'Exodus' Ship's Flag Auctioned Off and Donated to Holocaust Museum in Washington

The flag that flew on the mast of the iconic ship carrying illegal immigrants was purchased by two American Jews, angering those who believe it should have remained in Israel.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Bloomfield and the Silverstein brothers who purchased the flag, looking at the Exudos flag.
Bloomfield and the Silverstein brothers who purchased the flag, earlier this week.Credit: ZACH GIBSON / NYT
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The flag that flew over the “Exodus” in 1947, a ship that became a symbol of the illegal immigration project that contributed to the establishment of the state, was donated this week to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Two Jewish brothers from Chicago who own a real estate company bought the flag for $144,000 at a public auction that took place at the Kedem auction house in Jerusalem last month. They have now donated it to the museum.

“One of them flew in especially for the auction. He landed here at noon and was on his way back with the flag that night,” Kedem manager Meron Aran told Haaretz.

The director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sara Bloomfield, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the flag the museum obtained was a “rare treasure,” comparing the historic event it is associated with – the illegal immigration to Palestine by European Jews, survivors of the Holocaust — to the current refugee crisis in Syria. “It shows the refugees’ distress and the indifference of the world,” she said.

Bill Silverstein, one of the brothers who made the donation, said that it “constitutes an important reminder to humanity” of what can happen when the world turns its back on people’s distress. “It’s particularly relevant today because of what’s happening to refugees and asylum seekers” he said. He added that the flag had been on a long journey and had now found a home.

The Israeli flag that flew on the SS Exodus. Credit: Kedem Auction House

In November, when Haaretz published news of the upcoming sale, there was sharp criticism in Israel over the sale of a historical item with such national importance. "This is truly an outrage and a scandal," said Dr. Ahuva Pullman, one of the arrivals on the Exodus, to Haaretz. “The flag represents the illegal immigration enterprise which is enmeshed with the early history of this country. Its place is in museums exhibiting the heritage of this country for future generations,” she said,

“The flag shouldn’t be a commercial item that can be bought for money. The flag belongs to the public and the state,” she added.

It now turns out that her efforts to prevent the sale were fruitless. “I think this will be something we regret for many generations. I don’t know what can be done to counter this sale,” said Yitzhak Rozman, the son of the leader of the immigrants on that ship, Mordechai Rozman, in conversation with Haaretz before the auction. Yehuda Tzur, a Palmach veteran and a member of the organization that brought over the ships that tried to slip through the British blockade, said that it was scandalous that the flag was sold.

The SS Exodus in Haifa, 1947. Credit: Frank Schersche/GPO

Exodus set sail from Europe in July 1947 from a port in the south of France, with 4,500 immigrants on board. These were Holocaust survivors who had reached France after an arduous journey from camps for displaced people in Germany. On its way to Palestine the ship was attacked by British destroyers and in a battle waged on its decks three passengers were killed, with dozens of others injured.

When the ship anchored in Haifa the would-be immigrants were arrested and deported back to Europe. The fact that they were Holocaust survivors didn’t help them. The affair caused an international uproar and was an important stage on the way to establishing the state of Israel. After the boat’s commander Yossi Harel ordered its surrender, the ship sailed into Haifa harbor. When it anchored there, the Israeli flag was flying on its mast.

Before passengers were arrested and deported the flag was taken down by one of the crew members, Michael Weiss, an American Jew from Philadelphia. He kept the flag until 1977. He then gave it to a rabbi from Jerusalem who kept it until now, when he put it up for sale.

Yitzhak Rozman told Haaretz that the fact that the flag ended up in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is a partial consolation, but he rejected the attempts to use the flag as a symbol for the suffering of all refugees. “It’s good that the flag didn’t end up in private hands again, to be hidden in a cabinet as something with monetary value. That is somewhat of a consolation. Nevertheless, I hope a way can be found to return it to Israel in the future” he said.

Regarding the comparison of the refugees on board the Exodus to stories of Syrian refugees today he said: “People have not internalized the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which was preceded by a plan to commit genocide. Other instances in which people are killed and murdered cannot be compared to this.”

“Any comparison between the illegal immigrants on the ‘Exodus’ and Syrian or African refugees – whose plight I don’t envy – is out of place. There is nothing similar between the two cases. In Syria there is a brutal war with people getting killed but there is no organized plan to kill everyone as was the case during the Holocaust,” he said.

Yad Vashem responded by stating that “we regret that an item connected to the state’s history has been removed. It’s too bad it didn’t go to a suitable museum in Israel.”

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