Volunteers who brought Jews to Palestine look back

"Until coming here, I didn't really understand what a big role [North] Americans played in getting Jews to Palestine after the Holocaust," Max says during the group's visit to Atlit, where a former British internment camp that once housed thousands of Jewish refugees has been turned into a museum.

Max and Leah are not alone. With the exception of the Leon Uris novel "Exodus," which, according to the volunteers is riddled with factual errors, and a handful of books on the clandestine immigration movement, "there's very little mention of the part we played," says Eli Bergman, one of the reunion organizers.

Even the Clandestine Immigration Museum in Haifa "makes almost no mention of our involvement."

Between 1946 and 1948, the most active years of the Aliyah Bet movement that began in 1934, 10 American ships purchased by American Jews and manned predominantly by 250 North American volunteers transported 32,000 refugees to Palestine, which was then ruled by the British.

Bowing to Arab demands and fearful that a large influx of Jews would weaken their hold over Palestine, the British imposed a quota allowing just 2,000 Jews to immigrate each month — despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors were languishing in European displaced-persons camps.

In all, more than 100,000 Jews tried to enter Palestine "illegally" on dozens of Aliyah Bet ships. Due to the British blockade, however, the vast majority of the vessels were intercepted at sea, and the refugees were sent to internment camps either in Palestine or nearby Cyprus.

By all accounts, the postwar Aliyah Bet movement was instrumental in forcing the British to relinquish control of Palestine in May 1948.

"The sight of wretched Holocaust survivors being prevented from reaching their homeland elicited a great deal of world sympathy and, in my opinion, helped force out the British," says Uzi Narkiss, a decorated retired army officer.

"Members of the U.N. committee sent to Palestine to research the prospects of partitioning the country watched the Exodus struggle unfold from their balconies in Haifa. I'm certain much of their decision to establish a Jewish state came out of that experience."

Today, five decades after they risked sea mines, tempestuous storms and the wrath of the mighty British navy, the volunteers say they would do it all over again.

"I still remember the faces of the Holocaust survivors," says Jack Yeriel, a native New Yorker who served on the ship The Jewish State before immigrating to Israel in 1947.

"What struck me was their courage. I remember this young couple that broke into a smile from ear to ear when they boarded the ship.

"I thought, `This is why I'm on this ship, this is why we need to build a Jewish country.' I thought, `There but for the grace of God go I.'"

Canadian-born Eddy Kaplansky, who served on the same ship, says he will "never forget the sight of the 2,700 refugees we picked up in Bulgaria. It was a terrible sight, these poor people in pitiful clothes, just like we see in Rwanda today. There were mothers with new babies, young orphans. Our non-Jewish captain burst into tears."

Kaplansky, who like most of the North Americans saw military action in World War II, recalls that there was a woman named Zelma Rosenfeld who had just given birth before boarding, and she was bleeding internally.

"The doctor had warned her that the voyage would be long and hard and that she might not survive the trip," he remembers. "She said that she would rather die on her way to Palestine than stay in Europe.

"Zelma was so grateful to Irving Meltzer, our American radio officer who assisted her, that she named her son Mordechai, after Meltzer's late father. It's ironic that she survived the voyage, only to be killed by a British policeman's stray bullet four months later."

Standing just out of earshot of his grandchildren, Irving Meltzer shrugs off any suggestion that his service on the ship was anything out of the ordinary.

"After living through what they lived through, the refugees had to know that someone cared," says Meltzer. "For them, just the fact that we were there was important."

Unlike the majority of those at the reunion, Isaac "Ike" Arane says he has no desire for more recognition.

Portrayed by Paul Newman in the film version of "Exodus," Arane says a lot has happened since then. "My life didn't begin and end on that voyage."

To this day, Arane, a European who made aliyah as a child, is peeved by the mere mention of the movie and the Leon Uris novel that spawned it.

"In the novel, the Haganah [the underground army of pre-state Israel led by David Ben-Gurion] smuggles a bunch of youngsters aboard the Exodus and they go on a hunger strike. Ultimately, the British are forced to allow them into Palestine."

But, "in real life," Arane adds, the British "rammed into us, boarded us, and clubbed to death Bill Bernstein, one of the crew. Then they placed 4,500 Holocaust survivors on three ships and sent them back to France. The passengers refused to disembark for three weeks, so they were sent to Germany.

"The Exodus was famous long before Leon Uris wrote his book," Arane asserts.