Though the Allies succeeded in defeating Germany in World War II, the long years of fighting took a heavy toll on the British government. The famed empire on which “the sun never sets” was strained to the breaking point. The last thing England wanted was another round of fighting in the Middle East. Having determined that appeasing the Arab governments was more important than anything else, they actively worked to prevent further Jewish immigration to Israel.
In March of 1947, the Exodus set sail for Israel. Aboard was a Christian Zionist Methodist minister, John Stanley Grauel. He was closely connected with the Haganah but was there on the ship ostensibly as an undercover correspondent for the Churchman, an Episcopal journal. With that designation, he secured a visa from the British Consulate in Paris, enabling him to legally enter Palestine. His assignment was to make certain the world knew of the events surrounding the ship.
Once he had arrived in Europe, Grauel’s job was to arrange for the transfer of refugees from displaced persons camps to the Exodus. His tasks were many and varied: cook, distributor of supplies, administrator, and contact person between the refugees and the crew. The ship steamed toward Palestine with more than 4,550 refugees packed aboard. Just as she neared Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, the ship was rammed by the British Royal Navy cruiser Ajax, in a convoy with five destroyers, and was boarded by sailors.
This was not an easy task, as the SS Exodus had been fortified with barriers and barbed wire to discourage such actions. The British reportedly bombarded the ship with tear gas grenades in order to subdue the passengers. Captain Ike Aronowicz and his crew challenged the boarding party. One crew member, First Mate William Bernstein, a sailor from California, and two passengers were bludgeoned to death.
The ship that had brought such hope to so many had been attacked by the British navy a mere 17 miles offshore in international waters. It was a wanton act of piracy for which the Royal Navy commanders were never charged. Grauel later reported that as the Exodus staggered into the port at Haifa, those still able to stand gathered on the deck of the ship and sang “Hatikvah,” the hymn of hope.
Grauel, the only passenger on board with a valid visa, was arrested but soon escaped with help from none other than the future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek (who would become a very dear of mine years later), and the Haganah. He was approached by a reporter who was a member of the Jewish organization.
The unnamed reporter shepherded Grauel to the men’s room, from which he was whisked out a back door into a waiting car displaying American press credentials. The Jews on board the Exodus were then forced to disembark in Haifa and were eventually and unwillingly returned to British-controlled camps in Germany.
Grauel was summoned to Kadimah House in Jerusalem to give a firsthand account of his experiences during the voyage with the refugees to the United Nations Committee on Palestine. As he stood before that group, he leveled his heartfelt accusations regarding the treatment of the Jewish passengers on the Exodus. He later said of his testimony: “There was great gratification for me in knowing that my eyewitness report was now a matter of record. Inherent in the nature of the relationship between Christians and Jews was the fact that because I was a Christian, in this situation my testimony would be given greater credence than that of a Jewish crew member.”
Grauel’s witness proved to be an effective means of gaining compassion and support for the Jewish cause. His eloquent speech to the UNSCOP later earned him the moniker of “the man who helped make Israel possible.” Prime Minister Golda Meir believed it was Grauel’s recounting of the events surrounding the Exodus that persuaded the UN to support the creation of a Jewish state.