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'The Ship That Launched a Nation'

March 13, 2008 By:
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For American Jews who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, the appearance of Leon Uris' novel Exodus in 1958 -- and the inevitable Hollywood blockbuster drawn from it, which premiered in 1960 -- was an unprecedented event. Our parents and their contemporaries made the book a best-seller. I would bet most Jewish teenagers can recall seeing a copy of the blue Bantam paperback lying around the house during that period and heard the excited talk among the adults about the book's particulars.

We children, aware of the interest and excitement, more than likely came to the movie first, then to the book, but we knew instinctively that something extraordinary had happened, something that probably had never occurred before in Jewish history. Exodus was more than a hugely popular novel -- it was one of the greatest best-sellers in American book publishing -- and an Otto Preminger film; it was a cultural phenomenon. The book may have had all the defects of most novels that wound up on the best-seller lists at the time, but what was significantly different was that the work was a positive depiction of Jewish life -- a Jewish story with Jewish heroes -- that was embraced by a mass of Jews and non-Jews. It gave Jews a sense of pride -- much like the creation of Israel itself -- emotions that would only be rivaled by the victory of the Six-Day War, almost a decade later; but that, of course, became, with the passage of time, something of a divisive event in Jewish and world history.

Uris' Exodus tells the story of the effort to smuggle Holocaust survivors from the island of Cyprus, where they were being held by the British, who then ruled over Palestine, into pre-state Israel during the late 1940s. The book's title, aside from echoing biblical events, also refers to one of the actual, perhaps most famous boats that broke through the British blockade in an effort to bring displaced persons to the port of Haifa.

The two main characters in Uris' work are Ari Ben Canaan, who fights in the Jewish underground, and Kitty Fremont, a gentile nurse. In true Uris fashion, they fall in love, and their romance is played out against the backdrop of the armed struggle to expel the British. In the movie, Ari was played by Paul Newman -- it must have been his traditional Jewish good looks -- and Kitty by Eva Marie Saint. No wonder American Jews were beside themselves.

Sad, Extraordinary Story

Uris often turned up the romance, which is what ensured the book's phenomenal success among American readers. But the appearance of a new edition of journalist Ruth Gruber's book Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation reminds us of the liberties the Uris book and the Preminger movie took, and how drenched they were in the romantic traditions of historical fiction.

Back in 1948, when Gruber's work first appeared (it's now been reissued by Union Square Press), it was titled Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947, which is probably more to the point of the story being told.

The work tells the whole sad but extraordinary story of how masses of suffering displaced persons, languishing in camps throughout war-torn Europe, struggled valiantly to come to Israel. It also tells some of Gruber's own story as a pioneering correspondent for The New York Post and The New York Herald Tribune.

Gruber happened to be in Palestine in 1947 when she received a telegram telling her the British had intercepted a refugee ship. She rushed up to Haifa, getting there just in time to see the crippled Exodus 1947, which had been rammed by the British, make its unsteady way into the port city. She had a camera and began snapping pictures. Many of them -- urgent, shattering documents, much like her book -- are included here and bring a welcome dose of reality back to what really happened to the Jewish people after the war, exactly what they looked like and what they experienced, sans romance.

The refugees were eventually taken off the Exodus and put on other boats, and Gruber traveled with them to Cyprus (where they did not land, no matter what the British led everyone to believe). They were first sent back to France and then, shockingly, on to Germany, where they became DPs again. The British were out to break the illegal-immigration movement, and they assumed these actions would deal the fatal blow. And yet, despite all these setbacks, a good many of the people on the original Exodus did, in fact, make it back to Israel in time to see the state be born.

There may have been few love affairs -- at least in the Hollywood-Uris manner -- and perhaps more suffering than one might imagine, but there was also lots of unmistakable drama to the tale, all of it captured in the text and photos of Exodus 1947.


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