Sitting by an open screen door, Tante Surcha switches off the television when I walk in. I lean into her recliner to kiss her cheek, and ask how she is feeling after her hip surgery. She gives a shrug and an OK, and eyes the notebook and digital voice recorder I’ve just pulled from my bag and set on the coffee table in the den of her elegantly decorated Beverly Hills home.
Sarah Jacobs (Surcha is the Polish version of Sarah) was married to my grandfather’s first cousin Max, who, along with my great uncle and grandfather, were the only ones from their family to survive the Holocaust.
And while we don’t see each other often, I was surprised to learn from her daughter recently that Tante Surcha was once a passenger aboard the Exodus.
Along with more than 4,500 other Holocaust survivors, Jacobs saw Israel from the deck of the Exodus in July 1947. But she couldn’t disembark, because the British, trying to enforce a strict quota in the Mandate of Palestine, rammed and boarded the rickety ship, killing three passengers and wounding 30. After a long standoff, the passengers were sent back to Germany.
The world uproar that followed is credited with leading to the creation of a sovereign Jewish homeland.
Jacobs’ daughter, Helen Lepor, set up this interview for us so I could learn more about her voyage, and while Jacobs, 82, agreed to let me come, now that I’m here she seems reticent. She doesn’t quite avoid my questions, but her answers are minimalist, and often accompanied by a shrug or a tilt of the head, as if the information is so obvious — or perhaps so painful — as to make the exercise unnecessary.
How were conditions on the ship?
“The facilities were not so good,” she understates in a thick Yiddish accent. “There wasn’t enough water.”
Weren’t you angry that after surviving concentration camp, you were once again being so mistreated?
“Yeah, so nu, that’s life.”
Jacobs isn’t the only survivor having memories plied from her.
Over the last several years, in anticipation of the voyage’s 60th anniversary, survivors of the Exodus have been asked to share their stories in an effort to solidify Exodus’ place in history, before all that is left are the fictionalized and romanticized versions of the 1958 Leon Uris novel or the 1960 Otto Preminger film (and even those are already being forgotten). Among the recent projects are “Exodus 1947,” a 1997 documentary film by Venice resident Elizabeth Rodgers, and a new release of journalist Ruth Gruber’s account of the voyage, “Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation” (October 2007, Union Square Press).
Last week, 300 French Jews re-enacted the voyage, setting sail from Exodus’ original port in the South of France and arriving in Haifa. Unlike Exodus’ real passengers, they disembarked.
The largest of the commemorative events took place on Aug. 1 in Tel Aviv, when 1,500 Exodus passengers and descendants of passengers gathered for a reunion, initiated and organized by Meier Schwarz, a Haganah commander aboard the ship.
Schwarz, an 81-year-old botany professor who pioneered Israel’s hydroponics crop system, enlisted the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to put together a complete list of passengers. A manifest for the ship never existed, since the passengers were trying to smuggle into Israel illegally.
Around 2,100 names have been gathered so far. Many people also submitted memoirs or interviews, and Schwarz published these in Hebrew in “Maapilei Exodus 1947.” (“Maapilim” derives from the Hebrew word for “daring,” and refers to the Jews who ran the British blockade to get into pre-state Israel.)
Schwarz also officially presented to the Knesset “The Scroll of Exodus,” a document of the Exodus survivors.
Schwarz is hoping these events will raise interest among a generation that seems to have forgotten the vital role the ship played in the founding of the state.
“If you go on the street in Israel and ask somebody what happened on the Exodus, most of them say they don’t know what happened,” Schwarz said by phone from his Jerusalem home. “They know the Leon Uris book, and they know the movie, and they all have in mind that was the real story, but the real story was something quite different and more interesting.”
While he is proud that 1,500 people showed up for the reunion — double what organizers expected — he is disappointed that he’s received scant funding for his efforts. Only the Tel Aviv Municipality chipped in for the event.
Jacobs couldn’t make the reunion. Still, she is aware of her journey’s significance, not only in the role it played in creating the state, but in how it determined the course of her life: She landed in Los Angeles in 1950 and didn’t step foot in Israel until 1964.
And even if she is reluctant to let her mind go back in time, her nonchalance disappears and her fuzzy memory clears up when she remembers what happened after the British rammed the ship.
“We went outside, we went up to see Haifa. Everyone was there, and we started to sing ‘Hatikvah,'” Jacobs remembered, her eyes growing intense. “But unfortunately, they didn’t let us off.”
‘I Wanted to Go to Israel’
Like most of the 4,515 passengers, Sarah Jacobs (née Surcha Feder) was a young Holocaust survivor. Before the war, Jacobs had lost both her mother and the grandmother who raised her, and in 1943, when she was 19, she was taken from Sosnowicz, Poland, to a German labor camp. In 1944 she was transferred to a concentration camp, from which she was liberated in 1945. At the age of 21, with all of her immediate family dead, she went to live with her uncle in Germany.
“My uncle said to me and my cousin that we are young girls, we should go to Israel. He gave us the address of my cousin there,” Jacobs says.