Zvi Hatkevitz does not remember the voyage from the shores of France to Israel on the illegal immigrant ship Exodus. Nor does he remember the courageous battle fought between the passengers and the British soldiers who refused to allow them to enter the Holy Land.
He was still in the womb of his mother, a Holocaust survivor who dreamed of going to the Land of Israel. Zvi was born a few months later in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany.
Today, 71 years after that heroic journey that made the history books, he convinced the State of Israel to recognize the unique contribution of the 120,000 "illegal" immigrants who immigrated to Israel during the British Mandate period.
"A few months ago, I discovered that there was a 'State Fighter' medal given to the Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Palmach and Hashomer fighters and organizations that aided the illegal immigration, but not to the immigrants themselves," Hatkevitz says. "I explained to the Defense Ministry that the Exodus passengers should also receive the medal because there was a difficult battle aboard the ship and these immigrants fought for the establishment of the State of Israel."
The SS Exodus left Marseilles, France, on July 11, 1947, carrying 4,515 Holocaust survivors. On July 18, a day before it was due to reach the shores of Mandate Palestine, it was attacked by British destroyers.
Some 50 British soldiers managed to board the ship using smoke grenades and tear gas, and a serious struggle broke out between the immigrants and the soldiers, leaving three passengers dead and dozens injured.
All the passengers were removed from the ship at the Haifa port and sent back to Europe on other vessels. The French government refused the British demand to forcibly remove the passengers from the ship, and eventually the immigrants were returned to the DP camps in British-occupied areas of Germany. After about a year, most of the passengers made their way to the State of Israel.
Hatkevitz, who was born in a DP camp in Germany on November 29, 1947, the day of the UN vote on the Partition Plan, which facilitated the establishment of the State of Israel, recruited the help of Yitzhak Rosman, the son of Exodus leader Mordechai Rosman, and Daniel Levy, whose parents were also on board.
"At the same time, I approached members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Knesset members in the Lobby for the Preservation of the Heritage. I met with the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Ze'ev Elkin. I presented him with my request and to my delight I managed to persuade him and his ministry's director-general, Ran Yishai, to grant a special medal and certificate to all the brave people who immigrated to Israel in those years," he says.
Recently, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage Affairs issued a notice inviting the public to apply for the special medal. Those eligible include those who boarded the illegal immigrant ships between 1934 and 1948, those born in the DP camps in Europe or in the detention camps in Cyprus, and those born on the Exodus or others who were born on the journey to Israel. The application can be filled out online through the ministry's website.
"I feel great that I managed to get the government to acknowledge the contribution of those immigrants to the establishment of the State of Israel. I am sure that the moment I receive the medal will be one of the most exciting in my life, I am already crying," says Hatkevitz, who recently attended a memorial ceremony for the passengers of the Exodus held in the port of Marseille.