Forget Paul Newman, This Italian Port Tells the Real Story of the Exodus

While the docks are being redeveloped, locals tell the story of the partisans who helped the Holocaust survivors and whose descendants are battling to build a memorial

Jewish displaced persons on board the Dov Hoz at La Spezia, Italy, awaiting permission to sail to Palestine in 1946.
United States Holocaust Memorial

LA SPEZIA, Italy — An 11-million-euro redevelopment of the old military docks in this northern Italian port city will destroy the pier where over a thousand Holocaust survivors went on a hunger strike in 1946 when the occupying British forces blocked their illegal ship from sailing to Palestine.

The story of this ship – the Fede – and the hunger strike helped inspire the Leon Uris novel and the Hollywood blockbuster “Exodus” that starred Paul Newman as the Haganah secret agent who led the refugees to British Mandatory Palestine. Yet local historian Alberto Cavanna, who is 56, only discovered last year that illegal immigrant ships were fitted out in the dockyards where he worked for many years.

The real-life ship the Exodus, which made its own voyage in 1947, had been fitted out at nearby Porto Venere before it set sail for France and then to Haifa, from where its passengers were sent back by the British to Marseilles.   

>> Born en route: The children of the Exodus, 70 years later >>

The real-life Paul Newman was Yehuda Arazi, who headed Haganah operations in Italy while the British were severely curtailing Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine. With the help of left-wing Italian partisans, Arazi cared for and helped to spirit away many of the 75,000 Jewish refugees who flooded into Italy after World War II.

The former Pagliari Pier in La Spezia, Italy, April 2018.
Rosie Whitehouse

One of them was 16-year-old Yitzhak Kaplan, who had survived the Holocaust when he fled deep into Soviet Russia. He and his sister were among the survivors who made it to La Spezia. When the British soldiers tried to drive them off the ship, the refugees pursued them down the pier, known as the Pagliari Pier, where they quickly formed a circle around the jeeps, dancing a wild hora, using the dance as a weapon.

In his home in Haifa, Kaplan recalls that he watched Arazi with admiration even when the agent called a hunger strike to try to force the British to let the refugees set sail. The port side was sealed off by the British army but local people crowded around the gate offering support. Kaplan says he “will never forget the hunger.” In the bowel of the ship, people lay in their bunks motionless, staring into space while quietly contemplating what would become of them.

Threat to blow up the ship

The British, however, were no pushovers, and a Royal Navy ship sailed into the bay across which Byron had once famously swum. From the deck the British demanded that the survivors disembark immediately. Arazi shouted back that he would blow the ship sky-high if the British tried to remove them. Kaplan says he was nervous but “never frightened, even when Arazi said he might blow up the ship,” adding that “more than anything I was angry.”

As the British sealed the port off with tanks, the news of the Holocaust survivors’ plight made headlines across the world. Arazi sent radio messages to world leaders including U.S. President Harry Truman, informing them that the thousand survivors of Hitler’s camps were crowded into a small ship in an Allied port, besieged by the greatest navy in the world. It would have a major impact on American policy in the Middle East.

Jewish displaced persons pitching tents at Italy's La Spezia harbor, where in 1946 they held a hunger strike to protest Britain's refusal to let them sail to Mandate Palestine.
United States Holocaust Memorial

Arazi hung a sign on the port gates proclaiming the place “the gateway to Zion,” and flew the Zionist and Italian flags side by side. On the fifth day of the hunger strike, Harold Laski, a senior member of the British Labour Party and the scion of an influential Jewish family, arrived. He tried to persuade Arazi to call the hunger strike off while he interceded on the protesters’ behalf.

Arazi refused, informing Laski that the next morning 10 refugees would commit suicide, and every dawn 10 would do the same until the survivors were allowed to set sail. Finally Laski returned from London with news that the Labour government had agreed to let the ship go. Before the survivors left they celebrated a hasty Passover on the pier.

The ship was dangerously overloaded, so an extra boat was brought in. “The leaders came to ask for volunteers to give up their places to pregnant women and old people so they could get to Palestine as soon as possible,” Kaplan recalls. “Thirteen of us young guys volunteered to get off. Leah my sister decided to stay.”

After 45 days in La Spezia, in front of a huge crowd of local well-wishers, the survivors heard the whistle announcing the ship’s departure. A second ship, the Fenice, was brought in to ease the overcrowding. The Fede and the Fenice, now renamed the Eliyahu Golomb and the Dov Hoz after the two Haganah co-founders, finally set out to sea.

But somehow this drama was forgotten in La Spezia until 1996, when journalist Marco Ferrari came across a story on the news wires of a concert in New York and Tel Aviv to commemorate the event. “I’m the son of a partisan and I’ve lived all my life on the left, but I had never heard people talk about the aid the partisans gave to the Jews,” Ferrari says.

Local historian Alberto Cavanna in La Spezia, Italy, April 2018.
Rosie Whitehouse

He says that “the partisans did not want to remember the part they had played in the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians,” though Cavanna, the historian, notes that “the Israel agents of the Haganah swore the locals to secrecy. They were fearful to speak out afterwards. There was a considerable amount of gun-running too, and this was certainly something people didn’t want to talk about.”

Pushing for a memorial

When Ferrari was the cultural director of the local council, he set up the Exodus Prize for intercultural cooperation, but he says that in recent years interest in the story has waned.

“Local people are apathetic, but it’s important for the world to remember what happened here. Historical facts are in danger of being forgotten, and that leads to historical revisionism,” he says. “The partisans helped over 25,000 Jewish refugees leave for Palestine in the run-up to 1948, and they also illegally trafficked arms that were used in the battles against the Arabs. Not to remember the true facts is to leave history open to distortion.”

Local activists in La Spezia are campaigning for a memorial to be put up at the marina, as they believe commemorating the story could improve the way Italians regard the vast number of migrants who have arrived in their country in recent years.

Jewish displaced persons at the port of La Spezia, Italy, while waiting
for permission to sail to British Palestine in 1946.
United States Holocaust Memorial

One of the leaders of the campaign, Maria Luisa Eguez, a local school teacher, says “the people of La Spezia are by nature not open and friendly, but they opened their arms to help the Jews even though the city had been very badly destroyed in the war. If it happened once it can happen again, and that hope drives me forward.”

In his large office with commanding views across the Gulf of La Spezia, Mayor Pierluigi Peracchini, of the first center-right coalition to run the city since 1945, explains that the until two years ago the Pagliari Pier had been a military zone and was now owned by the Port Authority.

“My mother-in-law was one of those who helped the Jews and brought them food,” he says, adding: “You're right to ask why this story isn't being remembered here, and it’s close to my heart.” He then slips into his back office to make a call to the port authorities, emerging minutes later to announce that a competition will be held for a suitable memorial to be put up at the new marina.

By chance, Orli Bach, the granddaughter of Arazi, was among the first to hear the news while visiting the city on a holiday with her husband. Standing by the building site on the old Pagliari pier she told local reporters: “The people here have a lot to be proud of, and pride in this story can feed into the commercial sector and attract lots of tourists. Solidarity between Italy and Israel is important. I grew up with stories of my grandfather all my life. He was very courageous and committed to helping the survivors.”

But the historian Cavanna is skeptical. “As for a memorial; well, this is Italy," he says. "I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Journalist Marco Ferrari in La Spezia, Italy, April 2018.
Rosie Winhouse