Baruch, the Exodus ship, and a plot to bomb London

In 1947, the Exodus 1947 came to symbolize the struggle for Jewish immigration to the land of Israel. About 4,500 Holocaust survivors boarded the Haganah[1] ship, which set sail from a French port for Palestine. The plan was to run the blockade set up by the British along the Palestine coast to prevent Jews from entering the country. The British discovered the plan and dispatched destroyers to force the Exodus to return to France. When the British boarded the ship, the Jews resisted the takeover with homemade weapons. Three Jews were killed in the fighting. The British transferred the passengers and crew to three British ships—floating prisons—and returned them to French waters. Only 130 passengers—those who were ill or pregnant—left the prison ships in France. The rest stayed and staged a hunger strike, demanding to go to Eretz Israel.[2]

After three weeks, the British prepared to sail the ships to Hamburg, Germany, where the Jews were compelled to disembark. The reality of Jewish concentration camp survivors being forced into displaced persons camp in Germany generated sympathy throughout much of the world and galvanized Baruch Korff into action.[3]

Baruch had already affiliated himself with Lehi (Fighters for Israel’s Freedom), a radical underground Jewish militia, formed in 1940 by Avraham Stern and dubbed the “Stern Gang” by the British. Stern believed that the British were just as much the enemy as the Germans because they prevented Jews from immigrating to Eretz Israel to escape the Nazi death machine. The group launched attacks mainly against British targets.

Other members of the Stern Gang included Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (who much later became prime ministers of the State of Israel).

According to Baruch:

“As the three British prison ships prepared to leave for the last leg of the bitter journey to Hamburg, anger and vengeance homogenized the furtive and the stealthy. Everyone of us [his affiliates in the Stern Gang] clamored for a… reprisal that would sound our rancor.

“It was then I suggested, as part of the ‘war on nerves,’ that warning leaflets be dropped on London and half a dozen bombs be unloaded on its beachheads, with care taken to prevent human casualties. The idea was seized upon in Paris and Tel Aviv. I was charged with its execution. Eleven men and one woman were assigned to assist me.

“Although I was not a member of the Resistance, I was considered their confidant by virtue of my political advocacy and the financial resources I made available for their intricate operations. Thus it happened that I became involved in a purely military function…

“Six bombs were fashioned from casing of French fire extinguishers with short fins on which fuses were welded. They were loaded with gelignite and a ‘secret formula of explosives’…

“I wrote the text of the leaflet:

‘To the people whose government proclaimed
Peace in our time.
‘This is a warning!
‘Your government had dipped His Majesty’s Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil—
Out damned spot—out, I say…
‘Your government has violated every article of the Eretz-Israel Mandate, flouted International Law and invaded our country.
‘Oswiecim, Dachau, and Treblinka made way for the
‘To the Hitler-Bevin alliance—
‘To the murder of the survivors whom Hitler’s wrath could not reach.
‘We are resolute that it shall not come to pass again!
‘We will carry the war to the very heart of the Empire!
‘We will strike with all the bitterness and fury of our servitude and bondage.
‘We are prepared to fight a war of liberation now to avoid a war of enslavement tomorrow.
‘People of England!
‘Press your government to quit Eretz Israel now!
‘Demand that your sons and your daughters return home or you may not see them again.’

In his first autobiography, Flight From
Fear, Baruch describes the events that led to his arrest in France.

An airplane was rented from a French air cargo company but the bombing raid never got off the ground. French police disguised as airplane mechanics arrested Baruch and seven co-conspirators at the airfield. Tipped off beforehand that their pilot was a British spy, and realizing that they were under surveillance, the would-be bombers had left the bombs behind but brought along a suitcase full of leaflets. Baruch was charged with possession of explosives and planning to bomb London with propaganda leaflets. Jailed in Paris, he embarked on a 17-day hunger strike to draw even more attention to the cause of the Exodus refugees.

In this endeavor, Baruch succeeded. Major newspapers in London, Paris, and the United States carried the story and followed Baruch’s hunger strike. Baruch’s father, Grand Rabbi Israel Korff issued a statement to the Associated Press, appealing to the Secretary of State to affect the release of his son, an American citizen, and he made a direct plea to Baruch to end the hunger strike:

“’Baruch, my dear one, trust in more important things. Not only your friends, your family, but all freedom-loving men are behind you. I beg of you, my son, do not embark on a hunger strike. You and I know how frail is your frame, weakened by our tragic years in Europe. We do not yield so easily. No, it is more important that we eat and grow, that we can conserve our strength so that we can uphold, that we can maintain the struggle for all good things in life…’”[5]

Eventually Baruch sank into a coma, was revived, treated at a hospital, and soon after released on bail. About six weeks later, the French government dropped the charges after the French police confessed that they had found no trace of explosives and the judge ruled that there was no proof of the validity of the leaflet charge. 

After he returned to America, in true Baruch fashion, Korff put the best spin on his situation by denying any complicity. In an interview with the Boston Evening American on December 4, 1947, he said,

“If I had anything to do with it, it [London] would have been bombed before they knew anything about it.”[6]

In a press release that he prepared, Baruch even blamed the British for his plight:

“World resentment against the [treatment of the Exodus refugees]… caused British Scotland Yard to look for a scheme that would divert the attention of the world from the landing of these refugees in Hamburg. Rabbi Baruch Korff…was chosen as the target…and on the same night that the three refugee ships arrived in Hamburg, the arrest of Rabbi Korff was made at an airport in France…”

Read how Baruch summarized his life and life’s work.


[1] The Haganah, was an underground Jewish military organization, formed by Jews living in Palestine, and dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish state.
[2] “Eretz Israel” means the land of Israel. 
[3] For more information about the Exodus 1947, go to the “Exodus 1947”entry in the online Holocaust Encyclopedia  sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005419.
[4] Flight from Fear, pp. 106-108.
[5] Ibid., p. 31.
[6] Catalogue of an Exhibition, p. 44.