In the summer of 1947, after the clandestine immigrant ship Exodus anchored in Haifa Port, its 4,500 passengers, all Holocaust survivors, were placed on British ships and sent back to Europe. The affair reverberated internationally and was an important milestone in the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Israeli flag that flew from the deck, commemorated in historical photographs as a symbol of the struggle of the Jewish people for independence, will soon be offered for public auction in Jerusalem, at a starting bid of $100,000.
The description of the item in the Kedem catalogue states: “Overall good condition. Stains, folding marks and creases.” As is the practice in auctions, information about the seller is not provided. It has changed hands a number of times over the decades and the identity of the person who will pocket this respectable sum is not known.
The person who took down the flag from the mast of the Exodus was crew member Mike Weiss, an American Jew who was among the foreigners who volunteered to assist in the struggle for a Jewish state. Weiss, now deceased, joined the ship’s crew after it was purchased in the United States by officials of Aliyah Bet (the code name for illegal immigration) in 1946.
The ship’s senior crew included the captain Isaac (Ike) Aharonvich, its Hagannah commander Yossi Harel and immigrant leader Mordechai Rozman. The latter died last year, the last of the three to pass away.
The Exodus left port in southern France on July 11, 1947. Its 4,500 Holocaust-survivor passengers had reached the port after an arduous journey from displaced persons camps in Germany. Before dawn on July 18, 1947, when the ship was 40 kilometers from Israel’s shores, it was rammed by a British destroyer and fired upon. A battle ensued between the British soldiers, who took over the ship, and the immigrants, leaving three immigrants dead and dozens wounded. The flag of Honduras that had flown from the mast was riddled with holes. That flag is currently on display at the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa.
“The ship was camouflaged as if it was from Honduras,” said museum director Nir Maor. “The flag kept in our museum has holes, which it is said are from British bullets. It has the signatures of the American volunteers who sailed the ship.”
The ship sailed to Haifa, after Harel ordered the crew and passengers to surrender. By the time it anchored there, the flag of Israel was already flying. Before the passengers were arrested and deported, Weiss took the flag down from the mast. The British news company British Pathe, which filmed the arrival of the ship, shows Weiss climbing the mast to take down the flag. The three-minute clip was posted on the Internet last year and can be seen by searching the Web for the words “Haifa Refugee Ship 1947.”
Weiss and the other crew members were arrested and held at the Atlit detention camp. He returned to the United States after his release. The immigrants were loaded onto three ships which sailed back to Europe, their decks surrounded by barbed wire. In France, where they anchored, the immigrants barricaded themselves on the ships for three weeks and refused to disembark. There too, the flag of Israel was flown.
The ships subsequently sailed for Hamburg, where the passengers were forcibly removed and placed in detention camps in the country from which they had fled a few months before. After a year in the camps, they were sent to Israel as immigrants.
“The pictures showing Holocaust survivors deported behind barbed wire fences in Europe shocked people throughout the world,” Meron Eren, of Kedem Auction House, said. Their story was immortalized in the 1960 film Exodus, starring Paul Newman.
Weiss, who settled in Philadelphia, never had children and in 1977 he gave the flag to a friend in Jerusalem. Where the flag was kept in the ensuing years is not known. This month it popped up again in the Kedem catalogue.
“I think [the auction] is a disgrace,” said Yitzhak Rozman, son of the former leader of the immigrants Mordechai Rozman, in a conversation with Haaretz. “I don’t know how to prevent it.”
“My father, who came from Hashomer Hatzair, died last year at the age of 97. Unfortunately, in recent years we have not been on the side of the government and apparently more surprises are waiting for us.”
Other items from the Exodus have been auctioned off in the past. “We’ve sold many objects connected to illegal immigration. This field is very popular among people interested in Eretz Israel,” Eren said.
A journal written in Yiddish by one of the clandestine immigrants, whose name is not known, is also going on auction. It, too, changed hands a number of times and at one point was on sale in the Jaffa flea market. One entry in the journal reads: “We reached Haifa on July 18 they handed out leaflets in Hebrew and English, saying that we were sailing to Cyprus Who could imagine then what would happen afterwards!!! Sadly, we could see Haifa only from a distance. There were real tears in our eyes when we saw the country we longed for, but could not walk on its soil.”
The journal also mentions a stirring speech by immigrant leader Rozman on the deportation ship: “Honored immigrants, here are the remnants of the Jewish people murdered in Europe. Here are the soldiers and the partisans. Here are the people who returned from the concentration camps, alone, without mother, father or family. We must swear before all, to ourselves, under no circumstances will we disembark of our own free will.”
The opening bid on the 12-page journal, written in a notebook in the beginning of which are Hebrew language exercises, is $1,500.