Hailed by The New York Times as "one of the most inventive, brilliant novelists in the Western world," internationally renowned Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk turns his hand to biography to bring us his most important work yet. Commander of the Exodus animates the life of Yossi Harel, a modern-day Moses who defied the blockade of the British Mandate to deliver more than 24,000 displaced Holocaust survivors to Palestine when the rest of the world closed its doors.
Of the four expeditions commanded by Harel between 1946 and 1948, the voyage of the Exodus left the deepest impression on public consciousness, quickly becoming a beacon for Zionism and a symbol to all that neither guns, cannons, nor warships could stand in the way of the human need for a home. On July 18, 1947, a rickety ship carrying nearly 4,500 Holocaust survivors approached the Haifa harbor and was attacked by a British navy intent on keeping the refugees out of Palestine. Kaniuk's hair-raising reconstruction of the ludicrous battle that ensued between ten polished warships and a dilapidated junkheap unfolds with the dramatic intensity of a biblical tale.
With grace and sensitivity, Kaniuk shows the human face of history. He pays homage to the young Israeli who was motivated not by politics or personal glory, but by the pleading eyes of the orphaned children languishing on the shores of Europe. Commander of the Exodus is both an unforgettable tribute to the heroism of the dispossessed and a rich evocation of the vision and daring of a man who took it upon himself to reverse the course of history.
"The State of Israel was not established on May 15, 1948, when the official declaration was made at Tel Aviv Museum. It was born nearly a year earlier on July 18, 1947, when a battered and stricken American ship called President Warfield, whose name was changed to Exodus, entered the port of Haifa with its loudspeakers blaring the strains of 'Hatikva.' The State of Israel came into existence before it acquired a name, when its gates were locked to Jews, when the British fought against survivors of the Holocaust. It came into existence when its shores were blockaded against those for whom the state was eventually designated."--excerpt from Commander of the Exodus
In this unusual foray into nonfiction, the well-respected Israeli novelist Kaniuk (Confessions of a Good Arab) depicts the life of Yossi Harel, a Palestine-born Jew who, in the 1940s, defied the British and brought four boatloads of Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Basing the narrative on his interviews with Harel (now in his 80s), Kaniuk tells how Harel left his troubled family to join the Haganah (the Jewish militia) at the age of 14. Inspired by the revolutionary leader Yitzhak Sadeh, he fought the Arabs during the anti-Jewish riots of the 1930s and the Germans during WWII; then, after the war ended, he fought the British. Harel's first expedition brought 3,000 Jewish refugees from Yugoslavia aboard the Knesset Israel, but the British forbade their entry, and they ended up in Cyprus. Then, in 1947, Harel commanded the famous ship Exodus (an expedition later depicted in the novel by Leon Uris and a film starring Paul Newman), which sailed from France with 4,515 refugees. When the Exodus arrived, British destroyers attacked it, and the refugees went back to detention camps in Germany. Finally, in 1948, Harel commanded two more ships carrying 15,236 Jews--all of whom, due to a brokered compromise, went back to Cyprus, where they secretly boarded British ships bound for Palestine. Masterfully describing both Harel's biography and the suffering and determination of the refugees, Kaniuk portrays an ugly episode in history and provides much-needed historical depth to contemporary political debates. (It was, he argues, the global condemnation that came in the aftermath of Britain's heartless refusals that led to the birth of Israel.) (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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May 10, 2001
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Excerpt from Commander of the Exodus by Yoram Kaniuk
Long live the lads who got the command And sailed by the line through the fogs On target, on time, though hunted like dogs With no map and no compass in hand.
Their tale too will get told, that's for sure For the waves and the skies they observed On a single, near-sinking ship unswerved How they fought so the nation might endure.
--Nathan Alterman, 'A Sermon in Response to an Italian Captain after a Night of Disembarking'
When the persecutions of the Jews began to assume a fierce momentum in Europe, Yossi Harel was fighting in Jerusalem and the Galilee against Arabs in the anti-Jewish riots of the 1930s. The Palestinian conflict, too, was already a struggle for existence to determine who would survive.
Yossi was born in Jerusalem in 1919 to Moshe and Batya Hamburger, both of whose families had first come to Palestine in the nineteenth century. His childhood was not a simple one. His father ran a grocery and looked after his children and his wife, who was a lovely, aristocratic woman, but also extremely fragile emotionally. She was eccentric, withdrawn, and quite troubled, and at that time they did not know how to treat her.
Perhaps in a subconscious attempt to compensate for his mother's fragility, Yossi was a solid block of decisions, measured feelings, and objective facts; he shaped his character consciously and deliberately. He loved his mother as every son does, but in her madness he felt betrayal. When it became too difficult to live with the guilt that took hold of him in her presence, Yossi instinctively recognized the only way to protect himself: he decided his mother was dead. He separated himself from her while she was still living and did not see her again until she died many years later.
Because of all the damage wrought by his troubled childhood and the sense of betrayal bound up in his relationship with his mother, Yossi was later able to identify with the pain of the orphans he brought by ship to Palestine for these very reasons. Those children were in some ways a reflection of himself. They were also his atonement.
When he completed the statutory requirements of his public education at Tachkemoni School, Yossi got a job working in the Castel quarries to help out his family, and soon thereafter he also worked for the post office in Jerusalem, laying underground telephone wires. At age fourteen he enlisted in the Haganah, the Jewish army, along with his friends from the Boy Scout Legion; in one way or another he stayed within this framework until he became a man of forty.
While his close friends studied at high school, Yossi continued to work and was forced to prepare for the external exams of the London Matriculation. At age eighteen, when he was still active in the Haganah, his father, sister, and twin brother went down to Sodom to run a cafeteria for the Dead Sea project, a community undertaking initiated by the workers movement. Yossi remained alone. His circle of friends in the movement and in the Haganah replaced his family, even while he kept supporting his mother, whom he no longer saw.
One of his strongest memories--one that later grieved him and served as a milestone in his Haganah ventures--was connected to the riots of 1929. At age eleven he went with the Boy Scout Legion to a workers camp in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem. Two days later, early Saturday morning, the campers were notified they were being disbanded and returned to Jerusalem. Loaded onto a truck, they were driven home with an armored escort. En route they passed by Castel and its foothills along a twisting road with seven curves known as the Seven Sisters and reached the village of Motsa.
This small Jewish settlement, situated within a large Arab region, had been attacked and destroyed in the night. It was still ablaze as they approached. The rioters had butchered six people, among them all the children of the Maklef family, except for the boy Mordechai (who would later go on to be the Israel Defense Force's third chief of staff). Blankets soaked in blood covered the dissected body parts. When he reached Jerusalem with his friends, Yossi joined the throngs of Jews streaming from all parts of the city with sticks in their hands. In Zichron Moshe, opposite the Edison Cinema, there was a huge gathering. A furious crowd demanded revenge. Among them were Russian Jews from Georgia, wielding ancient swords they still kept in their homes. Bit by bit the news trickled in about the riots in Hebron and Safed. At that time, in those hours, the boy formulated a lifelong manifesto. With a profound earnestness only the very young are capable of, he resolved that the slaughter of Jews for simply being Jews must never happen in this land. It was up to him, a man of eleven, to struggle to prevent a repetition of such acts.