This Day in Jewish History / Author Who Told the Story of Israel to the World Is Born

Leon Uris always wrote about what he knew. Most of his novels were based on history or his experiences.

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Leon Uris.
Leon Uris.

On August 3, 1924, the prolific and emotive author Leon Uris, who brought the Jews’ plight before the world in his book “Exodus,” was born.

Leon Uris was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the second child to Jewish American parents, Wolf William and Anna Uris. Wolf had emigrated to the United States from Poland, stopping for a year in Palestine and reaching Connecticut in 1921. He changed his last name for a second time, to Uris, after switching in Palestine from Yerusalimsky to Yerushalmi. After years of menial jobs and agitating for workers’ rights, Wolf became a shopkeeper. He was active in Jewish groups and and rose to the executive committee of the Workers Party, remaining faithful to the communist movement despite its disdain for Jews. He married Anna, a first-generation American, in 1923.

The young Leon did not do well in school, nor did repeatedly being failed by an English teacher suggest at his future career. He dropped out of high school at age 17 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the Marines, spending World War II in the Sixth Marine Regiment as a radio operator, including at Guadalcanal.

In 1945 he married Marine Sgt. Betty Katherine Beck, the first of three wives. While managing a newspaper delivery service, he began writing magazine articles. It did not go well at first: Only in 1950 did he get a bite, with Esquire paying him the princely sum of $300 — worth $2,900 in today’s terms — for an article on the selection of the “All American football team.” Suddenly cash-flush, he set down to write the definitive war novel.

“Battle Cry,” published in 1953, was based on Uris’ own experiences in the war. It was made into a movie in 1955.

Then came the epic “Exodus,” published in 1958. He didn’t pull the story out of his hat. Reportedly, captivated by the story of Israel, Uris spent some two years exhaustively researching for the book, including a long stay in the country during which he worked as a war correspondent, reporting on the Sinai Campaign. The result is a fictional and palpable account of Israel’s birth from the first days of Zionism in Europe, and most evocatively, the struggle of a people in desperate straits to establish a nation in the face of British opposition and Arab resistance.

The blockbuster novel became box-office gold. Released in 1960 by United Artists, the “Zionist epic” starred the biggest names in Hollywood — Paul Newman as Jewish hero Ari Ben Canaan, rescuer of Jewish refugees from Europe, and Eva Marie Saint as his love interest, the beautiful blonde American volunteer nurse Kitty Fremont. “Exodus” won a number of awards, including an Oscar and a Grammy (both for the music, by Ernest Gold).

Not everyone knows that Uris wrote the screenplay for John Sturges’ quintessential Western, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957).

Uris went on to write many novels, including “Mila 18,” about the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, and other books. In an article in The Paris Review, Joseph Heller’s daughter Erica Heller wrote that her father had to change the name of his great war novel, initially called “Catch-18,” because Uris’ novel had “usurped the number.”

Uris always wrote what he knew. Most of his novels were based on history or his experiences. His blockbuster courtroom drama “QB VII” was written after a Polish physician sued him for libel, claiming that in “Mila 18” Uris depicted him as committing atrocities in Auschwitz. The doctor was awarded a halfpenny and ordered to pay the defense’s court costs.

Uris died on June 21, 2003 in New York, aged 78.

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