49. The Geulah’s crew was more decorous than the Hecht’s complement. A mix of veteran sailors (Jews and non-Jews), and Zionistic college kids.
We also had a few exiled Spanish loyalist sailors and our second mate was Don Miguel Boeza, who had been high admiral of the loyalist navy. Our captain was Rudy Patzert, an old commie married to a Jew. He wrote a book about the voyage – Running the Palestine Blockade. Our Haganah commander was Moka Limon, a legendary hero of Aliyah Bet who later became admiral of Israel’s navy. He was the guy who pulled off the legendary “boats of Bordeaux” operation. We all ended up in the Cyprus prison camps.
Would you consider writing a memoir?
Depends on the kind of memoir. I wouldn’t want to deal with the whole operation – too much I don’t know. Perhaps something more personal and anecdotal. I’ve got a few good stories.
Are Jews still eager to hear your stories?
Despite the fact that I’m willing to speak without honoraria, even during 2008 – Israel’s 60th anniversary year – the response from heads of congregations was at best tepid. And since then, perhaps one in three rabbis show interest. Some who showed initial interest never followed up. Nowadays, they might suggest 10-minute gigs at men’s club breakfast meetings.
Why the disinterest?
Rahm Emanuel reportedly said, “I’ve had it with Israel.” I think a lot of Jews now feel that way. They’re tired of worrying about Israel, unendingly, from crisis to crisis . The Palestinians are the heroes of our victim-adoring age; accordingly, many liberal Jews have come to believe the Palestinian “Nakba” revision, the lies that turned a miracle into another Jewish blood libel.
But whatever their politics, modern Jews have little sense of history. I speak about the ’48 war, and the lies about it that are now believed by too many Jews. For most U.S. Jews, the ’48 war is an old and perhaps boring story. They saw “Exodus”; they don’t want to see it again. They don’t realize that history is the present, and that [post-Zionist] revisionist history is central to the attack on contemporary Israel. It is one of the manifold attempts to bring it down, first morally and then physically.
Did you stay in touch with others from Aliyah Bet?
Yes. I was one of the founders of the now defunct American Veterans of Israel organization. I held office and attended their reunions in Israel and the States. But that was then. Most of us are dead now, and I haven’t had a drink with an old shipmate in years.
Bob Levitan, our captain, participated indirectly in the breakout from Acco. With his Leica, he took ID-type photos of all the Irgun and Lehi prisoners, and these were later used in the phony ID cards issued to them prior to their escape.
What similarities, if any, do you see between American Jewish attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s and today?
In the 1930s and ’40s, American Jews sanctified FDR. Now they are equally loyal to Obama. Despite their growing awareness of the Holocaust, during World War II American Jews for the most part stayed silent – very few mass protests and very little covert action. “FDR will save the Jews.”
My fear is that too many contemporary Jews are preparing to repeat this pattern. They will not embarrass the great and good Obama with their selfish concerns for what they view as a victimizing country – Israel – that no longer deserves their loyalty. Too many will follow Obama’s lead and stay silent while Israel is weakened or even destroyed.