The captain of the legendary pre-state Jewish immigrant ship Exodus, Yitzhak "Ike" Aharonovitch, died yesterday in Hadera at the age of 86.
The Exodus earned its place in the country's collective history as a ship carrying Holocaust survivors, which in 1947 tried to run the blockade that the British has imposed on Palestine at the time to bar free Jewish immigration to the country.
The ship left France in July of that year with 4,515 Holocaust survivors on board. After two months of run-ins with the British, its passengers were returned to France; when they refused to disembark there, they were deported to Hamburg, Germany.
Aharonovitch's leading role in the story of the Exodus was shared with the ship's commander, Yossi Harel, who died a year and a half ago at the age of 90. Aharonovitch was born in Germany and came to Palestine as a child in 1932 with his family. At the age of 17, he stole away on a ship and sought to join the Soviet army to fight the Germans, but he was caught and returned to Palestine.
He later joined the Palyam, the naval unit of the pre-state Palmach Jewish military force. He went to London to study seamanship, but returned to Palestine without completing his studies to get involved in bringing in illegal Jewish immigrants.
In 1946, he boarded the Exodus in Baltimore and worked on the ship's renovation. When the ship's captain resigned, Aharonovitch, then 23, assumed the post.
The ship had begun its life as an American pleasure boat. The Exodus became a symbol of the effort to bring immigrants to Palestine following prolonged battles against the British along the coast of the country. Eventually the decision was made to surrender, and the ship was allowed into Haifa harbor in the presence of members of the United Nations commission on Palestine before the passengers were expelled to Germany.
Aharonovitch was an advocate of the need to fight the British and never forgave the decision to surrender, which he attributed to David Ben-Gurion, later Israel's first prime minister. According to Aharonovitch's daughter Ella, Ike believed that it would have been possible to successfully bring the ship's passengers onto shore.
Mordechai Rosman, a leader of the passengers on the ship, told Haaretz that "Ike was a phenomenon, one of the central figures in the illegal Jewish immigration effort. The Exodus was not the first or last of the immigrant ships during that period. Its prominence is attributable to the large number of passengers that it was carrying and the fact that its professional crew was Jewish and not foreigners. He was shown to be a fascinating figure. He charmed those around him, with his calm, his determination and his devotion. The jewel in the crown among his accomplishments was the Exodus."
Rosman added that Aharonovitch's major coup was to get the ship out of France on the way to Palestine despite British pressure on the French, who then prohibited the ship from leaving port.
Technically, Rosman said, it seemed impossible to leave port without French support, but Rosman said, "against all odds, [Ike] took the task upon himself and did the impossible." Rosman added that Aharonovitch "will for us represent the spiritual power of the illegal immigration movement."
Aharonovitch is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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