By Michael OrbachIssue of April 23, 2010/ 9 Iyur 5770
The phone rang in the small apartment Paul Kaye shared with his sister in the Bronx. It was 1947 and Kaye, 20, had only returned a few months ago from fighting the Nazis in Europe.
“Hello, Paul Kaminetzky? We’d like to know if you want to help your people,” a voice said. Kaye looked around and the voice continued. “If you want to help your people be on the corner of 39th and Lexington Avenue on the southeast side.” He named a time the next day. “A man with a black leather jacket will walk by. If he puts a newspaper under his arm, follow him; if he puts it in the wastebasket then you’re being followed.”
There was a click on the line.
“I asked my sister, they all thought I was nuts,” Kaye recalled over half a century later. He had enlisted at 17, because in his words, "We were fighting Hitler and I wanted to get a piece of it." The day after the phone call he stood on the corner of Lexington and 39th and watched as a man wearing a black leather jacket put a newspaper under his arm and walked into what was then the Palestinian Students Lounge.
The man in the leather jacket knew about Kaye, who had been a marine engineer in the US Navy. Perplexed, Kaye asked the man what he wanted. The man, who was a member of the Haganah, told him they wanted him to run small ships from Cyprus to Palestine.
“The British will hang you if they catch you,” the man warned Kaye.
“The next day I was in Baltimore,” Kaye said. From there he met the ship the Tradewinds, a battered former Coast Guard cutter flying a Panamanian flag. The journey to Palestine took several weeks.
Kaye was part of the Aliyah Bet, otherwise known as the Ha’apala, the movement that brought Jews to Palestine in
defiance of British restrictions. He was one of an estimated 3,500 American veterans who joined Israel’s struggle for independence. But Kaye’s story may be a bit more dramatic and miraculous than most.
The Tradewinds was a clunker with a maximum speed of 12 knots, roughly 15 miles an hour. On the way to the first stop in Portugal, the ship hit rough water at the tail end of a hurricane but persevered. As the ship dropped anchor in the Azores, the captain revealed that the ship had managed to sail 12 knots on average, the ship’s maximum speed.
“Somebody carried the ship across,” Kaye said.
In the Azores, the British refused to refuel the ship. One day, after spending several weeks in port, Kaye muttered loudly “Oy vey!” A nearby captain heard him and asked if he spoke Yiddish. Kaye replied in the affirmative and the man, a complete stranger, donated fuel - ‘shemen’ in his words.
Once in Lisbon, Tradewinds docked next to its more famous sister, a ferry boat from Baltimore called the President Warfield, that would eventually be known as the Exodus.
In Italy, the Tradewinds picked up its passengers, 1500 survivors of the Holocaust. Half made it to the ship under cover of darkness; the rest of the passengers floated to the boat on large rafts the next day. Kaye says he and the other sailors didn’t let on that they knew English, since they were afraid the survivors would think it was a trap.
“The whole trip, the whole war, that first time I saw my people was the most impressive part of my life.” Kaye recalled. “They were haggard; they had all they owned on their backs. They came up, they each hugged and kissed us and said, ‘We are going Eretz Yisroel. We’re going to our home.’ They were very happy to get the hell out of Europe.”
The trip was not successful, though. Miles out at sea, the ship was spotted by an airplane. By the next morning they were surrounded by three British destroyers. As soon as they saw the warships approach, the sailors changed the name of the ship. No longer would it be called the Tradewinds. The ship was captured as the HaTikva.
Kaye and the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew were interned in Cyprus. The British eventually decided to transfer the prisoners to the Atlit prison camp in Palestine, and Kaye and his fellow crew members plotted to blow up the prison ship that brought them. But they hit a snag when the disembarking was delayed after the explosive timer was already set.
“I said, ‘Put the fuse down!’” Kaye recalled. “He [the explosive expert] said, ‘They told me how to set it, not how to unset it.’”
Fortunately, they made it off in time. Kaye was one of the last to disembark and as the bus pulled away, carrying the passengers to the prison, the ship exploded.
“We read the next morning that a Jewish company got a contract to raise the ship,” laughed Kaye. “We were so happy.”
Kaye eventually escaped from the Atlit prison and began working with the Palmach, one of the precursers to the modern Israel Defense Force. He returned to America with a fake passport and manned another ship called the S. S. Director that departed from the East River. On the Director he brought passengers from Marseilles to Palestine. Kaye was on board on 5 Iyar when Israel declared its independence and the sailors changed the name of the boat to the S.S. Galila.
Afterwards Kaye was recruited to join Israel’s fledgling navy and became one of the first members of the elite naval unit, Shayetet 13. He worked on an underwater demolition team, a surprising role for Kaye.
“I can’t be a frogman, I can’t swim!” Kaye told his friend, the commander of the unit. “I was a kid from the Bronx.”
Kaye declined to discuss his activities as an Israeli Navy SEAL, but his commanding officer was awarded a medal for blowing up an Egyptian warship.
A little over a year later, Kaye left Israel. He planned to study engineering at New York University, but on his flight home, a man sat down next to him. The man was familiar with Kaye’s life and he recommended that Kaye go into physical education. Kaye was told that once he received his degree he would begin working with the Israeli Olympic team. In the course of his duties, the man said, Kaye would do some Nazi-hunting.
Kaye went to NYU and finished his degree but didn’t make it back for the Olympics. He met a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn who didn’t know too much about Israel and settled down. In the years following Israel’s independence, he traveled there frequently. He volunteered in the Israeli Consulate in New York City during the Six Day War. When Israel was attached on Yom Kippur in 1973 he flew to Israel and worked in the defense ministry.
Today, Kaye lives in Bayside, Queens, with his wife where he serves on the board of Temple Hillel.
"Paul is a genuine Jewish hero," said Rabbi Steven M. Graber, the rabbi of Temple Hillel. "He is without fear."
He speaks publicly about his experiences. His story was told in the documentary Waves of Freedom and in the book, The Jews’ Secret Fleet, by Murray Greenfield.
At age 84, 63 years after he met a man in a black leather jacket, Kaye is still cautious about Israel and its future.
“As Ben Gurion said, we can only afford to lose one war,” he said.