Rudolph Patzert, 88; Transported Jews to Palestine After WWII
By William H. Honan,, February 21, 2000
Rudolph W. Patzert, the captain of a rusty 1904 gunboat that carried more than 1,380 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine as part of a secret rescue operation after World War II, died on Jan. 21, 2000 in a nursing home in Encinitas, Calif. He was 88.
The cause was cancer, said his son Bill.
During World War II, Captain Patzert served in the Merchant Marine, commanding a succession of the supply ships that helped form a steel bridge across the Atlantic. When the war ended, he was approached by representatives of the Haganah, the militia of the Jews of Palestine, to serve as captain of the Paducah, a 900-ton gunboat.
During both world wars, the Paducah had cruised the Atlantic coast on submarine watch, and was eventually decommissioned and surreptitiously purchased by the Haganah. It was to sail under the flag of Panama.
Officially, Captain Patzert's assignment would be to take the ship to Europe, but he acknowledged in a memoir that he knew the ship would be used to transport European survivors of the Holocaust past a British blockade into Palestine.
He signed on for an adventure that could have inspired Leon Uris's best-selling 1958 novel "Exodus," a fictional story based on the ordeal of Jewish settlers in Palestine.
Since World War I, the British government had overseen Palestine. In 1917 it issued the Balfour Declaration, committing Britain to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
But as Jewish immigration into Palestine increased, and Palestinian Arabs began to press their opposition to it, Britain sharply limited the number of Jews entering the region.
After the war, British authorities refused a 1947 recommendation by an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to permit 100,000 European Jews to enter Palestine. Zionist groups waged covert war against the British and tried to slip as many Jews as they could into Palestine.
The Paducah, staffed by American and Canadian volunteers, was one of 10 American vessels purchased by the Haganah.
In all, the ships were to deliver about 30,000 refugees to Palestine. As related in his memoir, "Running the Palestine Blockade: The Last Voyage of the Paducah" (Naval Institute Press, 1994), Captain Patzert's voyage proved more hazardous than most. He had safely moved his ship, carrying 1,380 refugees, from Bulgaria to within seven miles of the port city of Haifa when it was intercepted by a British destroyer.
The British ordered him to surrender. "If you resist, the blood will be on your head," the British captain said through a megaphone.
"You are now entering territorial waters, and you are liable to arrest if you continue."
Captain Patzert instructed the helmsman to swing the Paducah's bow until its course lay parallel to the shore. But another destroyer bore down on the Paducah. Captain Patzert and his passengers could see a boarding party forming on the deck of the destroyer. The sailors were wearing helmets and gas masks and carrying rifles and clubs.
Captain Patzert stopped his engine. The second British destroyer rammed the Paducah, and sailors leaped to its deck.
"Using their clubs as flails, they knocked down several of the men and boys standing there," Captain Patzert wrote. "From the deck of the destroyer, a young sailor turned a hose on us. I was ready to brace myself against a stream of high-pressure water, but something else hit me -- tear gas."
"I grabbed my throat and eyes," he continued. "A woman alongside me threw her shawl over her child's head, hugging him to her, the tears flowing down her contorted face. A soldier with a Sten gun, his face hidden in a grotesque gas mask, strode down the deck."
After the British captured the Paducah, the ship was rerouted to Cyprus and Captain Patzert, his crew and all the passengers were interned in tents and Quonset huts. They were to remain there for two years.
The British also had held captured German soldiers there. "The German P.O.W.'s had better accommodations," Captain Patzert told his wife. He said his time in British captivity was the "hardest two years of my life."
Eventually, the Paducah's passengers made their way to Israel, and Captain Patzert returned to his home in the United States.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an institution that commemorates the Holocaust, said, "Captain Patzert is among the rare breed of men not of the Jewish faith who risked their lives in an attempt to bring Holocaust survivors to the Jewish homeland. He then shared their plight when interned." In 1997, Captain Patzert was honored by the Museum of Tolerance, which is part of the Wiesenthal Center.
Captain Patzert had written in his memoir: "It seemed to me that I was discovering what it meant to be a Jew. Now, I, too, was a Jew and, by God, we would pound and pound on the closed doors until we crashed them open."
Rudolph Ward Patzert was born in New York City, but his family soon moved to Florida.
In 1928, at age 17, he read that Adm. Richard E. Byrd was planning to take several Eagle Scouts with him on an expedition to Antarctica. Mr. Patzert mailed his Eagle Scout badge to the admiral.
Admiral Byrd returned the badge and explained that he had all the cabin boys he could use. But the young Rudolph began a romance with the sea that would last the rest of his life. After his return from Cyprus he commanded oil-drilling ships for Global Marine, retiring in 1983.
In addition to his son Bill, of Sierra Madre, Calif., he is survived by his wife, Theresa, of Encinitas; another son, Andrew, of Mount Clemens, Mich.; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov