Jack Johnson was a larger than life figure, a true Alaskan character. Born in 1926, raised on Kodiak Island, he went to sea at the age of 13. At various times he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, in the Scottish Guards, in the Russian Army, in the French Foreign Legion, and in the Israeli Army. He ended his career as a ship's pilot in southcentral Alaskan waters. Retiring at 80, he died earlier this year.
In 1947 Johnson was in France and a bit at loose ends. He was recruited by Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in British Palestine which at the time was outfitting ships to carry Jews from Europe, illegally, to settle in Palestine. In the Russian Army Johnson had helped liberate one of the death camps in 1945, an experience that seared his conscience.
The ship he helped sail, christened the Exodus, generated an international scandal, a scandal that helped change the way the educated world understands Jewish history and the Jewish people. Carrying nearly 4,500 people, the ship was rammed by British destroyers as it neared the Palestinian coast and boarded by British troops, who in the ensuing melee killed three aboard the Exodus. They then towed the ship and passengers back to France, but there, the passengers refused to disembark. They held out for three weeks, after which the British towed the ship to Hamburg and forcibly removed the Jews to displaced persons camps near Lubeck.
Informed world opinion, sensitized by what it had learned of the Holocaust, was outraged by the phenomenon of Jews still being treated as undesirables, as animals, as vermin. The incident seemed to put the world right back to where it had been before the war. In 1938 under the sponsorship of Franklin Roosevelt, world nations had met in Evian-les-Bains in France to devise policies to help Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany. Nothing happened because the United States refused to increase its Jewish immigration quota; most of the other nations followed the U.S. lead. In 1939, the M.S. St. Louis carrying over 900 Jews fleeing Germany sailed from Hamburg to Cuba, and then Florida. It was refused entry in both countries, and returned to Hamburg; many of the passengers perished in the death camps. It was the "voyage of the damned."
Then, in 1947, the cycle seemed to be beginning all over again. People could reflect that in their determination on a "final solution" to the "Jewish problem," the National Socialists in Germany simply acted as an agent of the world view of the Jewish people. No one had wanted Jews. The Seleucids had murdered them; the Romans had murdered them; Christians had murdered them, Crusaders massacring them in Jerusalem and Isabella driving them out of Iberia; Arabs and Muslims had murdered them. All held to the conviction that Jews were less than human.
The Holocaust, finally, was in a sense the last straw. Watching the phenomenon of the Exodus unfold, people had to examine what was wrong. Where did the kind of treatment being meted out to the Exodus Jews lead? It led straight to the death camps in Germany and Poland, ultimately, inexorably. The realization began to take hold that the view that the Jews were less than human was wrong, that it had to change. That the persecution of millennia had, finally, to end. If the core Enlightenment values of the sanctity of human life and the equality of all people were in fact true, as Jefferson had so eloquently stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the very principles on which the American democracy had been founded, then the Jews, too, were equal human beings. The time had come to end the charade of "lesser humans" and "more equal than other humans."
This new understanding of who is a human, of who is entitled to equal human dignity, fueled the civil rights revolution in this country, and continues to mature as informed opinion confronts the true meaning of diversity.
The immediate political impact of the Exodus voyage was to help generate support for creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Captain Jack Johnson was proud throughout his life to have played his part.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.