The first time Frances Greenberg tried to reach the Jewish homeland she was met by tear gas, armed soldiers and two naval destroyers that rammed the ship she was on and towed it away.
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Her second attempt at aliyah was more successful, though again she was met by an army – this time, of news crews beguiled by the story of the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who tried to come to British Palestine aboard the illegal immigrant ship Exodus and returned 61 years later to settle in Israel.
Realizing a dream six decades late has a bittersweet taste.
“It’s not quite the way I imagined it, but it’s good to be living in the Jewish homeland,” says the petite 92-year-old with coiffed white hair, nearly five years after making aliyah from Pittsburgh. She is seated in the kitchen of her compact apartment in a retirement complex in Ra'anana, on a rare free day – meaning she has no tai chi, swimming, lecture, concert, advanced Hebrew class or book club.
Until a few months ago, she was also a volunteer English tutor at the local high school. It’s an active life, but not the one she imagined when she first planned to come here more than 70 years ago.
One of four children from a devout Ger Hasidic family in Poland, Greenberg joined a Zionist youth group in her teens, when she and friends would sing Hebrew songs, dance the hora and envision a future doing the same thing in the Jewish state. An aunt and uncle who had already settled in Mandatory Palestine sent her an invitation to join them – that being the only way the British authorities would let Jews immigrate – but before she could make good on the certificate, Germany had invaded Poland and she was trapped.
Greenberg fled to Russia but was unable to convince her family to join her; she alone survived the Holocaust.
One of her most vivid postwar memories was her return, along with other Jewish refugees, from Russia to Poland by train. “As we crossed the border I can still hear the Poles saying: ‘My God, we thought Hitler killed them all. Why did they send them back to us?’”
In a displaced persons camp in Germany she became close to a man named Isak who was as set on going to America as she was on going to Palestine. In the summer of 1947 she said goodbye to him and embarked alone on the ship that she was sure would take her to a new life, the Exodus. “I still had a dream, now more than ever,” says Greenberg.
As the ship approached the coast, Greenberg recalls seeing the twinkling lights of Haifa at night – the closest she would come to the country then – and singing what would become the national anthem, Hatikva. “Then there was tear gas and chaos and shock,” she recalls of the British interception of the ship and the transfer of 4,500 passengers, most of them Holocaust survivors, back to Europe.
Greenberg returned to Germany heartbroken and ill. While hospitalized in Berlin, her old flame Isak–who had not yet left for America – tracked her down after hearing about the fate of the Exodus' passengers. He insisted she join him in America. “Come with me, you have struggled enough,” she recalls him saying. And she did.
Almost 61 years to the day
She and her husband led what she calls “a good life” in America, settling in Pittsburgh, running a dry-cleaning business and raising two children. But Greenberg was never fully at peace. “After being in exile for thousands of years, we finally got a country, and I felt guilty for not living in it.” (She did visit frequently, using their first $1,000 saved to come to Israel for a month in 1955 with her young daughter.)
Only after her husband Isak died in 2007 and her grown-up daughter was already living in Israel did Greenberg decide to realize the dream she couldn’t shake. She arrived on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in July 2008, almost 61 years to the day she had set sail on the Exodus.
The woman who once imagined that she and everyone else would be dancing the hora in the streets is struck by the changes in the country. “Much of the sense of togetherness and solidarity has been lost,” she laments. “I think affluence changes people’s attitudes.”
It’s also not easy making new friends in your 90s. Greenberg finds herself more alone than she’d like to be, having outlived all her first cousins in Israel.
On the other hand, she is thrilled to be living near her grandchildren and daughter, and is overwhelmed by the young country's accomplishments.
The achievement she’d like to see next is peace. She took fate into her hands – albeit six decades later than planned – and she thinks it’s time for the Palestinians and Israel to do the same.
“They have to have a state like we had to have a state. Now after more than 60 years, how much longer can we postpone it?” asks Greenberg, who not only cites the words of first-century scholar Hillel – “If not now, when?” – but tries as much as possible to live by them.