Text: Uris, Leon. Exodus. New York: Bantam Books, 1958; 1986.
Exodus is a historical novel in five books concerning the period 1946-48 during which the modern state of Israel was founded in Palestine. In addition, Uris brings in historical issues beyond this period through flashbacks to characters’ stories, or in narrative about Jewish history and World War II. The characters are fictitious, but the story is based on historical fact.
Summary of Book One: Beyond Jordan
Each book begins with a quote from the Bible that explains and validates the Jewish desire to reestablish their ancient homeland in Palestine. Book One is a quotation from Deuteronomy telling how God promised Moses to return the Jews to their homeland beyond the Jordan after their exodus from Egypt.
Book One is the longest of the five, telling the main story of the ship Exodus. All the major characters are introduced, gathered on the island of Cyprus in November, 1946. The Jews are secretly planning to go to Palestine on the ship named Exodus. The British have put the illegal Jewish immigrants into a detention camp on Cyprus to keep them from going to Palestine. Their policy is explained in the course of the story as pro-Arab and anti-Jewish because they need to pacify the Arabs who control their oil supply in the Middle East. Meanwhile the Jewish underground organizations work to get three hundred Jewish children out of the camps and onto the Exodus. They are helped by an American reporter, Mark Parker, and an American nurse, Kitty Fremont.
American reporter, Mark Parker, lands in Cyprus to meet his friend, Mrs. Kitty Fremont, a nurse there. Mark is a well-known reporter for ANS, the American News Service. He remembers growing up with Katherine (Kitty) in Indiana. She married his best friend, Tom Fremont, who was killed in the war. Mark was always a little in love with Kitty and wonders how it will be now that she is a widow. Kitty’s baby daughter also died of polio a few months after her husband’s death. Now she dedicates her life to nursing orphans.
Major Fred Caldwell of the British army, an aide of Brigadier Bruce Sutherland, finds Mark at his hotel and asks suspiciously what he is doing on Cyprus. Mark says he is on vacation. He does not like Caldwell’s superior British attitude and warns him the British Empire is breaking up now. Caldwell fears Mark wants to write stories in favor of Jewish settlement and against what the British are doing: forcing the Jews into camps on Cyprus to keep them away from Palestine.
Meanwhile, on a distant shore on Cyprus, David Ben Ami, a Jewish agent of the Mossad Aliyah Bet, the organization for illegal immigration to Palestine, is speaking to a Greek Cypriot sympathizer, Mandria, who controls the island’s taxis. Ben Ami is one of the Jewish underground infiltrating the detention camp (Caraolos) on Cyprus. He brings much needed food, supplies, and military training to the inmates to prepare them for escape. Ben Ami and Mandria wait for another agent—Ari Ben Canaan—a crack agent of the Mossad who swims ashore in the dark to organize a break out.
Mark and Kitty meet and discuss their past. Kitty tells of her years of grief after losing her husband and child. She had a nervous breakdown and only came out of it by giving herself to her nursing work for children. Mark is on the way to Palestine and tells Kitty there will be a war there “to resurrect a nation that has been dead for two thousand years” (pp. 19-20). Major Caldwell reports his suspicions to Brigadier Sutherland. Parker has embarrassed the British before with unfavorable stories. They do not want him to find out about the refugee camp. Caldwell does not think Sutherland is tough enough on the Jews.
Mandria, Ben Ami, and Ari Ben Canaan, discuss an escape plan to remove 300 Jewish children from Caraolos and send them to Palestine. The Jewish paramilitary group, the Palmach, has been giving secret military training to the children and have tunnels in and out of the camp. Mandria pledges his support and promises to secure a boat. Ari says he will need a British uniform and papers. When alone, Ben Ami and Ari embrace as brothers. David asks Ari about his sister, Jordana, with whom he is in love. Ari delivers a letter.
Brigadier Sutherland is disgusted with Caldwell’s racism and goes to bed. He has insomnia because he remembers he broke his promise to his dying mother, who revealed on her deathbed that she was a Jewess. She wanted to be buried according to her religion, but Sutherland had refused, worried about the scandal. Now he is haunted by his mother and her people. He himself had seen the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and he had testified at the Nuremburg Trials. Sutherland is thus cracking under a double pressure: from his mother’s memory, and from his British duty to suppress the Jews.
Ari and David go to the camp at Caraolos and find Joab Yarkoni, from the Mossad, training the children, most of them from concentration camps. Dov Landau is a Jewish teenage refugee from Warsaw who is an expert forger but refuses to help Ari. He is emotionally disturbed from his past and only wants to get to Palestine to become a killer commando. He agrees to help Ari if he and his friend, Karen, can be put on the list of children to be evacuated. Ari agrees and Dov forges the identification papers for Ari. Ari explains the escape plan to his group including Mandria, Ben Ami, Joab, and Zev Gilboa. Mandria admires Ari’s cold and calculating expertise and daring.
As Mark and Kitty dine in the hotel, Ari Ben Canaan walks in to talk to Mark. His eyes meet and lock on Kitty’s. There is a spark between them, and Ari dances with Kitty. She is flustered. Ari tells Parker his escape plan hoping he will publish the story to give the Jews leverage in taking the immigrants from Cyprus to Palestine. Ari asks Kitty to take a nursing job at Caraolos so she can be a courier. Kitty refuses to be involved at first but when she visits the camp, she is struck by the plight of the children. She is especially attracted to one pretty teenager who is taking care of the younger children, making them laugh. The girl called Karen Hansen Clement reminds her of her own dead daughter. Karen tells her story to Kitty, and it appears as a flashback to Germany in 1938.
Karen’s father was a Jewish professor, Johann Clement, a famous scientist told to leave Germany as the Nazis come to power. He ignores the warnings, certain the trouble will blow over. He endangers himself and his family to the point where they cannot get out. He goes to Berlin to the headquarters to the Mossad Aliyah Bet where Ari Ben Canaan is working to get Jews out. Ari can only promise to help the professor and one of his children. His wife and two sons cannot be saved. Clement chooses his oldest daughter, Karen, to be evacuated with other Jewish children for adoption by Danish families. Karen is adopted by a Danish lawyer, Aage Hansen and his wife Meta, who have no children and love Karen as their own. She is brought up as a Christian and given every advantage. She thrives, even being accepted as a teenager by the Royal Ballet in Copenhagen as a dancer. The Hansens hear from the Red Cross that Karen’s family in Germany has disappeared. After the war, Karen herself decides she must try to find her father who might still be alive. She goes to a Refugee Organization in Sweden at the age of 14. There she confirms the death of 50 of her family members. She is now one of the millions of homeless after the war that killed twenty-five million, including six million Jews in the death camps. Karen becomes depressed until she uses her talents to cheer the younger children. She hears of Zionism and wants to go to Palestine where she is sure her father would go. On a refugee ship she and the others are captured and taken to the detention camp on Cyprus.
Kitty falls in love with Karen, seeing in her her dead daughter. She tells Ari she will work in the camp if she can have Karen stay as an assistant and not go on the Exodus. Ari agrees.
Operation Gideon begins. Ari uses identification forged by Dov Landau to appear as a British officer. With other Palmach members dressed as British, they have false orders to take supplies out of a British depot on Cyprus, including trucks, jeeps, and food and supplies for the Exodus. The British know something is going on but cannot find out what. Sutherland’s officers cannot convince him to investigate. They decide to report Sutherland to London for his laxness. Mark sends the escape story to his chief at ANS in London to print when he gives the signal.
Kitty’s plan to keep Karen on Cyprus is foiled when Dov Landau finds out he and Karen are not on the escape list. He refuses to forge the necessary papers for the escape. Karen is the only person Dov trusts, and he makes Ari agree to his terms that he and Karen will sail on the Exodus. The narrative then flashes back to Warsaw, Poland, in 1939 to tell Dov’s story when he was ten.
Dov’s father, Mendel Landau, was a Jewish baker, and his family members belong to the Zionist group called the Redeemers who meet secretly to plan their removal to Palestine. The Landaus, like the other Jews, live in the ghetto behind high walls, barely surviving. They are part of an underground resistance group that uses young Dov as a courier. Dov knows all the sewers under the walls and makes dangerous trips learning to steal and forge and kill to help his family stay alive. All of his family dies in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and he is taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz when he is 14. There only his ability to forge keeps him out of the gas chamber as he engraves counterfeit money for the Nazis. He is also one of those who cleans up the gas chambers after executions. At the end of the war when the concentration camps are liberated, there is no place for the inmates to go and many remain where they are. Dov is in a group that has to fight the British to get out of Poland through the Jewish underground. He is captured on an Aliyah Bet ship and transported to Cyprus. For six years he has been on the verge of starvation and madness and proves to be emotionally difficult at Caraolos. Karen Clement is the only one who can get through his wall of hatred. They are always together.
On D-Day Ari poses as a British officer and brings trucks to Caraolos as if to transport the inmates to another camp. They load 300 children and take off to the harbor. Mark sends in his story to the newspaper to bring publicity. Then Mark calls the British to tell them of the escape so they will block the ship from leaving port. This is what Ari wants; he knows they have no chance to reach Palestine so he stages this event to dramatize their plight. He threatens to blow up the ship if the British board. Mark’s article in the papers reaches the Foreign Office in London. The British realize they are making martyrs of the Jews, especially after the children go on a hunger strike, and then threaten to commit suicide one by one. The tide of public opinion turns. Sutherland is relieved of duty as the British allow the Exodus to sail.
Commentary on Book One: Beyond Jordan
Uris roughly bases the flight of the ship Exodus from Cyprus on a real incident. The ship Exodus 1947 left France for Palestine on July 11, 1947. The British stopped the ship and returned the Jewish Holocaust survivors to Europe, causing a great international outcry. This incident gained favorable publicity for a Jewish homeland. Uris fictionalizes the incident, adding the children and the success of the ship in getting to Palestine. The Exodus represents one of many of the Mossad Aliyah Bet ships for illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine. The boats were staffed mostly by Americans, Canadians and Latin Americans. 100,000 Jews tried to immigrate this way, but the British seized the ships and returned most of them to Europe or imprisoned them on Cyprus. 50,000 were put into camps and only a few thousand actually made it to Palestine. Nevertheless, the Exodus 1947 was the sort of heroic event that unified Jewish patriots and created the publicity they needed to get support for a homeland in Palestine.
Uris uses the flight of the Exodus as the unifying core of the drama of this book. In addition, he establishes the justification for the Jewish resettlement of Palestine by showing the roots of the Exodus incident in World War II where six million Jews were killed in concentration camps and millions of others left homeless. After the war, he shows, no one wanted the displaced Jews in Europe, and the United States and other countries had limited immigration numbers. The Jews who survived the horrors of the death camps were then put into more detention camps as they waited for someplace to go. If they tried to immigrate to Palestine, which was their ancestral home, they were stopped and imprisoned by the British. The injustice of the situation is graphically depicted with the conditions of Caraolos shown to be not much better than the German camps. The author does something important here and in the whole book, however, by changing the negative image of Jews into something heroic and positive. The Jews in the ghetto, or in Auschwitz, or in Caraolos are not passive. They organize themselves wherever they are and establish schools, religious practices, cultural events, and even underground military training. They become expert commandos without any money or equipment, and even the British admit the Jewish spies surpass their own.
Dov Landau and Karen Hansen Clement represent young Jews who lost their families in the Holocaust and only live to see the Holy Land. David Ben Ami and Ari Ben Canaan represent the earlier generations of pioneers in Palestine in the Zionist movement. They had created farms and settlements in Palestine and a way of life in an unfriendly desert, and in addition, during and after the war, risked their lives to get surviving Jews out of Europe and into Palestine. Parker and Kitty Fremont are the sympathetic Americans who believe in the justice of the Jewish cause and try to help. Leon Uris’s novel is often credited with creating American sympathy for Israel and American foreign policy that favors Israel.
Though there are some sympathetic British shown in this book, particularly Brigadier Bruce Sutherland, whose mother was Jewish, the British are often compared to the Nazis in their suppression of the Jews. The detention camp on Cyprus is a subhuman environment where the inmates do not have enough to eat. For the British, however, the prejudice against the Jews is not so much racial as political. They favor the Arabs in Palestine who do not want the Jews to immigrate there. The British are worried about their oil supply and the Suez Canal and do not want to anger the Arabs. At this time, the British control Cyprus and Egypt and the Persian Gulf as part of the British Empire. Mark Parker goads Caldwell that the British Empire is about ready to fall apart. He refers to the fact that after World War II, former colonies of the British Empire, such as India, demanded and won their independence. We see the last gasp of British hegemony in the Exodus incident. Parker has embarrassed the British with his articles before, and they are worried he will create unfavorable publicity about how they are treating the Jews on Cyprus. As an American Parker knows how to create appeals to freedom, and we are given samples of his articles that stir up opinion against the British.
The British Mandate of Palestine, or British-controlled Palestine, operated from 1920-1948. Both Arabs and Jews resisted the British rule, as is pointed out in the narrative. Mention is frequently made of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which British Foreign Secretary Balfour announced as official British policy the support of the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Later the British did not uphold this policy. Ari is able to pose as a British officer because in World War II many Jews in Palestine joined the British forces to fight Hitler. Ari had been in the British army and knew his way around.
Ari Ben Cannan’s devious scheme to get the children to Palestine makes him look a bit ruthless and inhuman. He purposely lets the ship get caught before it sails so that he can create an international incident. Having children go on a hunger strike or suicide pact seems cruel, but Ari tries to show Kitty that this tells the world how desperate they are. The children have been tortured by Nazis and are not intimidated, willing to do anything to get to the Holy Land. Ari is set up as a cold and ruthless commando, but the novel shows how he, like the boy Dov Landau, got that way by being forced into a military life through necessity. Ari is controlled and calculating, while Dov is little more than a wild animal after surviving Auschwitz. Ari is painted somewhat like a superhero, like a Batman with a chip on his shoulder, very attractive to women like Kitty. Ari is over six feet tall and as handsome as a movie star. Kitty falls for him against her will. They are completely opposite in nature. She is soft and nurturing, while Ari is a soldier. They have different religions and outlooks, but Uris uses Kitty as the outsider who becomes an insider, like Bruce Sutherland. Soon she is part of Ari’s trusted team.
Uris gives the background of the Holocaust through the eyes of the British commander, Sutherland, who had been with the British forces liberating the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Bergen-Belsen was photographed and became the popular image of Nazi atrocities. Sutherland had to testify at the Nuremburg Trials in 1945-6, the military tribunals for Nazi war crimes that tried 23 leaders of the Third Reich. He knows in his heart that the Jews have a case, and he is uncomfortable persecuting them in the name of British politics. He is actually glad to be relieved of his command for being too soft on Jews. He becomes an advisor to the Jewish army later in the story.