The “people on the beach” were some 1,300 Holocaust survivors who boarded a disguised banana boat from a remote Italian beach and clandestinely sailed to Palestine in June 1946.
The boat, a retired Canadian naval vessel, had been purchased six months earlier by the Aliyah Bet, the human smuggling arm of the pre-state Jewish Agency, and renamed the Josiah Wedgwood, after a British Lord.
Early on, author Rosie Whitehouse writes that this “is not a story of characters from a distant past … it is an intimate, personal story of the Holocaust.”
In truth, this book is more complex and ambitious, often with only tenuous connections to the few Wedgwood passengers Whitehouse was able to find. Rather, the Wedgwood is the narrow eyepiece of a telescope through which Whitehouse goes back in time and place to explore the history of the human smuggling enterprise.
The Wedgwood was one of thirty-four refugee boats launched from the Italian coastline that challenged the British naval blockade of Palestine between Germany’s defeat in 1945 and Israel’s creation in 1948.
A self-described “road trip historian,” Whitehouse brings the reader along to the places she writes about, from displaced persons (DP) camps scattered through Germany and Italy to sites of horrific massacres and death camps that gave the Holocaust its name.
After the war, American military administrators viewed the Jews not as a distinct persecuted minority but as Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, etc., to be repatriated. That the Jews had nothing and no one to return to did not matter.
Against this broad historical canvas, Whitehouse paints inspiring portraits of the many heroes, some famous, others not, who helped the sick and traumatized survivors languishing in the DP camps. It was from these camps that Aliyah Bet agents funneled thousands of refugees to empty beaches and overcrowded ships like the Wedgwood.
One such hero was Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a newly minted, bespectacled US Army chaplain assigned to a hospital near the Dachau concentration camp. When Klausner arrived, Dachau was warehousing 30,000 Jewish survivors.
Klausner became the survivors’ rabbi, advocating on their behalf — and angering the American military brass. Klausner is credited with being largely, albeit indirectly, responsible for President Truman changing the direction of American policy.
Though Klausner has a detailed Wikipedia entry and received a respectful New York Times obituary when he died in 2007, his exploits are worth retelling and Whitehouse does so in detail.
Less prominent was Zolman Grinberg, himself a survivor and physician. With the help of a sympathetic US Army Captain, Otto B. Raymond, Grinberg hatched an audacious scheme to take over part of a Germany military hospital housed in a monastery.
Raymond provided Grinberg with proper clothes and a phony ID identifying the doctor as a representative of the International Red Cross. They drove to the German military hospital and threatened its commandant with “severe consequences” if he did not make room for the sick Jews. “Two weeks after VE day,” Whitehouse writes, “US Army ambulances moved 420 former camp inmates” into the hospital.
Stories and colorful characters like these thankfully populate the book. While there are many books about survivors during the war, few focus on this important slice of post-Holocaust history. The People on the Beach helps fill this niche, and by interweaving the human stories of all-but-forgotten heroes, makes for a compelling read.
Mel Laytner is former foreign correspondent for NBC News and United Press International and author of the forthcoming memoir, What They Didn’t Burn, Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets (September 21, 2021).