A Sailor from Brooklyn, a Boatload of Refugees, and a Mother’s Day Lesson

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest, on Mother’s Day, that there are times when it is better not to listen to one’s mother.  But consider what happened in 1946, when Elliot Roosevelt, son of the late president, sought advice from his mother Eleanor on a matter concerning Holocaust survivors.

In the wake of World War II, several hundred thousand Jewish refugees languished in Displaced Persons camps in Europe. Their dream of reaching the Land of Israel was stifled by the British Mandate authorities, who hoped to appease Arab opinion by shutting out almost all Jewish immigration.

Palestine’s Jewish militias, the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, organized an underground railroad to smuggle refugees from Europe to the Holy Land.  Here in the United States, the American League for a Free  Palestine (better known as the Bergson Group, after its leader, Peter Bergson) raised funds for refugee immigration by staging a Ben Hecht play called “A Flag is Born,” which dramatized the plight of the DPs and the need for a Jewish state.  It starred young Marlon Brando, Paul Muni, and Celia Adler.  The money it raised was used to purchase a ship that was intended to bring refugees to Palestine.

Like many Americans, Elliott Roosevelt, the second child of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, followed the news about Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine.  Elliott, 36, was perhaps the most colorful character in his famous family.  A heavily decorated World War II combat pilot, he would later marry five times, serve as mayor of Miami Beach,  and author a series of “tell all” books about the Roosevelts as well as mystery novels featuring his mother as an amateur detective.

It happens that Elliot was also a yachtsman.  He contacted Bergson in late 1946 because, as Bergson later recalled, he “wanted to volunteer to sail in to Palestine with a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe, to break the British blockade of Palestine.  And we thought that would be quite a thing [since he was] the son of the former president…It could really…make a world sensation.”

“And then,” Bergson recalled, “he says, ‘I want to discuss it with my mother.’”

Now, far be it from me to suggest, on this Mother’s Day, that it’s not a good idea to ask one’s mother for advice before making a major decision.  But Bergson certainly didn’t think so.  “I don’t think she’s going to let you do it,” Bergson advised Elliot.  “If you want to do it, don’t ask her. If you ask her, you won’t do it.”  But he did ask her and sure enough, Bergson recalled, “She wouldn’t let him.”

Bergson appealed the decision.  “I went to see her.  To try to tell her that, if it’s from the point of view of a mother worrying about her son, I can only tell her that I don’t think that it was dangerous, that even poor Jewish refugees [were not in danger] … [The British] didn’t shoot on those boats [and] they certainly wouldn’t do it to Elliot Roosevelt … But I couldn’t convince her.”

That didn’t stop Bergson and company.  They purchased a 400-ton former yacht, refurbished it in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, and set sail in December 1946 with a crew of twenty-one volunteers.  Who would serve as captain, now that Elliot Roosevelt was unavailable?  That task fell to a burly, six-foot-four merchant marine from Brooklyn named Bob Levittan.

“Uncle Bob was a gentle giant with a heart of gold,” recalls his nephew David Miller.  “He was a proud Jew who wanted to use his experience as a seaman to help the refugees.  He was outraged that the world was silent during the Holocaust and was now letting the British close off Palestine.  This was his chance to help the Jews fight back.”

The S.S. Ben Hecht, as the Bergson group named the boat, carrying six hundred Holocaust survivors, was intercepted by the British near Palestine in March 1947.  The refugees were herded off to a detention camp in Cyprus, while Bob Levittan and his colleagues were jailed at the Acre Prison, south of Haifa.

Levittan’s work was not done.  “Uncle Bob managed to sneak a small camera into the prison,” David Miller explains.  “He took photos of imprisoned Irgun fighters, which were used for the phony i.d. cards they needed fo the huge prison break that the Irgun staged later that year.”

After several weeks behind bars, Levittan and the other crew members were deported back to the United States.  But instead of returning to his life as a seaman, Bob chose to continue on the path of self-sacrifice: he became a firefighter in Miami, serving with distinction for twenty years, until an injury on the job compelled him to leave the force.  When this modest but extraordinary man passed away in Florida in 1998, nobody outside his family knew of his incredible past.

Yes, it would have been quite a spectacle had the son of an American president been at the helm of the S.S. Ben Hecht.   But Bob Levittan, thrust unexpectedly onto the front lines of a bitter international conflict, certainly rose to the occasion.

Maybe it’s just as well that Elliott Roosevelt listened to his mother.

May 2005