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ISRAEL: Exodus commander dies at 90

April 27, 2008 |  9:44 am


Before there was Hollywood's Ari Ben-Canaan, there was Yossi Harel. Barely 30 years old, he commanded the legendary ship Exodus, carrying some 4,500 Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors from Europe to British Palestine in 1947. He died Saturday at age 90.

The ship sailed from a small port near Marseilles, France, on July 11, 1947. The British authorities, determined to stop the illegal immigration of Jews that had increased after the war, had adopted a new policy to return ships to their European point of embarkation and had warships accompany the Exodus once it left French territorial waters.

On the morning of July 17, a refugee named Dvora was on deck of what was still the SS President Warfield, watching the British warships approach. "That morning, our ship's name was not yet the Exodus.... Late in the afternoon, I saw a friend of mine, a Belgian boy, struggling with a long piece of cloth and some paint. He explained he was going to paint the name of our ship on the sheet: Hagana Ship, Exodus 1947.... After a while, the job was done. That is how our ship became exodus," she wrote in her memoirs.


That night, the British rammed the ship and brought it to a stop outside the territorial waters of Palestine. Soldiers forcefully boarded the ship; passengers armed themselves with anything that could serve as a weapon. Dvora held a hammer. After a harrowing two months at sea and ports, and clashes, hunger strikes and defiance, the immigrants once again found themselves back in the Europe "that for us meant only misery and horrible memories," Dvora wrote. They were forcefully removed from the ship in Germany.

In one interview, Yossi Harel had described combing through the displaced persons camps in Europe. Touched by the hundreds of parentless children, he said he was convinced "the British navy would not stop us. We knew who we were carrying: this is what was left of 6 million people."

Many Israelis recognized Harel's role in the Haapalah, the clandestine maritime immigration of Jews to Mandatory Palestine run by the Haganah, the pre-state underground Jewish defense forces. But Harel died before the state paid proper tribute, in what Ynet critic Ariana Melamed writes today (in Hebrew) is ingratitude typical of Israelis: living in the present and quick to forget moral debts. Few detected Harel's gentlemanly irony in his remarks, she writes, when he received the Exodus Award from the Italian government at La Spezia, the port town where the Exodus had been prepared in secret urgency for its historic journey at sea nearly 60 years later. "I thank you for teaching your children our history," he had said.

Fruma Gallant was a girl of 11 when she and her parents had crisscrossed Europe after the war until reaching Germany, where they had boarded the ship. Her younger sister was born on the Exodus itself. Gallant, whose son Yoav serves as the major general in charge of the Israel Defense Forces' Southern Command, had met Harel a number of times later in life. "A most impressive man, like a movie star," she said of the man played by Paul Newman in 1960. "I don't know what award he should have received, but there certainly should have been recognition for this man who undertook such a difficult mission at so young an age."

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Images: Top, the Exodus. Below, a handwritten letter from the Exodus to a British soldier, from an Exodus organization website. 

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