Even after two months on the Exodus, the passengers resisted setting foot back on the continent. When the British finally forced them ashore in September 1947 and into two displaced persons camps in occupied northern Germany — Poppendorf and Am Stau — many sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” in protest. An unexploded time bomb, apparently designed to go off after the passengers were ashore, was later found on one of the ships.
The widely reported events won worldwide sympathy for European Jews and their national aspirations. An American newspaper headlined a story about the Exodus “Back to the Reich.” The Yugoslav delegate from the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine called the affair “the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine.”
Later, the Exodus achieved legendary status, most famously as the inspiration and namesake of the 1958 best-seller by Leon Uris and the 1960 film starring Paul Newman. Some, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, credited the Exodus with a major role in the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948.
Gary, who was stationed in Munich, had close ties to Zionist activists; he reported early and often on the continuing plight of the Exodus Jews in the camps. His dispatches highlighted their continued challenges, including malnutrition, and unabated longing to immigrate to Palestine.
In a report from Poppendorf days after the Exodus Jews arrived, Gary said the dark running joke in the camp was that the alternative to Palestine was simple: “Everyone would choose a tree from which to hang himself.”
“The Jews of Germany demand and expect a chance to start life anew under reasonably secure circumstances,” he wrote. “They feel these places exist mainly in Palestine and the US. And they are determined to get there, either by legal or illegal means, or just by plain old fashioned patience.”
Pnina Drori, who later became Gary’s wife, was among the emissaries that the Jewish Agency for Israel sent to the camps from Palestine to prepare the Jews for aliyah. As a kindergarten teacher, she taught the children Hebrew and Zionist songs. Other emissaries, she said, offered military training in preparation for the escalating battles with the Arab majority in Palestine.
“In the photos, you see a lot of young people in shorts and kind of Israeli clothes,” she said. “We were getting them ready for Israeli life, both good and bad. You have to remember Israel was at war at the time.”