By Robert Brynin
They say that every problem has a solution. What they could add is that given enough money that solution can usually be found.
The British had the ability to put pressure on the French, but on the ground, or to be more precise on the dockside at Marseille, the French government was a long way away. There were people here, people who could let a ship sail without authority if there was enough money to bribe them.
Captain Johansson, Dan Mordowicz, the Haganah commander, and one or two of the others debated the problem but they knew the answer all along, except it wasn't the right answer because what money the captain had brought from the well-wishers of America had been spent getting the Levantine Trader this far. Marine fuel was expensive and in any case mostly had to be bought on the black market, and then there was food for seven hundred passengers. No, he couldn't put together anything like the sort of amount it would take.
The bridge went quiet while they absorbed this information. They knew that the British were serious, and they knew they had enough food on board for only a few days. More importantly, the water tanks might not even last out that long, just for drinking and cooking, let alone washing. For once the captain was silent. He just didn't have an answer.
Hannah took advantage of the silence to remind them that she was still there. She asked Dan to interpret.
'Can you please tell me how much we would need in order to bribe these officials? '
The captain listened to Dan and then raised his eyebrows.
'Without meaning to be insulting, my dear lady, unless you happen to have, shall we say, about two thousand dollars in your pocket ....'
Hannah stood up and put her hand in her pocket. It looked like a joke and no one was in the mood for jokes.
'These are each worth something more than three hundred thousand Italian lire. How many would you need?'
Three hours later, having taken on extra water in jerry cans that now lined the decks, the Levantine Trader steamed out of the harbour mouth. Hannah swore to secrecy everyone on the bridge. It would not do for people to know she was walking around the ship with a king's ransom in diamonds in her pocket.
Since she was going to be working in the kitchen, she was persuaded that Captain Johansson should lock her coat with its precious cargo in the safe in his cabin. As the ship ploughed into the Mediterranean, she got to work baking bread for the multitude. It was simply impossible to bake enough for everyone, but there was at least enough for everyone to get a taste. The soup was passable but the bread was something that the people on the Levantine Trader trader would tell their families about in years to come. They might have exaggerated its wonderful flavour and the texture as it melted in your mouth, but it was, after all, the first fresh bread most of them had tasted in years.
Hannah insisted that all three of her grandchildren be brought together at mealtimes so they could eat together. Afterwards the tables were moved, and suddenly there were musicians, a couple of violins, an accordion, and a clarinet, and the ship itself provided a tuneless old upright piano, but someone managed to squeeze a recognisable melody out of it. And there was singing and dancing. They sang in Polish and Russian, in German and Italian, in Yiddish and Ladino, but when they sang in Hebrew the dancers stopped and listened as if the very words were manna from heaven, as if they somehow connected them with the promised land that in a few days they would at last see and touch. Hannah saw the yearning in their eyes and it made her feel something she was unable to understand. It might have been just plain homesickness for Poland, but here on this ship heading out across the sea, with this people who had taken her into their hearts, with Adam and Mordechai on her knees, it felt, even for her, like a yearning for Palestine.
The only chance the ship had of reaching Palestine undetected by the British navy was to sail a zigzag course and confound their calculations of her progress, especially at night. During the day, if one of their spotter planes happened to locate the ship, then that night they would change course again. Ultimately, though, the coast of Palestine was limited in length, and if the Haganah units waiting for them to land were to have a chance of helping such a large number of weary refugees onto the shore, they were further restricted to a small number of beaches. The answer to Hannah's question about how long she had to make the food last was that there was no answer. As long as necessary. Well, she was used to that. In the war she had fed the partisans without ever knowing when there would be fresh supplies.
For the first two days there was no sign of a warship or a plane but early the next morning they heard the drone of aircraft engines. It came down low to inspect them and there was no doubt it was British. It was low enough for everyone to see the roundels on the wings. There was a groan of disappointment. The people knew well enough what it meant. What it meant was an extra day's sailing to try and confuse the navy. It was a risk they would have to take, even though their water might run out before they got there. What choice did they have?
That evening he and Hannah took a stroll round the deck as had become their custom, him smoking a cigarette and the two of them exchanging their personal histories.
'Dan, I want to ask you something.'
'What is the chance of us getting through?'
'Well, ask me anything except that. Okay, the short answer is I don't know. Some ships succeed, some don't. If we're caught, there's just about nothing we can do.'
'But I still don't understand why they are so desperate to stop these poor people going to Palestine. I mean, surely it's not a lot to ask, is it?'
He stopped and leaned against the railing to consider this question. No, it wasn't a lot. She was right, but. ‘Look, if you are a politician in London, these people don't matter. They are just not part of the calculation. The Arabs have to be appeased at all costs, and if a shipload of Jews has to be turned back, well, they've got a whole navy to do that job.'
'But, I mean after what has happened. Do they have no heart, these people in London?'
'I'm sorry, but the answer is no. That's why they're politicians. In any case, the British have never liked us. They admire us and, to be honest, I think they are a little afraid of us, but they don't like us. British society is founded on Christianity and you're not going to like this because I know you were born a Catholic, but it was the Church that taught them to hate the Jews.'
Hannah stood by his side and looked out across the sea. She thought back to her childhood, when her father had enforced church attendance and the priest had drummed into them that the Jews had killed Jesus and were condemned forever for their crime. At the time she had given it no thought, just swallowed the story whole, but then she had thought about it, examined it, and considered that this was not a reasonable statement. Her time with the Communists had given her a healthy disrespect for her Christian upbringing and her conversion to Judaism. She remembered then a Jewish family in her town who had come to the church to be baptised. The priest had stood them before the congregation and announced that by accepting the Lord as their saviour they were now absolved of the sin of their people. Her mother had dragged her out of the church and said it was all rubbish.
She nodded in acknowledgement of the truth he spoke. Well, whatever the Jews' crimes, the Germans had made them pay beyond the Church's wildest dreams.
'Anyway, you still haven't answered my question. Look, I know you can't say if we will get through, but there's another question. What will happen if we don't?'
It was the question he’d been hoping she wouldn't ask. He didn't want to lie to her.
'In the past they have tried sending ships back to their port of departure, usually in France, but the French aren't keen on that. It gives them a problem they can do without. If we get caught and sent back to Marseille, well, they might not let the people disembark and that would be terrible.'
'I can imagine. But surely, the ship could go anywhere.'
'Yes, but anywhere we go, the British can persuade the government not to accept us.'
'So, then what? Don't we become a problem for the British? They have to do something with us, don't they?'
He went no further. The ship ploughed on and all around them people chatted and laughed and children played, but Hannah was aware only of the man beside her and what he was going to say next.
'Well? What then?' she asked. 'What if we become their responsibility? What will they do with us?'
She waited holding on to the rail and watched the swell of the sea as it rushed past them. She would not speak until he did.
'All right, I'll tell you, but you must promise to keep this to yourself.'
'They will send everyone to a camp.'
'A camp? What, like a prison camp? They will put these Jews in a prison camp?'
Hannah kept herself busy in the little kitchen galley to stop herself thinking about what Dan had said, and with that many people to feed, there was never a moment to spare. The boys came and visited her at intervals during the day, and they ate together too, and so she knew that whatever happened they still needed her as much as she needed them.
But after three days she could tell that Dan was more tense. He spent a lot of time in conference with Captain Johansson and the other Haganah people. On the rarer occasions when he could talk with her, she tried to get him to share his worries, but he wasn't the sharing type. Anyway, he didn't want to worry her with the truth because the truth was that they had received radio communication that the British were increasing their strength in the eastern Mediterranean. Landing a shipload of people on a Palestinian beach was never easy, but now the British navy had raised the stakes.
On the last evening, Dan came and found her and took her for a stroll round the deck. Maybe he had reached the point where he did need to share, where the stress was becoming too much for one man. He talked with his comrades but Hannah was like his mother. It was different with her.
Now, anyway, she at least knew what the plan was. They were within thirty miles of the coast. They had slowed down, which she had noticed, and would stop soon and wait for darkness. If there were no spotter planes, they would head full speed for the coast and beach the ship at one of two pre-determined points. A Haganah group would be standing by on both shores to receive them. Once they beached, they would have very little time. The Haganah teams would each take a small group and rush them off into hiding. A lot would depend on how fast the unloading could be achieved. The unloading was likely to be a problem because old people and children couldn't quickly be got off a ship this size. And all of this depended on them being able to beach the ship without being spotted in the first place.
Hannah listened, and the more she heard the more she thought it was a crazy plan. She wondered how the Haganah had ever managed to land any people at all under those conditions, but Dan said they had. They surely must have; otherwise this was simply suicidal.
Dan said also that she and the boys would be in the first group to disembark. She understood why and didn't argue. They had become some kind of symbol of hope for the passengers and seeing them land safely in the Promised Land would mean a lot, help them to believe that they could do it too.
An hour later the ship came to a halt. The engines stopped and Captain Johansson issued an order that all lights were to be extinguished. The Levant Trader was to become invisible. The British had radar, but that would help them only if they were using it in this sector. Otherwise, they were blind in the dark. Hannah didn't know anything about radar but she had a bad feeling that the captain was understating its importance.
She was proved right. The ship was silent, other than the occasional snoring sleeper or crying baby. Some people were asleep but many were not, and they heard it first: the unmistakable sound of a ship's engines. People clambered out onto the deck and peered into the darkness, and there it was: a pinprick of light that grew bigger and bigger until they could see in the light of the moon the shape of a warship silhouetted against the sky. As it approached, searchlights were turned on and the passengers shielded their eyes from the beams. They must have presented a sorry sight to the sailors, like a family woken from their beds in the middle of the night by a housefire.
Silence was pointless now, and in any case there was, from all parts of the ship, the sound of crying. The word quickly went around that this was the British navy, that their own ship had been spotted; and as the meaning of this sank in, the crying became louder and more forlorn. Then, before they knew it, the warship was lying off their starboard side, its searchlights seeking out their darkest secrets. People stood on the deck in bare feet, wrapping their coats round them as if this could protect them from the importunate gaze of the sailors.
Then an amplified voice boomed out across the water.
'Motor Vessel Levant Trader. This is HMS Argyll of the Royal Navy. You are under arrest. We are coming alongside. Prepare to be boarded. Any attempt to resist will be met with force. Do you understand?'
There wasn't much to misunderstand. The captain grabbed his megaphone and gave his answer. 'Argyll, this is a United States-registered vessel. We are in international waters. Should you attempt to board, we will consider it an act of piracy under international law and invoke the right to repel you with force. Please be advised we have armed men on board.'
Hannah turned to Dan. 'Is that true? Do we?'
'Well, it's an exaggeration. There are twenty Haganah people with some small arms. Against that ship it doesn't amount to anything.'
They waited for the Argyll to respond. Hannah considered the pistol in her baggage and then looked at this warship and laughed at the notion.
'Levant Trader, this is Commander Forsythe. I repeat, we will board and you must give way for inspection. We are advised that you are carrying illegal immigrants and intend to land them on the Palestine coast. To avoid bloodshed you are strongly advised to lay down your arms. A contingent of Royal Marines will board you and are under orders to return lethal fire. We do not want civilians to get hurt, but we will defend ourselves. Do you understand?'
'Argyll, this is Captain Johansson of the United States Navy. I repeat, your action is illegal. We are in international waters. Please stand off and allow us free passage.'
This caused a hiatus in the conversation. Hannah wanted to know if it was true, the bit about the American navy.
'Well, it's true that he holds that rank, but to be honest he's retired. I don't think he can claim to be under Navy orders and get away with it.'
'And is this ship registered in America?'
'Yes, that bit's true. Under international law, the British have no jurisdiction, and they know that. The problem is that they treat the whole of the Mediterranean as their backyard. They consider anyone in it to be under their jurisdiction.'
'But they can't get away with that, can they?'
'In theory, no. In practice, yes. You see, there's no one to challenge them.'
'Not even the Americans?'
'The Americans are tired of the British. Now that the war is over, the British act as if they are a Great Power and want all their old colonies back. The Americans don't agree with them. As far as they are concerned, if the British want to strut around as if they own the place, it's just slightly humorous.'
'But the Americans won't do anything?'
'Not unless U.S. interests are directly challenged, no.'
Commander Forsythe seemed to have got over his surprise. 'Captain Johansson, I have received further orders from Haifa. They tell me you are not on the Navy List. So now I really must ask you to prepare to be boarded.'
Five minutes later, a launch cut across the water from the Argyll. There was still a scrambling net down the side of the Levant Trader and only after it was too late did the captain realise it was impractical to pull it up. The Marines were already alongside. The Argyll shone a searchlight beam in a sweep along the deck of the ship and what it revealed was twenty men with rifles and submachine guns, all pointing downwards. The Marine commander considered for a moment what to do. Without covering fire from the Argyll, he could not board, and he knew that Commander Forsythe would not order his crew to fire on a ship with hundreds of civilians on board. There was only one decision he could make. The launch turned round and headed back to the warship. The Jews had won round one. It was small victory but it gave them heart.
There was nothing they could do now but wait. The odds were stacked against them, but for now at least they were free. The Navy would have to make the next move, and Captain Johansson guessed that Commander Forsythe would wait for orders from Haifa, possibly even London. What the Haganah wanted, if they couldn't land their people in Palestine, was an international incident. It was second prize, but a valuable weapon in their campaign for a homeland. He had seen it before. The sympathies of the world – in light of what had been discovered in Germany and Poland, especially Poland, by the liberating armies – were well and truly with the Jews. Seven hundred survivors of Nazi atrocities dragged off to a British prison camp was worth a lot, and they would pay that price if they had to. In any case, they would probably have no choice. He had taken this job at first because it gave him command of a ship again. He had found the Jews hard people to deal with. They looked into you as if they were seeking the truth about whose side you were on. It was difficult at first, but now he was used to them and he admired their courage in the face of hopeless odds, like this situation. They wanted one thing and one thing only: to go somewhere they could call home after the slaughter. He didn't know if they were going to get into what he’d heard them call Eretz Israel, but from what he had seen so far, he thought they might just do it. And if there was anything he could do to make that happen, he was going to try.
Commander Forsythe appeared to be in no hurry to trigger an international incident. As far as he was concerned, he’d be happy to just sink this old tub and have done with it. It was a disgrace. He could smell it from his bridge and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. He had asked for a Far East command after the German defeat, to go and finish off the Japanese as well, but they had given him this posting instead. It was a lousy job, but he was a career naval officer, and orders were orders. Well, he would make no decisions here. He would let someone else carry the can. His ship could stand here for the next year if need be. The Jews were going nowhere.
It became obvious to everyone that there was a stand-off, and gradually people went back to their bunks to try and get some sleep. The Haganah people kept a watch on that side of the ship for a while but then most of them stood down, too, to get some rest. They would need it.
As dawn broke over the Mediterranean, the passengers woke to two new sights. To the east, over the superstructure of HMS Argyll, was a faint line on the horizon that they knew to be Palestine. It was, for almost everyone, the first sighting they’d ever had of Eretz Israel, and there was dancing and singing despite the threatening bulk of the British warship that stood like a bulldog barring their way.
Also, to the west was another ship approaching at full speed. Within half an hour a second warship stood alongside the Levant Trader, this time on her port side. As if one warship weren’t enough, they were now well and truly trapped.
'Captain Johansson, good morning. I hope you slept well. You will notice the presence of our colleagues from HMS Arran on your port side. I am in receipt of specific orders this morning not to let you proceed. We will not board you, but neither may you start your engines. If you attempt to do so, I am authorised to fire on your ship with my main armament.'
As if to emphasise the point, the barrels of the Argyll's four inch guns levelled and pointed at the bridge of the Levant Trader. It was a bluff but an effective one. There seemed no point in replying to this message. What could the captain say? He called a conference with the Haganah people, and asked Hannah to join them. The biggest issue now was going to be feeding all the people on the ship.
'Well, gentlemen, and lady, sorry, I don't think I need elaborate on the situation. Landing in Palestine is now not possible. I am sure you realise that. I am only your captain, so it's up to you to let me know what you want me to do. Dan?'
'We could try going back to Marseille but, first of all I don't think the French will let us dock, and secondly, even if they did, what would we do with seven hundred people? The only other option is to let the British arrest them all. I don't like it, but no one is giving me an option I do like.'
'Well, is that it then? We give in?'
'No, not quite like that. We will extract as much value from the situation as possible. We're not alone. The people in Palestine know we are here. We will sit here for as long as we possibly can. So, Hannah, it's over to you. How long can you feed them for?'
She thought about it. She didn't want to be overly pessimistic, but on the other hand she owed it to them to be realistic. 'Well, as far as food goes, another week possibly, but food isn't the problem, it's water. There is already only enough for drinking and to make soup with. And no one on this ship has washed since they came on board, and the toilet situation is becoming a serious health hazard. There are babies with serious skin conditions now from lack of water to wash them with, including my own grandchildren. These are not really my areas, but since my kitchen needs water, you need to tell me how much I can have from what we've got left. Either way, it's less than a week. Three days at the most, even if we ration drinking water. By Sunday we need to be in port taking on fresh supplies or begging that warship for help.'
It wasn't what they’d wanted to hear, but they knew she was right.
So they went about their business in the shadow of two British destroyers, and from the deck they saw the British sailors going about their business, too. And always there were men on the warships with binoculars watching them.
All that day, the Jews carried on as if this were normal, and by the evening when it got dark, the British turned on their searchlights again to remind everyone that they were here and there was no possibility of them going away. That began to get on people's nerves. The next morning they went through the same ritual and that day was Friday, and Hannah called her cooks together and announced they were going to make challah for the Sabbath. It was a crazy notion but it did at least focus people's minds, and word spread that the strange Polish cook who said she was Jewish but didn't look it was making challah; and this meant it was the Sabbath. And suddenly people remembered who they were and forgot what was happening on either side of their ship, and began doing what they had done for thousands of years to bring in the Sabbath. The Germans hadn't been able to stop them, and neither would the British.
As dusk descended over the ship, the British searchlights came on again, and what the sailors saw now left them open-mouthed. White cloths had been laid over every available surface and the ship was aglow with whatever bits of candle had been found. Women everywhere said the Sabbath blessing over their small group of adults and children, and every single Jew on that ship, religious or not, broke off a piece of Hannah's challah and recited the blessing, the men in memory of the wives they had lost. Captain Johansson watched from his bridge and tears ran down his face. He would never understand these people, but surely to God, someday, their luck must turn.
Now the Jews sang: sad, nostalgic songs full of yearning, and they wept and called for the land that was so near and yet so far. They had lived through the worst barbarity imaginable, had starved and watched those around them swept up unto death, but never, in all the years of pain, had they wept like this. The sailors on the two destroyers stood in absolute silence and watched. No one who witnessed that sight ever forgot it. The searchlights went out one by one, perhaps in response to an order, but more likely simply because each sailor felt it: the need to leave these people in peace, just for this one night.
Finally the Jews took themselves to bed. They knew it was over, that this was as close as they were going to get to Eretz Israel, perhaps ever. They had, though, brought the Sabbath in in Eretz Israel, and no matter what became of them no one would ever take that away from them.
In the middle of the night, it started. The lights came on again and those who were still asleep were woken by the shots. They rushed out on deck and saw what had been done: each storage drum of water had been shot through, and the precious fluid was gurgling out onto the deck and running over the side into the sea. The Haganah people tried valiantly but futilely to stop the last of the water running across the deck into the sea below. Everyone on the ship stood and looked in disbelief. Now they knew, it was surely over.
As the sun came up though, on that last day, Dan and his Haganah comrades had other ideas. The people could last another day. He needed them to do that. The megaphone on the Argyll opened up.
'Captain Johansson, this is Commander Forsythe. The game is up. You have no water left. Don't let your people die of thirst. We can supply you with water on the condition that you allow us to board.'
'This is Captain Johansson. I remind you, Commander, that you are committing an act of piracy. You have no right.'
'For heaven's sake, man, be reasonable. You have women and children there. They can't last another day. Give in. We know you have Haganah people on board. Tell them to consult their superiors and get permission.'
Johansson left it for ten minutes, which gave the appearance of his having held a conference. In point of fact, there was no conference. They had their plan and they were sticking to it.
'Commander Forsythe. At the risk of boring you, I remind you that we are in international waters. We will resist with force any attempt to board. Stand away and let us pass.'
'Oh, for God's sake man, stop this nonsense. It's gone on too long. They're only bloody Jews...'
He knew as soon as he’d said this that he had gone too far, but it couldn't be unsaid. There was silence for a while.
'Commander Forsythe, I should advise you that we are in permanent contact with Haganah headquarters in Palestine. Your intemperate outburst has been transmitted to them, and is, as I speak, being forwarded to every news agency and radio station throughout Europe and the United States of America. I can now inform you that my government plans to call up your ambassador in Washington to explain this action. Until I receive further instructions, there will be no change in this situation.'
Commander Forsythe was by now beyond caring. He issued an order and a minute later a heavy machine gun opened fire. There was hysterical screaming on the Levant Trader, but in fact no one was hurt. The target wasn't the passengers. They watched in dismay as a hail of lead brought down the radio antenna strung above their heads along the length of the ship. They knew now that they were incommunicado. Any public relations benefit of carrying on was lost for ever. It is an axiom of warfare that the only battle that matters is the final one, and they had just lost that.
An hour later, British Royal Marines boarded the ship, bringing with them water and medicines. By midday the Levant Trader had got up steam and was turning in a wide arc, flanked by the Argyll and the Arran, and heading west, away from Palestine. The passengers looked forlornly over the stern, trying to keep that thin line of coast in their sights and in their hearts for as long as they could.
And then it was gone.