December 2, 2019

Finally, the plan was set.

Jewish organizers salvaged an aging wooden boat from a coastal junk yard and 3,500 Jewish recruits were sent to Marseilles for boarding. 

Right off, the Spanish captain and crew were terrified at carrying so many people aboard such an unseaworthy vessel.

“All the Jews were like herring, 3,500 people sitting in a little ship,” Ernie recalled. “People were running back and forth on the deck. 

The captain was screaming, ‘So many Jews!’”

In a last-ditch effort, the ship’s crew frantically dispersed passengers around the ship for balance, and they were finally bound for coastal city of Haifa.

All 3,500 of them.

Winter storms soon rocked the boat, where many passengers were crammed below deck, sleeping in beds five stories high. Often streams of vomit would cascade down from the top bunks, making those down below sick as well. 

Ernie was the ship’s cook, responsible for coordinating all of the meals. So he was allowed to remain on deck, away from the terrible smells and suffering. 

“This baking stuff saved me through the Germans, Russians and Israelis,” he joked.

When he wasn’t working, Ernie played the accordion his mother had bought him years ago as passengers danced around him. 

For nearly a week, Ernie labored for a week around he clock to feed the hoards, before the ship finally neared Haifa. It was still dark, but passengers could see the shimmering lights of the city.

Land ho!

That’s when the ambush came. 

For years, the British government had limited the number of Jews who could enter its former territory, so the war-torn land could be resettled with an Arab majority.

British ships were lying in wait off the Palestine coast, intercepting tens of thousands of European Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, who arrived in overcrowded vessels in a program known as Aliyah Bet. 

In 1947, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had launched Operation Embarrass, a clandestine effort to blow up ships in Italian ports that were preparing to take Jewish refugees to Palestine, instructing operatives to plant mines in the hulls of the vessels. 

From the summer of 1947 to early 1948, five such attacks were carried out, destroying one ship and damaging two others.

Those ships that did set sail were stopped and boarded by British Royal Marines and Paratroopers, who were often met with violent resistance by passengers armed with clubs, iron bars, axes and pistols.

From 1945 to 1948, more than 80,000 Jews attempted to enter Palestine. Scores of immigrant ships were captured and some 65,000 people were detained, many of them taken to British prison camps in nearby Cyprus.

That night, in the darkness off the Palestine coast, Ernie and his fellow passengers were suddenly caught in the spotlights of waiting British fighters. 

An officer on a microphone ordered the boat to surrender.

But the Jewish fighters were ready.

They assembled on deck to perform a Jewish circle dance known as the Hora. They danced and sang, ignoring the British commands. 

When the attackers lobbed tear gas onboard, Ernie and others dipped rags into buckets of water, handing them out to fighters. People covered their faces to protect against the stinging gas.

“We were still dancing,” Ernie recalled. “And when the tear gas came, we had ready the buckets with water and towels. We put it on our face. We’re young. We fight the British – no guns, nothing.”

Ernie collected bottles from his kitchen. They were used as weapons by a dozen men who had scaled the mast.

The British stormed the ship for hand-to-hand combat.

“We were fighting them,” Ernie recalled. “And from the top, those guys with bottles, they injured a lot of British. So, the attackers moved back. They saw it’s too many Jews; they can’t do it.”

Finally, the British soldiers opened fire. 

Ernie recalled seeing a dozen men hit by bullets, falling to their deaths from the mast.

Just like that, the brief battle was over. 

The British ordered their captives to transfer to English ships, but they refused. 

Many were forcibly carried off the boat on stretchers. 

Suspected Jewish underground leaders – 40 in all – were loaded into tiny cages.

Then the British ships and their Jewish captives set a course for Cyprus. 

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