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Miriam Sternberg Wechsler. Credit: Courtesy of the National Library of Israel.
Miriam Sternberg Wechsler. Credit: Courtesy of the National Library of Israel.
featureJewish Diaspora

‘Exodus’ immigrant’s diary shows hardships of post-Shoah refugees

Miriam Sternberg Wechsler was 19 when she boarded the ship alone.

Dozens of personal diaries from people living through the early years of the Jewish state have been handed over to the National Library of Israel as part of the Operation Diary project.

One presented recently describes the life of the immigrants on the Exodus 1947 ship.

“September 1, 1947—one person died on one of the ships today,” Miriam Sternberg Wechsler wrote. “In the presence of all the ships that stood still for a short while, he was lowered for burial in the Atlantic Ocean. The fourth victim, this time not from an English bullet, but by normal death. Is this normal? At the same time, about 10 babies were born on these ships. If we stay on the water for another two weeks, there will be several more births.”

“We were like animals?”

Sternberg Wechsler’s diary, part of the project initiated by the library and Israel Hayom, contains chilling testimonies about the lives of the 4,500 Jews who survived the Holocaust and left France in July 1947, heading for the Land of Israel.

The ship arrived in Israel, but the British refused to allow them to disembark. After a fight inside the ship in which three passengers were killed and dozens injured, the immigrants were forcibly transported to deportation ships that brought them back to the shores of France.

The event received enormous media coverage all over the world and the British were condemned. Nevertheless, the ships continued from the French coast to the displaced persons camps in Germany. About one year later the immigrants arrived in the newly-independent State of Israel.

Sternberg Wechsler was 19 years old when she boarded the ship alone after her family was murdered in the Holocaust, and her diary provides a glimpse into the daily life of those on board. It was designed for 600 passengers but carried 4,515 women, men and children.

In another passage, she describes the difficult conditions: “19.8.1947—These bodies, lying in terrible disarray … the hall at night looks like after a real pogrom. Legs lying over each other, feet dirty with mud, because almost everyone is walking barefoot all day long; women, men, old people, youngsters and children. One on top of the other, one against the other, and it often happens that you wake up at night and find your neighbor’s dirty feet on your stomach, or on your chest … and no one even notices it. As if this is how it should be. As if this is such a normal thing.

“Women are lying half-naked and are not ashamed … sometimes they exposed their most intimate parts while sleeping, and they didn’t even care … did they really not care? Were we really like animals? Has our situation reached such a level that it has killed even our most delicate and fine feelings?”

A day earlier she wrote: “Today there is a hunger strike on the three ships, as a sign of protest against keeping us in Port-de-Bouc. Tomorrow will mark three weeks since we arrived at this port. It is already clear to the whole world that we will not land on the shores of France, and we are demanding that we sail away from this port.

“The world is probably getting used to our story, and they will possibly forget us very soon. But we—we cannot forget, because every day that passes is taken away from us forever, and there is no end in sight.”

The generation of 1948

Sternberg Wechsler was born in 1926, the ninth daughter out of 10 children born to Asher Zelig and Atla Zipa Sternberg. She grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home, but Jordana, her older sister who was a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir, enrolled her in the Yavne school, where lessons were taught in Hebrew.

Jordana and another sister left Poland in time. Miriam was the only survivor of all her family members who remained in the country. Her parents died in the ghetto from starvation, and all the others were sent to concentration camps.

In 1946, the Youth Aliyah (Aliyat Hano’ar) organization sent her to the displaced persons camp in Indersdorf, Bavaria, to teach Hebrew to children who survived the war. In July 1947, she boarded the Exodus with a group of her students. She arrived in Israel in April 1948, and after a few months joined Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, near Zichron Ya’akov. She died in 2018.

Sternberg Wechsler’s diary was added to about 90 others from the early years of the state that were presented to the National Library as part of the project and in honor of the 75th year of independence.

Matan Barzali, director of archives and special collections at the National Library, said, “We are happy to continue receiving personal diaries written in the years before and during the War of Independence, as well as diaries that contain stories and experiences from the first years of the young state. These can be diaries written in Hebrew or in any other language, diaries of people who lived in Israel or in any other country—provided that they have stories about people from that generation.”

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