She was there. She watched the story unfold. Over 50 years ago, American journalist Ruth Gruber watched, recorded, and told the story of the 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard Exodus 1947 who tried to reach Eretz Israel (Palestine). When the ship was pulled into Haifa, Gruber was a witness. In her new book, Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation, Gruber documents in text and photographs the journey of the refugees from their arrival in Palestine to their forced return to Hamburg, Germany.
The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off; the lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles. (pg. 51)The 4,500 Jewish refugees were unloaded from the tattered ship. They were separated from their few belongings and then placed on three ships (one hospital ship; two prison ships). Gruber describes the scene in abounding detail - from facial expressions of the refugees to the depth charges exploding around the ship.
These refugees were supposed to go to the British camp for captured refugees (those caught while trying to illegally enter Palestine) on Cyprus. Gruber flew to Cyprus and was able to get a visa to enter the prison camps there. With detailed descriptions and pictures, Gruber is able to capture the heat and thirst that plagued these camps.
Cyprus was a twentieth-century purgatory, a hot hell of desert sand and wind blowing against tents and tin Nissen huts, a hell circumscribed by two walls of barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka, a hell in which privacy was unknown. (pg. 107)Gruber waited for the ships carrying the refugees to reach Cyprus, but they never came. Instead of Cyprus, the British had sent the refugees to Port-de-Bouc in southern France. Here, the refugees refused to get off the ships; they said they would only get off in Palestine. For three weeks, these refugees lived in the overcrowded hold, in the blistering heat, with no changes of clothing, and with nothing to do. When books were brought for the refugees, the British burned them.
Gruber tells of what was happening on land - who was bringing food and what officials were saying. But the really vivid descriptions came from her allowed visit onto the ships and her direct contact with the refugees.
On the ship and inside the hold, Gruber got a real understanding. No light. No beds. Living only with hope. Many of the women handed Gruber their babies. One mother said,
I'm going to stay alive so my child won't be burned in a gas chamber. I'm going to live so my child can grow up in decency, without being afraid. There are no frontiers to Jewish hope. (pg. 170-171)The pictures from her visit speak more than words.
Just hours later, the three ships were sent by the British to Hamburg, Germany. For those on board, going back to the country that had murdered their families was an outrage. Here, the refugees were forced off the ships and taken to a prison camp.
In her book, Exodus 1947, Ruth Gruber tells the heroic and sad story of these very strong-willed refugees. From one who was there, the description of events are moving and powerful. Many of the small, but important, details are revealed.