An American author of historical fiction, Leon Uris was known for his commitment to historical accuracy and extensive research. The people of Israel can be especially grateful that this literary giant brought the early history of Israel to the attention of millions of people throughout the Western world, making them sympathetic to the newly established Jewish state.
He achieved this through his epic 1958 novel Exodus, which was so successful that it was later made into a film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman. It is said to have been the best-selling novel in the United States since Gone with the Wind in 1936. By the mid-1960s, sales exceeded 5 million copies.
Uris’s complex plot focused upon the 1947 efforts to take the SS Exodus into harbor in Palestine with its 4,500 refugees on board. Through the travails and romances of his characters, millions learned about the obstacles faced by the Jewish Agency in the 1940s, the oppression of British mandatory rule and the brutal hatred of the Arabs who followed the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Most of all, millions learned about the majestic achievement of Israel’s creation.
Uris’s novel reflected his astonishing research and his determination to get the smallest details right. To that end, he reportedly conducted more than 2,000 interviews in writing the book, and many of its characters are based on real people. While this was his method of writing for all his novels, Uris’s connection with Israel was especially intense and passionate, reflecting his family’s history. His father had fled tsarist Russia for Palestine, and though eventually emigrating to the United States, he changed the family name from Blumberg to Uris—a variant of Yerushalemi, or “man of Jerusalem”—in honor of the capital.
Uris wrote other novels that told important Jewish stories, including QB VII about the Holocaust and Mila 18, a depiction of the Warsaw-ghetto uprising.
But Exodus remains his greatest work. A fictional portrait based upon true events, David Ben-Gurion held it in high regard, asserting that “it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”