‘Steaming toward Palestine’

‘Steaming toward Palestine’

Nathan Nadler of Rutherford, Exodus veteran, dies

Nathan Nadler, center, facing camera, helps guide the displaced aboard the Exodus in the French port of Sete.

This story first ran in June 2003, when Nat Nadler was among 70 American veterans of Israel honored at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum on Manhattan’s West Side. Nadler, who is believed to be one of the last survivors of the Exodus, died at home in Rutherford on July 25. His wife, Ann, died in 2002; he is survived by their two sons, Mark and Aaron, and two grandsons.

Nathan Nadler was born in Browns-ville, Brooklyn, in 1927 and was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18, right at the war’s end. “When I was raised in Brownsville, nobody ever called me a Jew bastard,” he said. He encountered such name-calling for the first time in basic training in Alabama, when he was put together with young men from the Deep South. “Those 18-year-olds I was in the Army with – I just recently realized that they were the grandchildren of Civil War veterans. They were still fighting the Civil War,” he said. From there, he was sent to a so-called repo depot – a place where soldiers were “bedded down and distributed” in Bamberg, Germany. Because he had worked for an electrician during high school, he was sent to Munich, where he worked in a quartermaster depot supply company. “I did not see any combat in the Army except fighting anti-Semites,” he said. He was the youngest man in the squad and served as its mascot.

“My first Sunday in Munich, I was in uniform, of course, walking down the main drag, over the river, right outside the big German beer hall where Hitler got his start. There were a lot of people milling about on the bridge. One man walked over to me, looked me straight in the face, and said to me, ‘Amchah?’ One of us?’ And I answered him in Yiddish, of course. ‘Of course, I’m a Jew.’ This is what started it all.”

Although he had not known about the concentration camps before then, he learned quickly. He met many survivors, and “I did whatever I could for them. I brought them clothing and food from the depot. It was appropriated.”

After two years in the Army, Nadler was discharged. “I felt obliged to go back to Europe to help the survivors,” he said. “At that time, there was no way of getting back to Europe unless you re-enlisted, and I wasn’t about to do that. Two years of being called Jew bastard was enough.” But there were full-page ads in the Daily News “saying ‘join the Barney Ross Brigade. Join the American Free League for Palestine.’

“I went down to the league’s office, somewhere in Union Square, and they said we’d be calling you,” Nadler said. He was not impressed by the group. “As I was leaving, a young boy ran over to me, put a piece of paper in my hand with a penciled telephone number scribbled on it. ‘If you’re really interested, call this number,'” he said. “The kid was about 14. I called from the pay phone, was invited immediately to be interviewed on Fifth Avenue, in a mansion right near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I rang the doorbell, the door opened, and there were floodlights shining in my eyes. I couldn’t see who was interviewing me; it was like that the whole time. He interviewed me for about half an hour, said I’d be calling you. I said to myself in Yiddish slang, ‘nechtiger tag’ – yesterday’s day. I didn’t believe it.

“But the following day, I got a phone call; this man said, ‘are you still interested?’ I was living with my parents on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. I said yes, and he said to go down to Pier 32 in Philadelphia; the name of the ship is the President Warfield. ‘They’ll be expecting you.’ I repacked my duffel bag, my mom asked me where I was going. I told her I’d be writing her, and I kissed her goodbye. I was 20 years old.

“I took the subway to Penn Station, got to Philadelphia, and took a cab from the train station to Pier 32 South.”

He found the boat – which was later to be called Haganah Ship Exodus 1947 (Y’tziat Europa, Exodus from Europe, was written in Hebrew letters across the bow) – climbed up the rope ladder, and was grabbed by “a priest! With a clerical collar, a black tunic, and a big cross on his chest about eight inches high. A gold cross on his chest!”

The “priest” – actually a Methodist minister – was John Stanley Grauel, one of Nadler’s new crewmates. “A very righteous person,” Nadler said. Grauel died in Septeber 1986; “he knew he was dying, and he told us he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. We put his body on an El Al flight at midnight in Kennedy; he’s buried in an Anglican cemetery in Jerusalem.” (Grauel’s mourners at the funeral service included an Israel naval honor guard, ex-Haganah members who served in Aliyah Bet operations, and members of the Exodus crew.)

Back on the boat, Nadler met the rest of the crew; most, like him, were Jewish volunteers. He used his electrical skills in the engine room, as the ship steamed across the Atlantic. Eventually, they came to the Azores, where it took them three days to refuel. “The British were putting pressure on the Portuguese not to give us fuel,” he said.

Slightly more than two weeks later, they came to Marseilles, and then onto a small port in Italy. “We tied up with our bow out, we dropped our anchor chains, stern in. Two Italian gunboats pulled up on our anchor chains to make sure we couldn’t leave. One was on either side. Nobody seemed to mind; the politzei didn’t bother us. We proceeded to convert the ship. The ship normally carried 355 people; Italian craftsmen converted it to carry 5,000 on four decks. On every deck, there was a first-aid station; it had eight doctors and 30 nurses, who came on later. After a few months, we were ready to leave, but we still had these Italian gunboats sitting on our anchor chains.”

Eventually, through the application of political influence, the gunboats left. “We pulled up our anchors and we took off,” Nadler said.

They got to Sete, a French Mediterranean port not far from the Spanish border. “The tugboat took us through the maze of breakwaters,” Nadler said. “We tied up inside the breakwater, and it was night, and our stern was tied into this breakwater, and we are waiting there. In the morning, trucks started arriving, one behind each other; a convoy of trucks. You couldn’t see the last truck.

“And people started getting out of these trucks, with their suitcases on their backs. All these trucks had rendezvoused in Sete that very morning, from all the DP camps in Europe.

“This was a big operation,” Nadler continued. “It was secret, but the trouble was that too many people knew about it. We loaded the ship; it took us from dawn to dusk. We loaded 4,554 people, all of them survivors.

“When it came time for us to leave, the British were putting pressure on the French not to let us, and here we are with four-and-a-half thousand people on a blockade runner. We have to get out of this harbor. We had everything we needed on the ship, including potatoes. That was because you could eat them or throw them at the British.

“We needed a tugboat to get us out of the port. It took us all night to get this big ship out of the tight harbor. Finally, in the morning, it was free. I remember falling asleep for a couple of hours because I hadn’t slept for two days. When I woke up, we were in free water, steaming toward Palestine.

“And who was the greeter on either side? The British cruiser Ajax and five other cruisers were steaming on either side of us. They turned the loudspeakers to us and said, ‘Give up. You don’t stand a chance!’ And we turned our loudspeakers to them, and played Sir Edward Elgar’s march, ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’

“We had planned on beaching the ship at Yaffa. There was a five-mile international limit. At that time, if you are outside the limit, they couldn’t touch us legally, but they attacked us when we were nearer to the coast of Gaza. Of course, that was illegal. In the first wave, they took control of the wheelhouse.”

That’s when Nadler was working in the wheelhouse. “Everybody got out of the wheelhouse but Bill Bernstein, this little guy, a second mate with red hair who was always horsing around. They clubbed him and he died.

“Before I knew it, I was knocked out, bleeding profusely from my right eye, and when I came to, I crawled out the starboard side of the wheelhouse.”

Another crew member, Bill Millman, “grabbed a British sailor by the crotch and by the neck; he picks him up and he’s dragging him outside to throw him over the side. The other British marine takes out a 38-millimeter revolver and shoots him in the head. Luckily, the bullet hit his shin, shattered his jawbone, and he was knocked out. I managed to crawl down underneath the tear gas.”

Finding refuge in the ship’s hospital, he also found Millman. “His whole head was bandaged; he could barely talk. He says to me, ‘We really showed them, didn’t we?’ I said, ‘yeah, we really showed them. Look at us, you big schmuck!'”

Soon Nadler rejoined the fight. “The British were still trying to board the ship and stop it,” he said. “The captain and the first mate had disconnected the wheel.’ The ship was being steered from the afterhelm.

“Two British soldiers jumped aboard with their machine guns in their hands, and looked at the people,” he said. “One of them took his machine gun and threw it over the side, took his helmet and threw it over the side, and he jumped over the side. He didn’t want to have anything to do with what was going on. And the other one, I jumped him, I grabbed his helmet from behind, his chin strap was under his chin and didn’t have a release strap like the Americans had, and I threw him over the side.”

Nadler helped hide some of the passengers; some of them later escaped with the shore gang. Nadler ended up on a British prison ship, the Ocean Vigor, one of three. “We got two meals a day,” he said. “The morning meal was salty tea, with a package of British sea rations. They were biscuits from New Zealand, and when you broke them, what do you think was crawling around? Maggots. You flipped out the maggots and ate it if you could. And what do you think was swimming around in the soup? You tried to avoid eating the maggots, but you’re hungry.

“They figured they’d take us back to Germany,” he said, because there were German refugees on the ship, but instead the ship went to Marseilles. The French would let only those refugees who wanted to become French citizens ashore, and “nobody wanted to come ashore to become a French citizen,” Nadler said. “So the French were stuck with four-and-a-half thousand Jews, and they didn’t know what to do. They made these prison ships lay in the hot sun for a number of weeks. Finally, Bevin, the bastard, decided what to do with the people.” (That was Ernest Bevin, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs.)

“They took them up to Hamburg, forced them ashore with fire hoses and clubs, and put them in a former German concentration camp,” said Nadler. “They were guarded by former German soldiers. They were back in the concentration camp, after being freed two years earlier.”

Most of those survivors finally made it to Israel a few months later.

Meanwhile, Nadler had gotten off the prison ship in Marseilles; his leg had been badly hurt during the battle on the Exodus and it was treated in the French port city. “I never made it to Palestine then,” he said. He’s been to Israel, however.

After his adventures, Nadler became an electrician. Beginning in 1998, he studied at the North Jersey School of Modern Psychoanalysis. He and his wife were together for 42 years; Anstiss Nadler died in 2002.

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