Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Commander of the Exodus

by Yoram Kaniuk Translated from Hebrew by Seymour Simckes

“Kaniuk portrays an ugly episode in history and provides much-needed historical depth to contemporary political debates.” –Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date May 23, 2001
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3808-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most inventive, brilliant novelists in the Western world,” internationally renowned Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk turns his hand to biography to bring us his most important work yet. Commander of the Exodus animates the life of Yossi Harel, a modern-day Moses who defied the blockade of the British Mandate to deliver more than 24,000 displaced Holocaust survivors to Palestine when the rest of the world closed its doors.

Of the four expeditions commanded by Harel between 1946 and 1948, the voyage of the Exodus left the deepest impression on public consciousness, quickly becoming a beacon for Zionism and a symbol to all that neither guns, cannons, nor warships could stand in the way of the human need for a home. On July 18, 1947, a rickety ship carrying nearly 4,500 Holocaust survivors approached the Haifa harbor and was attacked by a British navy intent on keeping the refugees out of Palestine. Kaniuk’s hair-raising reconstruction of the ludicrous battle that ensued between ten polished warships and a dilapidated junkheap unfolds with the dramatic intensity of a biblical tale.

With grace and sensitivity, Kaniuk shows the human face of history. He pays homage to the young Israeli who was motivated not by politics or personal glory, but by the pleading eyes of the orphaned children languishing on the shores of Europe. Commander of the Exodus is both an unforgettable tribute to the heroism of the dispossessed and a rich evocation of the vision and daring of a man who took it upon himself to reverse the course of history.

“The State of Israel was not established on May 15, 1948, when the official declaration was made at Tel Aviv Museum. It was born nearly a year earlier on July 18, 1947, when a battered and stricken American ship called President Warfield, whose name was changed to Exodus, entered the port of Haifa with its loudspeakers blaring the strains of “Hatikva.” The State of Israel came into existence before it acquired a name, when its gates were locked to Jews, when the British fought against survivors of the Holocaust. It came into existence when its shores were blockaded against those for whom the state was eventually designated.” –excerpt from Commander of the Exodus


“Yossi Harel’s remarkable achievements have now been engraved in history with the talent of Yoram Kaniuk.” –Ehud Barak, Prime Minister of Israel

“[Kaniuk] must be considered . . . one of the great writers of our time.” –Le Monde

“Kaniuk not only gives readers a penetrating picture of Harel but also offers valuable insights into the Jewish struggle to create a homeland.” –Booklist

“Kaniuk portrays an ugly episode in history and provides much-needed historical depth to contemporary political debates.” –Publishers Weekly

“The scenes aboard the ship are gripping, heartrending . . . surely the work of a master of the language whose artistry comes across in translation.” –Leo Haber, Midstream


Winner of the Méditerranée Étranger


Long live the lads who got the command And sailed by the line through the fogs On target, on time, though hunted like dogs With no map and no compass in hand.

Their tale too will get told, that’s for sure For the waves and the skies they observed On a single, near-sinking ship unswerved How they fought so the nation might endure.

–Nathan Alterman, “A Sermon in Response to an Italian Captain after a Night of Disembarking”

Chapter One

When the persecutions of the Jews began to assume a fierce momentum in Europe, Yossi Harel was fighting in Jerusalem and the Galilee against Arabs in the anti-Jewish riots of the 1930s. The Palestinian conflict, too, was already a struggle for existence to determine who would survive.

Yossi was born in Jerusalem in 1919 to Moshe and Batya Hamburger, both of whose families had first come to Palestine in the nineteenth century. His childhood was not a simple one.

His father ran a grocery and looked after his children and his wife, who was a lovely, aristocratic woman, but also extremely fragile emotionally. She was eccentric, withdrawn, and quite troubled, and at that time they did not know how to treat her.

Perhaps in a subconscious attempt to compensate for his mother’s fragility, Yossi was a solid block of decisions, measured feelings, and objective facts; he shaped his character consciously and deliberately. He loved his mother as every son does, but in her madness he felt betrayal. When it became too difficult to live with the guilt that took hold of him in her presence, Yossi instinctively recognized the only way to protect himself: he decided his mother was dead. He separated himself from her while she was still living and did not see her again until she died many years later.

Because of all the damage wrought by his troubled childhood and the sense of betrayal bound up in his relationship with his mother, Yossi was later able to identify with the pain of the orphans he brought by ship to Palestine for these very reasons. Those children were in some ways a reflection of himself. They were also his atonement.

When he completed the statutory requirements of his public education at Tachkemoni School, Yossi got a job working in the Castel quarries to help out his family, and soon thereafter he also worked for the post office in Jerusalem, laying underground telephone wires. At age fourteen he enlisted in the Haganah, the Jewish army, along with his friends from the Boy Scout Legion; in one way or another he stayed within this framework until he became a man of forty.

While his close friends studied at high school, Yossi continued to work and was forced to prepare for the external exams of the London Matriculation. At age eighteen, when he was still active in the Haganah, his father, sister, and twin brother went down to Sodom to run a cafeteria for the Dead Sea project, a community undertaking initiated by the workers movement. Yossi remained alone. His circle of friends in the movement and in the Haganah replaced his family, even while he kept supporting his mother, whom he no longer saw.

One of his strongest memories–one that later grieved him and served as a milestone in his Haganah ventures–was connected to the riots of 1929. At age eleven he went with the Boy Scout Legion to a workers camp in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem. Two days later, early Saturday morning, the campers were notified they were being disbanded and returned to Jerusalem. Loaded onto a truck, they were driven home with an armored escort. En route they passed by Castel and its foothills along a twisting road with seven curves known as the Seven Sisters and reached the village of Motsa.

This small Jewish settlement, situated within a large Arab region, had been attacked and destroyed in the night. It was still ablaze as they approached. The rioters had butchered six people, among them all the children of the Maklef family, except for the boy Mordechai (who would later go on to be the Israel Defense Force’s third chief of staff). Blankets soaked in blood covered the dissected body parts. When he reached Jerusalem with his friends, Yossi joined the throngs of Jews streaming from all parts of the city with sticks in their hands. In Zichron Moshe, opposite the Edison Cinema, there was a huge gathering. A furious crowd demanded revenge. Among them were Russian Jews from Georgia, wielding ancient swords they still kept in their homes. Bit by bit the news trickled in about the riots in Hebron and Safed. At that time, in those hours, the boy formulated a lifelong manifesto. With a profound earnestness only the very young are capable of, he resolved that the slaughter of Jews for simply being Jews must never happen in this land. It was up to him, a man of eleven, to struggle to prevent a repetition of such acts. The scenes in Motsa, the dismembered corpses covered in sheets, the smoldering houses–these Yossi would remember for the rest of his life.

Yossi and his friends formed very strong bonds, their “togetherness” a substitute for family. Mature but romantic youths, they trained in utter seriousness, which was sometimes exaggerated, overzealous, and steeped in high-blown clich’s, in order to become heroes under the influence of the ideology they absorbed in youth movements and at school. They stuck to one another, a captive band from small adjoining neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the most Jewish city in the landscape of the Zionist rebirth. They prepared themselves to be fighters, they debated ideology with an intensity bordering on fanaticism, and at the same time they played Jewish musketeers. They lived in a little town veiled in the dust of former glory, the glory of a grand city long since faded and reduced to poverty, shrunk to a smattering of minuscule neighborhoods and a multitude of stones. Save for the Old City and several old neighborhoods, the scorched landscape, exposed to the sun, was planted mainly with stones and lined with wide-branched olive trees. Unlike the sands of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, with its endless gray stone, rocks, snakes, and empty lots gathered like flocks of lost sheep among magnificent but isolated and secluded structures–mosques, churches, holy places–was all of a piece. Stone, rock, and tree filled a topography turned occult.

When they climbed Mt. Scopus to train and prepare for battle, they considered themselves biblical heroes. They looked around and saw how the inhabited Western world ended where they stood and the desert began. All their lives they had lived physically and spiritually on the edge of the desert’s wasteland, on the verge of the mysterious, the terrifying. They had dreams of conquering the world.

When he was fourteen Yossi decided to head out for Masada by himself. Jews had concealed that story of courage and suicide for two thousand years. It appeared in just one Jewish book, The Jewish War, by Joseph ben Matityahu, aka Josephus Flavius, the commander of Fortress Gamla, a genius considered a traitor. After he surrendered in order to save his men, he joined the Romans. At the start of clashes with the Arabs in 1920, the fanatical nationalistic dimension was absent, despite the atrocities, but then the saga of Masada was reborn because, after all, a war requires a myth. This was a dark and menacing myth, intoxicating in its simplicity, soaked in dread. The nation needed heroes, and heroes needed a past to latch on to. Courage and sacrifice transposed into moral imperatives rather than mere strategies for survival. The heroes who served that purpose were the heroes of the Bible and the heroes of the revolt against the Romans. In the face of poverty and despair, the educational system offered prepackaged ideas. Masada seemed like a suitable heroic chapter for those born in the land and for Jews come from the ghettos of Eastern Europe. The youth in Palestine had much to overcome, much to reclaim. Intense focus was essential, even if it would later appear horrific and savage: the sanctification of heroic death, of the collective suicide Jews tried to suppress and expunge from all their books.

It took Yossi three long days to cross the desert. At that time it was extremely perilous to cross the desert alone, on account of predatory beasts and Arab rioters. But a sense of “national mission,” as it was called in those days, presented itself before his eyes as he made the treacherous ascent to Masada. He stood on the mountain facing the Dead Sea and felt close to the rebels and proud of the spiritual strength he found in himself to make it here on his own, evading snakes, Bedouins, and the heat and knowing that despite the dangers he was unafraid.

Yossi returned from his trek ecstatic and exhausted. Traversing the desert, he attained the desideratum of revenge, annihilation, adventure, and zealotry. Through this trip, and others that he took, mostly alone, he taught himself to be a man of the field, thus laying the foundation for the rules of self-reliance that would serve him all his life. He taught himself not to depend on backup; to know that if something went wrong and you cried out, nobody would hear you; to know how to stand up straight but to recognize that if there was a sudden shift in the desert wind, it was an act of bravery to bend. Yossi and his friends cultivated the image of the fighting Israeli. But the secular Palestinian Yossi from the Boy Scout Legion was also the son of Jerusalem, which was religious, non-Zionist, even partially anti-Zionist for the segment that lived in Palestine as though it were still in the Diaspora. He came from a small grocery store that served as a chess club at night, from a grandfather who was a fourth-generation Jerusalemite and built a synagogue, from a traditional Jerusalem home. Although Yossi grew up in a landscape of sentimental sunsets, of song and declamation in youth-movement gatherings on kibbutz lawns, he was also present at synagogues and cemeteries of the Old City in the Mount of Olives, where notables were buried as close as possible to the Temple Mount in order to be the first ones to greet the Messiah.

As very young men, Yossi and his friends read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a book by Franz Werfel about the Armenian revolt in the mountains of Anatolia. They found in this book a moral code. Hidden within it, the book contained pain and bravery, loyalty and isolation, and it won the hearts of the young Palestine Jews.

Years later, on the nearly empty deck of a ship teeming with refugees and under a full moon, it would all come together–Masada, Musa Dagh, the lessons of Yossi’s youth. As the ship sailed in blood-curdling quiet along the Turkish coast, what preoccupied Yossi on this junkheap ready to capsize was his compulsive probe through binoculars, maps, intuition and childhood memories, in search of Mt. Musa Dagh. It was winter, the ship was packed with almost 4,500 people, but Yossi–like an ultra-Orthodox Jew clutching the Wailing Wall–held onto the mountain. He was Musa Dagh on the deck, approaching the mountain where the American survivors of genocide entrenched themselves and fought. Finally, he spotted it in the distance, capped in snow, and it called to mind his trip to Masada. He thought about the barrenness of the arid mountain, and how several years earlier he had stood at its foot and inspected the parched landscape, the most desolate landscape in the world, the desert that resembled the face of the moon, and felt in his bones and all his veins the anguish of those beseiged on Masada, who for nine months watched the Romans build, bit by bit, the embankments that signaled their deaths to come. Their eyes perceived the inevitable, but they could no longer flee, so they committed suicide-in the biting brilliance spraying from the Dead Sea at the foot of the mountain.

©1999 by Yoram Kaniuk, Translation copyright ” 1999 by Seymour Simckes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.