Murray Greenfield joined a group of heroic Americans who collectively rescued more than a third of Holocaust survivors from Europe in vessels that he affectionately referred to as “rust buckets.” They sailed from Italy to Haifa in the darkness of night to avoid the British with fifteen hundred Holocaust survivors crammed onto a ship each time Greenfield went to sea. “To those of you who look out from the shore they looked like ships – but to those of us on them they were something else.”
As Greenfield spoke before a crowd of about 250 people at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody last week, he described how the British would arrest everyone – passengers and crew – at the moment they came into Haifa. “No one wanted the Jews. Even though the British had promised the Jews Palestine, they reneged on their promise,” said Greenfield.
The British then proceeded to send every one of them to Cyprus to be encamped in prison-like facilities where the British store housed Nazis they had captured during the war. “They jailed the survivors of the Holocaust,” he added. “When you’re an Israeli from that era, of course you’ve been jailed. What good founding Israeli hasn’t been jailed,” he joked.
But it wasn’t the taxing physical abuse that is required when running vessels not made for long distance travel that had the most influence on Greenfield. It was the people he came across during the process.
“Each one had a story about life and death. Fifteen hundred men and women without mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers, cousins or relations – it was incredible to hear their stories. Each one with a story of horror about the camps, the Nazis, the slaughter in Europe… and that has had a profound effect on me ever since.”
What did he get paid for working the ships?
“Nothing,” he said. When he was being “hired” to be part of the effort and told he wouldn’t be paid, Greenfield’s only reply was “I’m in.”
Greenfield relayed a vivid reflection of his beliefs and experiences in the years immediately following the end of World War II, when he was a young man searching for something meaningful to do with his life.
He related coming home to tell his mother he was not going to college. She was shocked.
“After all,” he said, “What Jew doesn’t go to college?”
His mother gave him her blessing when he told her he wanted to do something good for others. “Go and do that, my son. I am proud of you,” she said, he told the crowd.
89-year-old Greenfield, one of a handful of daring and heroic Americans who helped to found the state of Israel after the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe, seemed to have the crowd riveted with his story.
Greenfield wrote a book about his experiences. “The Jews’ Secret Fleet” tells of the perils facing the young men who operated the ships that took the Holocaust victims across the sea to Palestine.
The illegal vessels he was on brought the Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps to Palestine, where the British reneged on their mandate to allow Jews a nation of their own.
Rather than return to New York, where he was born and brought up, Greenfield settled in Haifa and celebrated the birth of Israel in 1948. He later settled in Tel Aviv with his wife, Hana Lustig, a survivor of the death camps. She died two years ago. Theirs, he said, was a life of commitment to the state of Israel, to one another and to their children.
Greenfield pioneered loan funds for those wishing to do business in the new state. He created a mortgage company and he successfully completed a number of housing projects in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.
His real love, however, was writing and publishing. In 1981, he founded the Gefen Publishing House – Israel’s largest English language publishing house. Gefen publishes many titles from year to year and has published approximately 45 books on the Holocaust.