From shipwrecks to salvation: breaking the blockade

Blockade: The Story of Jewish Immigration to Palestine: 1933-1948, by Gerald Ziedenberg. Authorhouse. 204 pages. $24.95 hardback, $19.95 trade paperback. E-book available.

Although this study has several problems, it is nonetheless extremely useful and deserves our attention. It is not smoothly written, and it is unclear in too many places. It is not organized for maximum impact. The author has not made use of many recent books that are relevant to the topic. What does it have going for it? First of all, Ziedenberg exhibits a passionate concern with creating a fair-minded rendering of this important slice of 20th century history. Secondly, he introduces unique primary materials; namely, interviews with survivors of the blockade experience conducted in 2010 and 2011.

As one might expect, Ziedenberg’s treatment is mostly chronological, but it is also topical – which is what forces some sections to take readers over the same ground they’ve already traveled. He begins with an overview of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, then moves on to the main business of the immigration experience. Ziedenberg recognizes three distinct phases of immigration following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The first phases, essentially legal, lasts until the later thirties. After the Arab revolt in 1936, the mandate administrators tightened immigration quotas to Palestine. This second phase runs through the war years and is a period in which Britain’s naval blockade is largely successful. In the post-war period, beginning in 1945, there is much more intense and effective piercing of the blockade, along with other efforts against the British forces in Palestine. 

The author is careful to differentiate among the various components of the Zionist movement and to sift through the political biases of these oft-times adversarial factions.

Clearly a Zionist himself, Gerald Ziedenberg is not blinded by his sense of Israel’s necessity and his love for the country. That is, he clearly recognizes that others, let’s call them Palestinian Arabs for convenience, suffered greatly both before and after the creation of the Jewish State. However, this issue is not his main focus.

The clock is ticking, the Jews of Europe are being slaughtered, many are heading for Palestine, and the British are blocking the sea-path to survival. The heart of Ziedenberg’s book, what I expect will most fully engage his readers, is his narrative of the failed and successful attempts to overcome the blockade. These stories are told in terms of the seacraft themselves: age, condition, size, number of passengers, routes, supplies, and living conditions.

They are also told as the stories of individual experiences. Here the thirteen interviews that Ziedenberg conducted serve him well in particularizing the physical and psychological ordeal of a wide range of personalities. The passages of the book based on these interviews bring the past alive. The author also draws upon the previously published testimony of other blockade-runners.

Gerald Ziedenberg

For the most part, Ziedenberg describes the transit of motor-driven boats. However, he has a chapter on “The Sailboats” that is particularly riveting in which he traces several of these fragile sailboat voyages.

Other chapters treat such issues as detention and captivity, the Tehran children, the special situation of legal immigration, the substantial presence of Jews in the British police and armed forces in Palestine, post-liberation activity, and of course the Exodus story. He calls the Exodus “the ship that launched a nation.”

Ziedenberg’s narrative is aided by the many fascinating photographs and several maps that he includes for the reader’s edification. Along with the customary bibliography, glossary, and index, the author provides a special bonus: he provides thumbnail sketches of the future lives of those who had risked breaking the British blockade.

Concludes Gerald Ziedenberg, “The inability of the Jews of Europe to flee to their sole sanctuary cost the Jewish people and the world dearly.”

This review appears in the June 2012 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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