As UN official Emil Sandstroem (bottom right, white hat) looks on, British soldiers remove Jewish refugees from the ship "Exodus 1947." The passengers are deported back to Europe. Haifa, Palestine, July 20, 1947.
Central Zionist Archives
The "Exodus 1947" was a worn-out US-owned coastal passenger ship launched in 1928. Originally called the "President Warfield," it sailed the Chesapeake Bay between Baltimore and Norfolk for over a decade. Transferred to the British under the Lend-Lease agreement as part of a group of shallow-draft ships, the "President Warfield" was later deployed in the Normandy invasion. After World War II it returned to US waters. Yet the ship was to take part in one more event which ensured its place in history, symbolizing the struggle for unrestricted immigration into Palestine.
Initially sold as scrap for slightly more than $8,000, the ship was acquired by the Hagana (an underground Jewish military organization). Hagana personnel arranged to dock the ship in Europe in order to transport Jews who sought to illegally immigrate into Palestine. The plight of the ship's passengers would capture the world's attention. In July 1947, the "President Warfield" left Sete, France, for Palestine with over 4,500 Jewish men, women, and children, all displaced persons (DPs) or survivors of the Holocaust. Even before the ship (by then renamed the "Exodus 1947") reached Palestine's territorial waters, British destroyers surrounded it. A struggle followed in which a Jewish crew member and two passengers were killed. Dozens suffered bullet wounds and other injuries.
Attempting to make an example of the "Exodus 1947," the British transferred the passengers onto three navy transports which returned to Europe. The ships first landed at Toulon, France, where the passengers were ordered to disembark. When the French authorities refused to use force to remove the refugees from the ship, British authorities, fearing adverse public opinion, sought to wait until the passengers disembarked of their own accord. When the passengers, including many orphaned children, forced the issue by declaring a hunger strike, the British were forced to return them to Hamburg in the British-occupied zone of Germany. Amid worldwide public outrage, the British authorities compelled the passengers to disembark; some were forcibly removed from the ship. The passengers were then transferred to displaced persons camps in Germany.
Displaced persons in camps all over Europe protested vociferously and staged hunger strikes when they heard the news. Large protests erupted on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing public embarrassment for Britain played a significant role in the diplomatic swing of sympathy toward the Jews and the eventual recognition of a Jewish state in 1948.