Born en Route: The Children of the Exodus, 70 Years Later

Now surrounded by grandchildren, they were born on the famous ship carrying 4,500 illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe to Palestine in 1947

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The SS Exodus in 1947.
The SS Exodus in 1947.Credit: Pinn Hans, GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Whenever Galia Ashkenazi, an educator from Shoham, reaches the airport, she always piques the interest of security personnel. In the blank reserved for place of birth, her passport reads, “en route to Israel.” “They immediately ask me what that’s about, then they run off to show my passport to the others,” she relates, “and then I begin to tell them the whole story.”

Ashkenazi is not alone. Yosef Svirski, a retired Bank Hapoalim worker from Ramat Hasharon, also evokes interest when passing through the airport. “Whenever I’m asked for my passport I become an attraction,” he says. “The security inspector calls the supervisor on duty and soon they all gather around me.”

The common theme binding Ashkenazi, Svirski and a few dozen other Israelis celebrating their 70th birthday these days is the fact that they were born in the midst of a seminal national and historic event. They are called “children of the Exodus,” after the famous ship that carried 4,500 illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe to Palestine in the summer of 1947. They were still inside the wombs of their mothers, young women who together with thousands of others were tossed around at sea, jostling with the British, and arrested upon entering the country. They were then deported to Europe, ultimately becoming the emblem of the entire illegal immigration enterprise.

Over the last month Haaretz has traced some of them through a Facebook group called “Exodus 1947-2017.” There are hundreds of members: Some of them are the illegal immigrants themselves while others are the children and grandchildren of the original ones. Some were born on the Exodus and others, on ships deporting them from Haifa back to Europe. Many were born in displaced persons camps in Germany, the last stop of the ships’ journeys.

Zvi Hatkevitz (L) and Tzipi Portnoy, both 'children of the Exodus,' stand in front of a drawing of the ship, August 23, 2017.Credit: Rami Shllush

On July 11, 1947, when the Exodus left France on its way to Palestine, it was carrying 1,282 women, along with 1,561 men, 1,018 youths and 655 children, as documented by historian Prof. Aviva Halamish from the Open University. She was the first person to delve deep into the story, subsequently writing a book about it called “The Exodus Affair.” According to data she gathered, by the end of the trip, 56 babies had been added to the ship’s manifest, including some who were born on board. A few dozen more were added to the list later, in the camps.

Ashkenazi was one of them. Her first name attests to this. “I was called Galia since I was born on the waves [gal in Hebrew],” she says. She was born on board the Empire Royal, one of the three ships deporting people who arrived to Haifa on the Exodus back to Europe. “Conditions on the boat were uncomfortable for everyone, obviously, so imagine how a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy felt, in the summer heat and overcrowded conditions, with insufficient food and water,” she relates. She was born on August 9, when the deportation ships anchored in Port-de-Bouc in France. The illegal immigrants refused to disembark.

“My mother went into labor on board the boat and they suggested that she get off and seek medical assistance at the port’s clinic, but she refused,” says Ashkenazi. Finally a doctor who was part of the group came to her assistance and delivered the baby. “An orange crate, cushioned with life preservers, served as my crib,” she says. “My father’s shirts served as diapers.” In a family photo album she keeps a photo of herself in a carriage, beside her parents and her 3-year-old sister, in a German displaced persons camp to which they were later deported.

A family of illegal Jewish immigrants leave the Exodus in Haifa to be deported back to Europe, 1947.Credit: GPO

Only in May of 1949 did the family get to go to Israel. Her parents worked at the Israel Institute for Biological Research at Nes Tziona. When she turned 16 she went to get an ID card at the Interior Ministry. She was asked where she had been born. “I told them I was born on the Exodus, so that is what they wrote,” she said. This was later changed to “en route to Israel,” which is still in her documents to this day.

Yosef Svirski was born two days after Ashkenazi, on another deportation ship, the Runnymede Park. A British military doctor who accompanied the deportees on that ship delivered him on deck. Twenty years ago, when that doctor retired, he found Svirski’s birth certificate in his home, where he had kept it for all those years. He contacted the Israeli embassy in London and returned the certificate to its rightful owner. On this historic document it says that “a male child was born to one of the illegal Jewish migrants who are being held on board.” Svirski asked the British embassy in Tel Aviv whether he was entitled to British citizenship based on the document he now possessed. “They said that this was the first instance of such a case coming before them and promised to look into it,” he recalls. The answer was positive. “They explained that I had been born on a British warship, which is considered British territory, so I was entitled to citizenship,” he says.

The first baby was born on the Exodus on July 12, the day after it left France for Palestine. “Congratulations, we have a baby boy. Mother and child are doing well,” read an announcement sent from the ship to the commanders of the clandestine Aliyah Bet illegal immigration operation run by the Haganah paramilitary organization. To the illegal immigrants, the ship’s leaders had a more dramatic message: “This morning a child was born on our boat. Let the newborn child be a symbol of our determined will to live. We wish the newborn success in planting roots in the soil of his country.”

Tragedy at sea

Not all the births on the Exodus ended in good fortune and not all the babies born there are celebrating their 70th birthdays in Israel, surrounded by their grandchildren. On July 15, 1947, Paula Abramowitz, one of the illegal immigrants, died as a result of complications during labor. “It’s a case worth talking about, since it is emblematic of the tragedy of Jewish life these days,” said a female medic who was present at the time. Abramowitz had gone into labor a day before the ship set sail and was sent to a hospital, but her husband didn’t let her stay there, worrying that they would miss the ship’s departure.

Galia Ashkenazi as a baby with her parents and sister in a German displaced persons camp, 1947.Credit: Courtesy of Galia Ashkenazi

“The miserable father felt guilty and the sorrow dug into his heart. He begged them to at least save the child, but it wasn’t easy. The overcrowding and disease had stopped the flow of milk of most of the nursing mothers,” said the medic, who had to give the baby canned milk. “We have to do everything we can to keep him alive,” Yossi Harel, the ship’s commander, told her. Finally, a 60-year-old gynecologist agreed to care for the baby and when the ship docked in Haifa. She was allowed to disembark with the baby and his father and go to a hospital, but a few weeks later the baby died.

Another baby born at sea on the deportation ship Ocean Vigor, which was on its way to Hamburg, died a few hours after being born. His body was lowered into the sea in a tin container, “causing a tremble in the hearts of the illegal immigrants. It induced an oppressive atmosphere among them and the entire pre-state community,” wrote Halamish in her book. This tragic story was commemorated by poet Nathan Alterman in his weekly column for the newspaper Davar, who described the baby’s burial at sea, in diapers and inside a tin container.

Even 70 years later, some of the “children of the Exodus” feel the impact of the dramatic events into which they were born. “We learned from our parents to take responsibility for life, and that if you are determined you can achieve anything, without complaining or whining,” says Tzipi Portnoy, a Haifa-area woman who works in the high-tech industry. She was born in a DP camp in Germany, to where her parents were deported. Her mother, who was born in Poland, told her nothing of the difficulties around the pregnancy and her birth. “Not a word. Absolutely none,” says Portnoy. “They didn’t talk about the difficulties despite the horror stories I heard from others. For them, everything was fine.”

Last year she returned for a visit to Emden, the port town in which she was born. She found that there were no remnants of the illegal immigrants’ stay there. At her initiative, a commemorative plaque was placed where the camp had been, documenting this chapter in the city’s history under the caption, “The Odyssey of Exodus 1947.” The plaque is accompanied by photos, historic documents and an explanation.

A reunion

Zvi Hatkevitz, who works for Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and lives in Haifa, was also born in a DP camp. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who got married in June 1947 in another such camp in Germany. From there, they were transferred to France by the illegal immigration network, in order to board the Exodus the following month.

His mother was worried that they wouldn’t let her sail so she hid her pregnancy, “wearing a coat in the summer heat in order to conceal her stomach.” A few months later, when the ship anchored in Hamburg, Hatkevitz was born on German soil. His birth certificate, written in German, bears the historic date November 29, 1947.

Over the last few months he’s been devoting all his energies to organizing an event to commemorate 70 years since the sailing of the Exodus, a reunion which will take place in Haifa on September 7. He has been joined in his efforts by Izac Rozman, the son of Mordechai Rozman, the illegal immigrants’ leaders on the ship, and by Yaakov Weiman, the son of Carmela Weiman, another illegal immigrant who at one point played a significant role by smuggling some explosives onto one of the deportation ships.

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

“It makes me cry,” says Hatkevitz with emotion when talking about the Exodus from a perspective of 70 years, remembering that this year marks other anniversaries of historic events in the Zionist saga: 120 years since the first Zionist Congress; 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and 70 years since the UN resolution about the partition of Palestine, which passed on the day he was born. “On board everyone was together, with one goal,” he says. “There were secular and religious Jews, people from Hashomer Hatzair [a socialist Zionist movement] and Hapoel HaMizrahi [a religious Zionist movement], Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. How can you compare that to the widening fissures of today?” he asks sadly.

Hatkevitz is very energetic. He recently released a travel diary written in Hebrew by his father while on board the Exodus. And he is harnessing the power of social media to complete a complex undertaking: preparing, for the first time, a complete list of the immigrants who sailed on the Exodus. It turns out that no such list exists after all these years. Rina Offenbach, who is in charge of a database documenting the illegal immigration, says there are several reasons for this. The immigrants gave the British false information in order to make it more difficult to identify them. “We may never know the names of all the people on the Exodus,” she says.

Thanks to the connections made on Facebook, documents, photos and testimonies of the immigrants and their families surface every day. This week, for example, the son of Tzipora Brot, one of the babies born in Hamburg who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, published a letter written by his grandfather Meir on November 13, 1947: “Three babies, children of the Exodus, were born tonight. One of them is mine, ours I looked into two black open eyes which can’t see anything yet, but I saw a lot in them – my future. In the eyes of the other children in our camp, who are born here every day, I see the future of our people.”