We Were Exodus is an exciting and inspiring full-length documentary about the travels and travails of the ship “Exodus 47”, which secretly left France in 1947 loaded with 4,500 Jewish refugees bound for the then British Mandate of Palestine. They were prepared to challenge the menacing British blockades that sought to prevent the refugees from immigrating to their Promised Land of Israel.
A bit of history will help set the stage. Under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain promised to create and foster a Jewish national home in the Palestinian region and in 1923, began to control Palestine under an international mandate.
In 1939, Britain promised to create an independent Palestine by 1949, which would be governed by Palestinian Arabs and Jews in proportion to their numbers in the population. A limit of 100,000 Jewish immigrants was set for the five-year period 1940-1944.
Under pressure from Arab countries, Britain held fast to these pre-World War II limits, despite the desperate attempts of Holocaust survivors to move to their biblical homeland. Compared to the number of European Jewish refugees who were desperate to escape, the British restriction seemed unconscionable.
Even after World War II, the British continued to fight illegal Jewish immigration, and fought relentlessly to prevent ships such as Exodus 47 from docking at Haifa.
The film, We Were Exodus, except for a few voiceovers, consists of crosscut interviews with individuals who played a role in the harrowing voyage as well as screen-sized versions of their old photographs.
Director Jean-Michel Vecchiet has combined the interviews and photographs seamlessly to make this heroic mission come alive. In 1947, all the participants were young people; now sixty years later, we see their youthful and courageous selves beneath their aged exteriors as they relate their personal, moving and exciting accounts.
Among those interviewed is the still vigorous and confident Avi Levney, an American World War II veteran and crewmember who is said to be the character Paul Newman played in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film, Exodus.
The recollections of Yossi Harel, Commander of Exodus 47 and a member of the Haganah, (a Jewish paramilitary organization fighting the British in Palestine) were animated and detailed. He died in April 2008.
Also interviewed were other crewmembers, ship’s passengers as well as the French resistance members and French citizenry who boldly supported the efforts of Exodus 47. Many of the witnesses had never formally testified before.
Exodus 47 never made it to Palestine. The passengers were sent to Port-de-Bouc, France, where they refused to disembark. Without the support of the French, they would have starved. Again, Exodus 47 left France and sailed for Haifa, but as it approached the port, British forces boarded the boat, and a brutal fight left three dead, and hundreds injured.
And talk about cruelty, not to mention bad publicity, the British then sent the poor refugees to a British controlled former Nazi SS camp near Hamburg, where they received harsh and callous treatment. These actions caused international distain for the British and prompted greater international support for a State of Israel.
It’s rare that truth trumps fiction, but We Were Exodus tells its now mythic story with more fascination and inspiration than did the fictionalized film, Exodus, Paul Newman notwithstanding.
We Were Exodus celebrated its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on August 4, 2008.