The French Jews Who Fought the Nazis and Brought the “Exodus” to Israel

August 22, 2019 | Tsilla Hershco
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Fictionalized by Leon Uris, and later made into a movie, the story of the Exodus—a ship that left France in July 1947, carrying some 4,500 Holocaust survivors, headed for Mandatory Palestine—is well known in the West. The British, unwilling to allow more Jews into the Land of Israel, turned the ship back; its passengers refused to leave the French port; and eventually the Royal Navy brought them to Hamburg. Less well known is the group of former French resistance fighters who helped organized Exodus’ departure, as Tsilla Hershco writes:

The Jewish resistance organization in France . . . participated in the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews in France during the Nazi occupation through the fabrication of forged documents, the hiding of children and adults, and the smuggling of convoys to Switzerland and Spain. At the end of the war, David Ben-Gurion appointed Avraham Polonski, a leader of the Jewish resistance in France, as commander of the Haganah in France and North Africa. The volunteers who joined the organization, mostly veterans of the Jewish resistance, participated in many critical activities: clandestine and legal immigration [from Europe to Mandatory Palestine]; the forging of documents; the transfer of arms to the yishuv; and the setting up of communication systems, immigrant camps, and military-training camps. . . . Later, many veterans of the resistance went on aliyah and participated in the War of Independence.

Members of the Haganah in France and North Africa under Polonski’s command were involved in the Exodus operation from its early stages: they forged travel documents, assisted in the transporting of survivors to the Strasbourg-Mulhouse border, recruited medical students, organized the reception of refugees by the Red Cross, and accompanied the refugees on their journey from the border train stations to Marseille.

Members of the Haganah in France, under Polonski’s leadership, also played an important role in preparing accommodations for the refugees. By leveraging their contacts and making bribes, they even managed to overcome the obstacle of a truck drivers’ strike in Marseille by obtaining their leaders’ consent to transport the refugees to their destination. [After they were returned to France], Polonski’s team assisted in preventing the British from forcing the passengers to disembark.

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