The Hannah Senesh, a boat carried 252 refugees to Palestine

Episode 2 – Aliyah Bet

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

Listen: Apple Podcasts, Spotify.

About the Episode

Throughout World War II and in the aftermath, persecuted Jews tried to find their way into the British Mandate of Palestine, often deemed illegally by British authorities, as the Royal Navy tried to stop them. On December 14, 1945, the ship Hannah Senesh, carrying 252 refugees, evaded British patrols and beached itself at Nahariya in Palestine. The passengers came ashore via a rope bridge and evaded capture. Large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine increased regional tensions, which would explode into war in 1948 with the invasion of the newly established State of Israel by its Arab neighbors. Truman was the first US president to be faced with trouble in the Middle East; he would not be the last.

This week’s episode, hosted by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton and written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum, delves into a complicated and often emotionally fraught history: the roots of the modern-day conflict in the middle east and the ways in which clandestine Jewish immigration to the region in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the actions of world leaders like President Truman played a role. For so many Holocaust survivors, the creation of Israel was the end of a decade of persecution, fear, and genocide, and the chance to join family members who had lived in the region for generations. For much of the Arab population, the end of British rule was a relief, but the proposed resettlement and the United Nations’ solution to partition the region into separate territories for Jews and Arabs was met with protest, and a large-scale war broke out immediately upon Britain’s withdrawal. Though the newly-created nation of Israel would win this war and an armistice was signed, peace in the region was short-lived, and though the circumstances would change throughout the years, violence in the region continues even to this day.

New episodes are released every other Friday. Catch up on all episodes of “To the Best of My Ability” and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Clandestine Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine
  • The White Paper of 1939
  • The ships Hannah Senesh and the Exodus
  • The creation of Israel in 1948 and the end of the British Mandate over Palestine
  • 1948 Arab-Israeli War

Subscribe and Continue the Conversation

Featured Historian

Gemma R. Birnbaum

Gemma R. Birnbaum holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in the History of Modern War and Genocide from New York University, and a Master’s Degree in the History of Twentieth Century Labor & Industrialization from Tulane University. Birnbaum has been with the Museum since 2010, and as the current Associate Vice President of the WWII Media and Education Center, she oversees media production, distance learning, K-16 and community engagement programs, and interpretation. She also serves as administrator of the Museum’s online Master’s Degree in World War II Studies with Arizona State University. Prior to The National WWII Museum, Birnbaum held education positions at Heifer International and the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, where she first got her start in museums.

Read More from Contributor Gemma R. Birnbaum

Related Content


"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.


Archival Audio - Former President Truman Discusses the Recognition of Israel

I also antagonized a lot of people by recognizing the State of Israel as soon as it was formed. Well, I had been to Potsdam, and I had seen at some of the places where the Jews had been slaughtered by the Nazis. Six million Jews were killed outright: men, women, and children by the Nazis.

And it is my hope that they would have a homeland where they could operate. So, when the time came for that, we set up the Israeli government in Palestine, moved some of the Arabs out, and they were not moved out or thrown out, they were compensated for the land that they had to give up. The Jews organized a government over there and it's been a successful one ever since. They've done things over there that never have been done in that part of the world before. And while it's a small republic, it's an energetic one.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Even before World War II, persecuted Jews in Europe had been trying  to flee to the British Mandate of Palestine. Concerned that Jewish immigration would lead to anger within the Arab population of the Mandate, the Royal Navy tried to intercept  them. In the aftermath of the War, hundreds of thousands of Jews, the vast majority of them  Holocaust survivors, continued to attempt this clandestine journey. Ispired by Zionist ideals, Palestine was their goal--as they saw it, the historic homeland of the Jewish people

On December 25, 1945, the ship Hannah Senesh, carrying 252 refugees, evaded British patrols and beached itself at Nahariya in northern Palestine. The passengers came ashore via a rope bridge and eluded capture, becoming one of a very small number of ships that managed to evade British authorities. For most refugees, the journey was dangerous and risky, with just 10% of all who attempted to enter Palestine successfully completing the journey. President Truman and other world leaders were horrified at reports surfacing of British authorities detaining refugees at gunpoint and forcing them into concentration camps on the island of Cyprus. It was through Truman’s intervention that 100,000 Jewish refugees were ultimately allowed into the British-controlled region.

By 1948, large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine increased regional tensions, which would explode into war with the invasion of the newly established State of Israel by its Arab neighbors. Truman was the first US president to be faced with a volatile situation in the Middle East. He would not be the last.

Archival Audio - Truman Taking the Oath of Office

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability: The Postwar Years” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This is episode 2, “Aliyah Bet.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton. This week, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees continue to face dangerous conditions across Europe, leading many to seek refuge in British-controlled Palestine.

Archival Audio - Newsreel: Jewish Refugees Attempt to Land in Palestine

[Orchestral music begins to play]

October 1947: two shiploads of Jewish refugees from Europe attempt to land in Palestine, only to be turned away by the British and shipped to internment on Cyprus. The British Mandate and Palestine was about to end however, and the United Nations was debating the partition of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs as a solution to the turmoil in that country. In May of 1948 a new Jewish state, Israel, was born in a bath of blood. Jewish troops routed Arab forces from the city of Haifa in the first of a series of battles that were to reverberate through the years. In the year of Independence, fighting was fierce in the Negev desert area. Here Israeli troops routed the Arabs and took hundreds of prisoners. Meanwhile on May 14th 1948, the new government headed by David Ben-Gurion is installed in Tel Aviv thus for the first time since the Roman legion destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, the Jewish people have a nation of their own. United Nations teams accompany Israeli soldiers under the white flag to retrieve the bodies of soldiers killed in a continuing strife with Arab troops. The UN was able to affect some uneasy pacts calling for a truce, but skirmishes continued to break out. Dr. Chaim Weitzman joined Premier Ben-Gurion in the government; the Jewish Patriots became president as Israel went before the United Nations to seek a place in that world body. The Middle Eastern Arabic nations were in violent opposition and when Israel was voted a membership they walked out in a body. For the rest of the day, their seats remained empty but they returned the next morning to no further incident. Thus history was made as the Jewish state of Israel was born, conceived in strife and weaned on violence, Israel has flourished to become a constructive voice in world affairs, where fighting became a symbol of hope in a troubled world.

[Orchestral music fades out]

Dr. Kristen Burton

Joining us this week to discuss the process of Aliyah Bet is Gemma R. Birnbaum, Associate Vice President of the WWII Media and Education Center here at The National WWII Museum.

Gemma Birnbaum

Aliyah is the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to Israel, and it literally means ascend, so the act of making aliyah is one of the basic tenets of Zionism and it actually dates back to biblical times. So prior to World War II, I think—probably the largest instance took place after Russian Jews were targeted following a very violent and very public assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. And so this assassination is committed by a group called People's Will. Despite none of these conspirators actually being Jewish, rumors start to spread of this Jewish conspiracy to murder the czar. And so this leads to the series of pogroms, which really instigates this first—this first large scale instance of aliyah.

Aliyah bet specifically refers to what we today call more clandestine Jewish immigration to Palestine, and this specifically takes place between 1920 and 1948, so this is while Palestine is under British rule. Aliyah bet peaks just before World War II, as Europe becomes an increasingly dangerous, hostile place for Jewish people to live. So many of these Jewish refugees are survivors of the Holocaust. So they're not permitted to enter Palestine by the British authorities. It becomes a bit of a—a bit of a hostile situation. So a lot of these Jews are attempting to leave a place where they're persecuted only to find that they're essentially persecuted again when they try to enter this other country. And, of course, they're left out of a lot of different countries.

Dr. Kristen Burton

As Nazi violence in Europe escalated and the outbreak of World War II became increasingly inevitable, Jews and other persecuted minorities across the continent found very few countries that were willing to take them in. In June 1939, the MS St. Louis, carrying more than 900 passengers -- nearly all Jewish refugees from Europe -- attempted to first enter Havana, Cuba. Though nearly all passengers held Cuban visas, immigration authorities revoked all but a small handful, and the passengers were turned away after a week trapped on board. Next, the group attempted to enter the United States via Miami, but were again denied entry. Pleas from Jewish leaders aboard the ship sent to President Roosevelt went unanswered, and in a final attempt to find  sanctuary, the ship tried to enter Canada, where the passengers were also denied. The reasoning, stated immigration minister Frederick Blair, was that if Canada admitted these Jewish refugees, quote “they would be followed by other shiploads, and the line must be drawn somewhere.”

The ship was forced to return to Europe. For the passengers, this was as good as a death sentence, and more than 250 of those on board were murdered almost immediately upon return.

In spite of the fate of those aboard the St. Louis, persecuted groups in Europe would continue to attempt entering the United States, Canada, Palestine, and other countries throughout the war with little success. In Palestine, restrictions were implemented in response to growing anti-British and anti-Zionist sentiment among Arab citizens.

Gemma Birnbaum

Jewish immigration was restricted both before and during the war, largely because of ongoing violence in the region. So Palestine is in the midst of this Arab revolt against British rule. It's also a revolt against the growing Zionist movement. So this was the longest sustained nationalist rebellion against British control of Palestine, and it's really incited by this influx of Jewish immigration, particularly as the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany is having this impact on Jewish life. So that's really why the British government decides, okay, well, we have to really limit how many people are coming in, what methods they're coming in by, those types of things. So it's really that tension, that violence that causes them to act in this way.

So following increased tensions and a number of violent incidents—and this is perpetrated by both Palestinians and Jews in the region—Palestinian rioting really erupts in 1936, in April of 1936. This is across—you know, throughout Palestine, specifically in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. And this results in the killing of 16 Jews and five Palestinians. There's a general strike declared. This is all led by the Arab Higher Committee. There's Jewish farmed orchards that are destroyed, Jewish civilians that are killed, and there's retaliatory efforts against the Arabs that have committed some of these things and some Arabs that have not committed some of these crimes. So the goals were really to alleviate some of the tension in this area. And they felt—you know, the British government felt that if they could limit the Jewish immigration into the region, they could quell some of the violence that was occurring.

Archival Audio - Newsreel: In Palestine Today

A guardian of law and order looks out over the old walled city of Jerusalem as once again the irresistible force of Zionism meets the immovable object of Arab nationalism among the blood-stained hills of the Holy Land. Armored cars with reinforced screens patrol the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. These pictures from Pathe’s own cameraman in the east show the height of the danger in Jerusalem. When asked murder and wanton destruction were making the Holy Land a land of terror. For weeks past, armed bands have been filtering into the city some secret little underground passages. Others in disguise to the old city gates. By increasingly violent terrorism they had brought the life of the city almost to a standstill. Then as more Palestine police arrived, Britain shows that she is master of the situation, beams up the city, restores order, once again the people can walk abroad in safety. In the narrow streets of the Arab City, the bazaars reopen; beefs rains again. Yet so careful as Britain's army beam to avoid unnecessary violence, but in two days of continuous skirmishing, only nine people were killed. And once again Jews can come to the historic Wailing Wall to pray. But behind the outward peace lies still the threat of rebellion and disorder Britain still stands by.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In response to the Arab Revolt, Great Britain issued the White Paper of 1939. With the effort led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the paper acted as the governing policy for Mandatory Palestine, and put severe restrictions on Jewish immigration, allowing for just 75,000 Jews to enter Palestine over a period of five years. Other restrictions included limitations on where and how much land Jewish residents of Palestine could purchase. Both Arab and Zionist groups largely rejected the terms. The Arab Higher Committee rejected it on multiple grounds, including frustration that Great Britain would still be in control of Palestine. Jews in the region called for a general strike, and the right-wing Zionist militant group Irgun began formulating a plan to overthrow the British and establish an independent Jewish state. The plan was abandoned after the outbreak of World War II in September. Though Arab leaders would ultimately agree to the terms of the White Paper, the reaction to the policy revealed just how deep the fractures in the region were.

Gemma BIrnbaum

So after World War II, the number of Jewish refugees seeking to enter Palestine increases pretty dramatically. This is coupled with postwar anti-Semitism and violence, the trauma of the Holocaust. A lot of them don't have any homes to actually go back to. So everything is destroyed. Their families are gone. So this is what's really prompting most survivors to leave Europe. And in particular, there are tens of thousands living in displaced persons camps, all in—almost entirely in the American zones of occupation. And in some instances, they're living alongside the very perpetrators that had participated in the genocide of their people. So they're essentially living in these camps. The conditions are—sometimes, the conditions are okay. A lot of the time the conditions—they’re dirty. There isn't necessarily enough food and running water. It's—it's a difficult life. You're essentially living in a camp that was once the site where your family might have been imprisoned or incarcerated. So with the tens of thousands of people living in these camps, many of them sought to join the Jewish community in Palestine.

Dr. Kristen Burton

One of the challenges that emerged after the war was skepticism over reports that Jews continued to face difficult and dangerous conditions in Europe despite clear evidence of what was taking place. Anti-Semitic propaganda continued to spread across the region, and in July 1946, Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians attacked Jewish residents over the false claim that a young non-Jewish boy had been kidnapped by a Jew. The attacks left 42 Jews dead and 49 more injured. The event, known as the Kielce pogrom, coupled with depreciating conditions in displaced persons camps, served as catalysts for Jews to attempt clandestine immigration to Palestine and elsewhere, but many still did not believe the situation to be dire enough to warrant this action. After all, the Holocaust was over, wasn’t it?

Gemma Birnbaum

Probably one of the most famous examples is Frederick Morgan. He's the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration chief. And so he actually tells a reporter at the Daily News that he believed Jews were telling these tales of violence to try and force the United Nations to create a Jewish homeland. So it's essentially a manipulation of the United Nations. And so he tells, you know, this to the New York Daily News reporter. Of course, the Daily News has a large population of Jewish people that read it in New York.

And he, quote, says, “These trainloads of Jews are arriving in Berlin and their pockets are well lined with money and they were well fed and clothed.” And so he uses these fictional train—trainloads of Jews as evidence that there is no violence in Poland or some of these other areas in Eastern Europe. And this conspiracy, or this alleged conspiracy, and these rumors become so widespread that the World Jewish Congress actually has to issue a statement stating, no, there is no worldwide Jewish conspiracy to manipulate the United Nations into supporting a Jewish state, that there is actually this really dangerous situation for the Jews that are still left in Poland even after [00:07:00] the war. And they're essentially living—they're essentially living in a country that is a graveyard for their murdered people. And so this idea that there even is any kind of safety there is sort of a myth at this point. But, yes, the—there are a number of Jewish leaders who actually have to speak out and say, “No, there is no worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” But the skepticism is really hard to get rid of. And so at this point, it's so pervasive. It's in major news publications. It's really hard to quell a lot of those rumors.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Morgan’s remarks at the press conference, for which a number of publications were present in addition to The Daily News, caused a commotion in the media, with commentaryranging from “distasteful” to “outright anti-Semitic.” Morgan denied the accusations, insisting his words had been taken out of context, and that all of his statements were based on military intelligence and he was simply reiterating what he had been told. Multiple attempts to further clarify the statements only made the situation worse, resulting in UNRRA Director Fiorello LaGuardia eliminating Morgan’s position. While supporters of Morgan would call the media outcry “a disastrous and evil lie,” the damage was done, and Jewish leaders faced an uphill battle convincing both the public and government leaders that the pogroms and other reported instances of anti-Semitism still happening in Europe were in fact part of the reality that these refugees faced.

Gemma Birnbaum

So this is essentially—and it kind of goes back to is this really—Is there really a reason for them to leave? If the situation that they were—that Jews were fleeing was not dangerous, why risk getting onto this type of ship? Why risk, you know, the sickness, the—I mean, your baby potentially suffocating or having their skull cracked? Why would you risk these dangerous conditions if there was no validity to the claims of violence in Europe? So, you know, one doesn't put their entire family on a ship in these conditions if it's safer where they are.

Over 90 percent of the ships that attempt this immigration were intercepted by the British Navy. It's a very dangerous, lengthy journey. It takes a couple of weeks. And then, of course, you have this fear that you're going to be caught by British authorities. What happens when they're caught is pretty brutal. British authorities forcibly remove the refugees and typically bring them to detention camps. Most of these are in Cyprus, in the Mediterranean. And by 1948, the British held over 50,000 refugees in these internment camps in Cyprus. So what you essentially have is an allied power that fought against the Nazis, at least in part, because of this idea that you were going to liberate the Jewish people now turning around and incarcerating them without any due process. So this begins to cause a little bit of a PR nightmare, especially with the story of the Exodus coming to light in 1947.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In July 1947, the SS Exodus set sail from France with 4.500 refugees on board. Almost immediately, the ship was intercepted by British destroyers while still in international waters, and the passengers never even made it into Palestinian territory. The ship was then taken to Haifa, a port city in Mandatory Palestine, where the fate of the passengers was decided. They would be deported back to France.

Gemma BIrnbaum

The passengers resist removal. There's violence. They fight against these British security forces who ultimately kill three of the refugees and injure countless others. The passengers are forced to return to Marseilles. They're stuck on the ship for almost a month, while French authorities essentially allow food to run out, water to run out. There's absolutely no attempt at any kind of, you know, hygiene or anything like that.

So the British finally make the decision to sail the vessel to Hamburg. They remove at gunpoint the refugees from the ship, and then, they incarcerate them in a British-run holding camp. So, you know, there's this image, which ends up on international news, of all of these freed concentration camp victims who have—are just trying to get some kind of sense of home and belonging essentially being led at gunpoint off of the ship and put into another concentration camp.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The story of the Exodus incited an international outcry, causing the Foreign Office to send a telegram to British Commanders stationed in the region demanding to know the conditions of the camps. Pressure mounted as Truman and other world leaders began to demand that the British lift some of these restrictions, and the situation became more and more volatile. In September of 1947, Irgun and another Zionist group, Lehi, used a barrel bomb to attack Central Police Headquaters in Haifa in retaliation for what had been done to the passengers of the Exodus, killing 10, including 4 British policemen, 4 Arab policemen, and two Arab civilians, one of whom was just 16 yeras old. The attack also injured 54 others, 33 of whom were British.

Though the White Paper of 1939 would remain in effect until the establishment and recognition of Israel in 1948, the British did alleviate some of the restrictions on immigration quotas after immense pressure from Jewish leaders and members of the United Nations.

Gemma Birnbaum

In November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine essentially into two separate nations. It's one Jewish state, one Arab state. And British troops begin to withdraw from Palestine in April 1948. This leads directly to the creation of Israel just a couple months later, and all of these limitations on Jewish immigration were immediately lifted. I'm not sure how effective the partition resolution of 1947 actually was or is. The aftermath results in a very swift civil war breaking out.

Dr. Kristen Burton

At midnight on May 14, 1948, Great Britain officially gave up their mandate over Palestine and immediately began to withdraw their remaining troops from the region, leaving the newly-created state of Israel and its Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to fight a war with the Arab coalition of nations. The Arab nations launched a full-scale invasion, and the conflict escalated into all-out war. Ultimately, Israel defeated the coalition of Arab nations, and an armistice was signed in 1949.

Gemma Birnbaum

And so they signed an armistice in 1949. It sort of seems like maybe there is this two-state scenario that's going to work, but really, despite a lot of these occasional moments of peace, some version of this war continues to exist even to this day. And in terms of the partition resolution, I think it's sort of proven itself to be largely ineffective at this point.

President Truman was very much in support of the creation of a Jewish state and was supportive of the UN partition resolution, in particular in the splitting of Palestine into these two territories. He, in addition, pressures Great Britain into allowing these 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine in 1946. He endorses the creation of a Jewish state in his 1946 Yom Kippur statement. And he's also greatly motivated by the fact that there are, at this point, no democratic governments in the Middle East. So he believes the nation of Israel could be the first and potentially lead more countries to follow suit and become democratic. Again, that doesn't necessarily pan out the way that Truman had anticipated, but that's what's going on in his mind at this point.

Archival Audio - Former President Truman Discusses the Establishment of Israel

But don't think that decision to recognize Israel was an easy one. I had to make a compromise with the Arabs and divide Palestine. The Jews wanted to chase all the Arabs into the Tigris and Euphrates River and the Arabs wanted to chase all the Jews into the Red Sea. What I was trying to do is to find a homeland for the Jews and still be just with the Arabs. But when you go into a thing of that kind, the people you helped most are the ones that get most angry with you. Both of them were against me on the situation but as President of the United States I paid no attention to them, carried out what I thought was right, and I had the support of the Congress and I could do it, which is unusual in these days.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “Ezra Weston Loomis Pound,” after more than 20 years living abroad, prolific and influential poet and fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound is extradited and charged with 19 counts of treason against the United States for his role in broadcasting pro-Fascist propaganda. An ardent white supremacist, Pound befriended multiple members of the Ku Klux Klan while incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric facility, including staunch segregationist and suspected domestic terrorist John Kasper.

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Kristen Burton. This episode was written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library, British Pathe, and the National Archives.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.