x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ship's captain whose exploits were turned into the film Exodus

Yitzhak Aharonovitch was the captain of the passenger ship Exodus, turned away by the British as it approached Palestine in 1947 laden with Jewish refugees

Yitzhak Aharonovitch became a ship owner after his adventure with the Exodus
Yitzhak Aharonovitch became a ship owner after his adventure with the Exodus

At the tender age of 23, Yitzhak Aharonovitch entered history as the captain of the passenger ship Exodus, which carried thousands of Jewish refugees from the horrors of the Holocaust to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947, only to be turned back by British forces as it neared the port of Haifa. A pivotal incident in the founding mythology of Israel, the ship's thwarted journey was later immortalised both in fiction and in Otto Preminger's 1960 film of the same name, starring Paul Newman.

Born in Lodz in 1923, Aharonovitch grew up in what was at the time Danzig in Germany - now 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 once again. By way of Libya, he reached London, where, ultimately, he qualified as a first officer. He spent the Second World War sailing on British and Norwegian merchant vessels.

Returning to Palestine he threw in his lot with the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation, which later became the core of the Israel Defence Forces. 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 despatched to serve as its captain.

On July 11, 1947, the ship left France and took seven days to cross to Palestine. But, as the ship approached Haifa, a British cruiser and several destroyers surrounded it. The crew of the Exodus were surprised by a midnight raid on July 18, and after a brief fight, the passengers were loaded onto British ships and taken, via Cyprus, back to Germany where they were re-incarcerated in refugee camps.

The Exodus remained in Haifa harbour until a fire in 1952 destroyed it. Aharonovitch settled in the newly formed state of Israel and became a ship owner, running lines to China, Singapore and Iran. To the last, he was "a dreamer and a fighter", his brother recalled, "part of a generation that lived history". He was predeceased by his wife in 2001 and is survived by two daughters. Born August 27, 1923; died December 23.