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On the Ship that Launched a Nation

When our curators delved into the Museum archive to select some of the most intriguing, unexpected objects in the collection for our current temporary exhibition, Unseen Untold: Our Curious Collection, they came across some that didn’t make the cut but were too interesting not to share on our blog.

Here is a snippet from our ‘Director’s Cut’:

Following the Second World War millions of people were displaced from their homes. For the survivors of the Holocaust, returning to life as it had been was impossible. Antisemitism and the haunting memories of their destroyed communities forced them to look afar. There were few options for emigration and little regard for their plight. Homeless survivors languished in Displaced Person Camps for years.

Jewish survivors increasingly looked to Zionism; their nationalism was heightened by lack of autonomy in the camps and having few destinations available to them. The British government, which controlled Palestine, refused to let large numbers of Jews in. Illegal immigration, the Brihah (Hebrew for flight or escape) was the only option.

Esther Starzynski had fled her home in Poland only to be interned in Siberia. Released several years later, she travelled to Georgia, hoping to go through Turkey to Palestine. She married and her young family made their way back to Europe dreaming of finding another route to Palestine.

In 1947 Esther, her husband, and two children secured places on the Exodus, a ship with over 4,500 illegal immigrants hoping to get to Palestine. Most of the emigrants were Holocaust survivors without the necessary migration documents. Esther bought this suitcase to carry their few belongings on the trip.

Like many before, the British intercepted the ship. But the passengers resisted. Ultimately, the British took the refugees to Hamburg, Germany, and forcibly returned them to DP camps. The ship’s ordeals made international headlines and caused the British government much public embarrassment. Attitudes to the plight of Holocaust survivors began to change, increasing international pressure on Great Britain to allow free Jewish immigration to Palestine.  The family eventually made it to Palestine, where they settled near Haifa.

Author: Shannon Biederman, Curator