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Chapter XV

The Children Train in France

Rabbi Herzog and his son headed to Paris to urge the various organizations to speed up the preparations for receiving the children transport. This was a very difficult task since most existing Jewish homes in France could absorb a few children at a time but nothing approaching the number demanded, namely 488 children in addition to the adult escorts. We must also remember that other groups of Jewish children arrived in France legally or illegally and had to be absorbed by the existing homes. Furthermore, many French Jewish children whose parents were deported emerged from hiding and had to be placed in homes. All of these demands put a heavy burden on the existing facilities. To complicate matters, the UNRRA organization was not permitted to operate in France. The burden therefore had to be borne by the JDC, the Vaad Hatzala, the Jewish Agency of Palestine and the French Jewish social services. Rabbi Herzog directed his efforts to these offices to help lodge the youngsters of the children train in France. The rabbi took advantage of his stay in Paris to speak to various Jewish congregations to donate money to rescue Jewish children. William Leibner and his father attended a meeting where the rabbi spoke in Yiddish and urged the people to give money to rescue Jewish children that survived the war. A sizable amount of money was collected that evening.

The Rabbi then left Paris and headed to London where he arrived exhausted. Doctors urged him to rest. As usual, he ignored the doctors and continued on his speaking tour determined to raise money to bring more Jewish orphans out of the Christian homes and institutions they were in. He made an appearance before Britain's religious council and described his activities, namely saving Jewish children in great detail. He also spoke to groups urging them to make donations and help save Jewish children. Rabbi Herzog succeeded in raising a significant amount of money on this English tour.

Meanwhile, the plans to absorb the children in France were finished. All the papers and transport arrangement were completed. A Czech train awaited the passengers at the Prague railway station. 488 children and 45 adult escorts boarded busses and were taken to the train station. On September 18, 1946, a day after Rosh Hashanah, the entire children transport boarded the train in accordance with their party affiliation namely, Mizrahi children and Agudah children in separate sections. For the next two days the train traveled across Czechoslovakia, Germany and then entered France and reached the historic city of Strasbourg, France. According to Danieli, along the way in Germany, the train stopped at a local station where there was a crowd of Germans waiting for a train. The transport children hurled abuses at the Germans and threw cans and bottles. Some windows were broken.

The American military police quickly arrived and restored order. The train was permitted to continue the journey. At the next stop, American troops in battle gear showed up and formed a security cordon around the train to prevent any other attacks. Finally the children train arrived in Strasburg to a tumultuous reception organized by the local “Bnei Akiva” Mizrahi Zionist youth organization. The Mizrahi children and escorts left the train headed to the Jewish community service center, where they spent the holidays. Then they were moved to a three–story house on Rue Selenic in the center of Strasbourg that belonged to the Jewish community. The main floor had halls that were converted into a synagogue, dining room and study centers. The second floor consisted of dorms and the third floor had small rooms for the staffers and their families. The place was crowded and disorganized. The group leaders became a bit more tyrannical in their behavior toward the children. Discipline was strictly enforced and offenders were given cleaning chores as punishment. According to Danieli, the place was overcrowded and lack of trained personnel aggravated the situation at the home. The children were restless. Their dream to go to Palestine had to wait. Meanwhile, they had to live and manage at the home. Eventually, the younger children were removed to a home in Schirmeck, near Strasburg. Living conditions at the Selenic home improved.

The Agudah children under the leadership of Recha Sternbuch and Rabbi Wohlgelernter continued their journey to the city of Aix–les–Bains, an old French spa city located in Southern France. The city dates back to Roman times. Prior to World War II, the city had the only Yeshiva in France named “La Yechiva Hachmei Tsarfath d'Aix–les–Bains”. The Yeshiva was headed by Rabbi Chaikin, who was soon deported to Germany. The Yeshiva closed the doors in 1939, and reopened them at the end of the war. It accepted many Jewish children notably some of the Children train transport.

 

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Shoah survivors at the Yeshiva in Aix–les–Bains

 

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Yeshiva students sitting at the festive table with sign of “Welcome”

 

The condition of the home was overcrowded but the leaders had no choice. Eventually, other locations were found for the children in the city. Some of the children were later sent to Antwerp, Belgium. Most of the children of the Agudah transport devoted themselves to Talmudic study and many of them emigrated to the United States. The Agudah youth homes were heavily financed by JDC and the Vaad Hatzala. The French OSE also provided medical and dental services to the children.

Some of the Strasburg children refused to sit any longer in France and decided to act. According to David Danieli, some older children became restless for they lost hope of going to Palestine. Sitting in France was not their goal in life. A group of about 17 youngsters formed a small unit that insisted on taking matters in hand and to reach Palestine by any and all means. David was chosen to write a letter to David Hubel, head–master of the Zabzre orphanage. Both Davids got along nicely in Zabrze. The letter

 

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David Danieli in shorts before his departure aboard the “Exodus Ship”

 

asked David Hubel to help them get to Palestine. The passengers were soon contacted and told that arrangements were made and that they should proceed to Marseilles where an agent of the illegal aliyah would meet them. They received the necessary transportation tickets and left Strasburg in March, 1947, and headed south to one of the assembly points for illegal immigrants to Palestine. The French Brichah and the Mossad organization maintained camps where all potential illegal refugees assembled and waited for illegal ships that the Mossad would send and pick them up. As soon as the illegals boarded the ship, it sailed to Palestine. They arrived at the reception camp and soon boarded an illegal ship. Shortly thereafter they boarded the illegal refugee ship named “Exit Europe 1947” better known as the “Exodus ship”.

 

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President Warfield en route to Europe in 1947, where she would be renamed Exodus

 

The ship was formerly named SS President Warfield. The ship launched in 1928. During World War II, it served both the Royal Navy and the US Navy. On November 9, 1946, the ship was sold to an agent of the Palestinian Haganah organisation that transferred it to the Mossad or Aliyah Bet organization. The latter made extensive reparations and it sailed from Baltimore, Maryland, USA on February 25, 1947, and headed for the Mediterranean. The ship had a crew of 35, mostly American Jewish volunteers. Below is a list of the American crew members.

 

Last name First name Name of ship
ARAS, Joe EXODUS
ARANOFF Murray EXODUS
BEERI Shmuel EXODUS
BERNSTEIN William EXODUS
FORMAN Ben EXODUS
GOLDSTEIN Myron EXODUS
GRAUL John EXODUS
KALM Eli EXODUS
KOCHAVI David EXODUS
KURT Baruch EXODUS
LAVINE Frank EXODUS
LEIDNER Harold EXODUS
LESTER Aaron EXODUS
LUTZ Abbot EXODUS
MALOWSKY Danny EXODUS
MARGOLIS Reuven EXODUS
MARKS Bernie EXODUS
MCDONALD Hugh HATIKVAH
MILLMAN Dave EXODUS
MILLMAN William EXODUS
MILLS Dov EXODUS
NADLER Nat EXODUS
NAFTAL Al EXODUS
RITZER Stanley EXODUS
ROFE Roger EXODUS
SCHILER Shmuel EXODUS
SEGAL Zeev EXODUS
SELOVE Lou EXODUS
SIEGEL Abe EXODUS
SKLAR Lennie EXODUS
STANCZAL Frank EXODUS
SYGAL Awraham EXODUS
WARDI Teddy EXODUS
WEINSTEIN Cy EXODUS
WEISAFT Harry EXODUS

 

The ship reached the port of Sète, near Marseilles, and began loading Jewish refugees numbering 4,515 passengers which included 1,600 men, 1,282 women, and 1,672 children and teenagers. Most of the refugees had been transported by the Brichah from D.P. camps in Germany to Marseilles. The author and his family were part of a transport that left Pocking Camp in Bavaria and crossed the German–French border where their truck broke down and they were arrested by the French police. Most of the other trucks continued to Marseilles. Most of the emigrants were Holocaust survivors who had no legal immigration certificates for Palestine.

According to Danieli; “Many of the refugees had numbers tattooed on their arms and spoke primarily Yiddish. The crew spoke English. The place was crowded but well organised. Most of the refugees were determined to reach the shores of Palestine. The fact that American Jews were aboard the ship strengthened the feeling of the Jewish refugees that they were not alone. Ike Aronowicz, a Haganah member was the captain of the ship and Haganah commissioner Yossi Harel was the organizational commander of the Exodus. On July 11, 1947, some time between two and four in the morning, flying a Honduran flag and claiming to be headed for Istanbul the ship left the port. Many of the passengers were on deck to witness the event, according to Danieli.”

Itzhak Aharonovitch was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923. Aharonovitch grew up in what was, at that time, Danzig in Germany – now known as Gdansk in Poland – before moving with his family to Tel Aviv at the age of 10. Seven years later, as a stowaway on a ship destined for Russia, he left home hoping to fight the Germans as a member of the Soviet Army. Discovered in hiding, he was returned to Palestine, and immediately sought a means of leaving Palestine once more. He reached London, joined the navy and became a merchant marine officer. He spent the Second World War sailing on British and Norwegian merchant vessels. Following the war he returned to Palestine, and threw in his lot with the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah. When the Palmach decided to create a naval force, the Palyam, to organise illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, Aharonovitch enlisted. In 1946, as the President Warfield, a former pleasure boat, was being refitted in Baltimore to ferry more than 4,500 refugees to Palestine as the SS Exodus, he was dispatched to serve as its captain.

On July 11, 1947, the ship left France. As she left the port, the Exodus was shadowed by the sloop HMS Mermaid and by RAF aircraft. Later, the Mermaid was relieved by the destroyer HMS Cheviot.

 

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The destroyer HMS Cheviot

 

According to Danieli, “The ship was loaded with enough supplies to last two weeks. Passengers were given cooked meals, hot drinks, soup, and one liter of drinking water daily. They did their washing in salt water. The ship had only 13 lavatories, but that hygiene was satisfactory and the ship appeared well prepared to cope with casualties. Several babies were born during the week–long journey. During the journey, the people on the Exodus prepared to be intercepted. The ship was divided into sections staffed by different groups and each went through practice resistance sessions.

The ship took seven days to cross the Mediterranean and reach the shores of Palestine. But, as the ship approached Haifa some 20 nautical miles (40 km) from the Palestinian shore, a British cruiser and several destroyers surrounded it. Boarding the ship was difficult, and was challenged by the passengers and Haganah members on board. One crew member, the second officer, an American volunteer, Bill Bernstein, died after being clubbed to death in the wheelhouse. Two passengers died of gunshot wounds. Several British sailors were treated for injuries. About ten Exodus passengers and crew were treated for mild injuries resulting from the boarding, and about 200 were treated for illnesses and maladies unrelated to it. The British finally boarded the ship on 18 July.”[1]

Among the dead was the American volunteer William Bernstein. He was born January 27, 1923, in Passaic, New Jersey. At the age of 13 his family moved to San Francisco. He graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco and attended Ohio State University.

 

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William (Bill) Bernstein aboard the Exodus prior to its departure for Europe

 

Although entitled to a deferment from military service as a pre–medical student, he volunteered for the U.S. Merchant Marines in World War II. He graduated from the Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in 1944 as a second lieutenant. After the war, he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but volunteered for Aliyah Bet and served as a second officer on the Exodus.

The British sailed the commandeered ship into Haifa port, where its passengers were forcibly transferred to three more seaworthy deportation ships, Runnymede Park, Ocean Vigour and Empire Rival. The event was witnessed by members of UNSCOP. These ships left Haifa harbor on July 19, 1947. Meanwhile pictures of the seizure were published throughout the world by a press reporter aboard the Exodus. The assumption was that the refugees would be sent to the detention camps in Cyprus. But Foreign Secretary Bevin decided to teach the Shoah survivors a lesson and sent them to Port–de–Bouc, France. He urged the French government to disembark the refugees from the ships. The French government felt ill at ease for the French record towards the Jews during the war was to collaborate with the Germans. The French offered to accept any passengers who wanted to leave the boats. The Exodus detainees refused to leave their boats. Bevin decided to send the Shoah survivors back to Germany. When the news reached the world press, anti–British feeling throughout the world, especially in the United States, rose to great heights.

David still vividly remembers the Rosh Hashana that he celebrated on a British detention ship in the port of Gibraltar on the way to his detention camp in Germany, in the British sector of Germany. He did not overstay his detention in the British camp and began to move in the direction of France. Luck was with him and he soon managed to cross the border into France. He headed to Strasbourg where he rejoined the old orphanage Strasbourg/Schirmeck that he had left in March, 1947. The home was now closed but the orphanage had moved to the castle named “Chateau Raye” in the village of Le Vauson near Paris. Meantime, the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. David and the other children jumped at the first opportunity to head to Israel. The moment arrived when he disembarked in the port of Haifa on August 16, 1948, with other youngsters from the children train. His dream came true. He left Zabrze, Poland, on August 22, 1946, and ended up in Israel on August 16, 1948.

 

Shlomo Korn

Shlomo Korn was more descriptive. “We packed and bid farewell to the home on Selenic Street in Strasbourg. The orphanage threw a party in our honor and we left for Marseilles where an emissary awaited us and took us to an isolated and empty house. We remained at the place until Passover and then moved to another camp facing the sea. Here preparations were being made for the departure of the next illegal ship. Illegal boarding passes were forged by the hundreds with destination to Colombia in South America. Then one night, Jewish Displaced Persons from German camps began to arrive en masse and were organized in groups and sent to board the Exodus ship. Our group of the children train was one of the last to board the ship that was very crowded. On July 11, 1947, the ship managed to leave the docking berth without a pilot and headed out to sea. The British navy followed the ship and then rammed the boat on the high seas. Fights ensued between the British boarding parties and the illegal passengers that resulted in the death of three civilians, among them an American sailor, and dozens of seriously wounded passengers. The illegal ship was brought to Haifa where all passengers were transferred to three prison ships and then started their voyage back to France.

The French refused to force the passengers off the boats and eventually the ships sailed to Hamburg where we docked on September 6, 1947. Our ship, the “Empire Rival”, was the last ship to dock and we were immediately placed aboard a train and transported to Lubeck where trucks took us to the camp called Amstau. We were later transferred to another camp named Pependorf where there were more youngsters. Here we participated in various activities and also studied Hebrew. Soon we began to travel in the direction of France under the leadership of “Brichah” agents and eventually made it back to Strasbourg. The home at Rue Selenic was closed. I continued my train trip to Marseilles where I entered a huge refugee camp named “Grand Arnas.

 

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Numbered certificate issued to the passengers of the famous “Exodus” ship.

 

The camp contained many nationalities including Jews waiting for visas for America or residence papers to stay in France. Within a week we were transferred to the Jewish Agency camp “Villa Gabi,” a beautiful place overlooking the sea. Here we awaited an illegal ship that would take us to Palestine. Then came the order that only volunteers for the Israel Army would be sent to Israel. I was informed that I would be sent back to the orphanage home that used to be on Rue Selenic but had now moved to the chateau Voisin near Paris. I refused to go back to the home and joined a Hagana training camp in the vicinity of Marseilles. I told them that I was 18 years of age and was accepted for military training. I then boarded a ship toward the end of May, 1948 with Canadian volunteers heading for Israel and we landed in Haifa. I was immediately sent to a military base “Yona” near Beit Lid. Within a few days, I was ordered to assemble with the other soldiers. The commander saw me and told me to return the weapon and to wait for him. Following the formation, he took me in his jeep and delivered me to the immigrant hostel in Raanana on his way to visit his parents. Thus ended my wanderings from 1939 to 1948.[2]

The two interviews may have had similar experiences but we felt it important to tell their stories without eliminating the repetitions.


Footnotes

  1. William Leibner interviewed David Danieli Return
  2. William Leibner interviewed Shlomo Korn Return

 

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