HAIFA, ISRAEL, SEPT. 28 -- The sun had just risen but already was hot in the south of France, Noah Klieger remembers, when people started piling out of trucks and into the improbable vessel of their deliverance, a decrepit Chesapeake Bay cruise ship called the President Warfield.

They were European Jews, most of them survivors of the Nazi death camps, people with no papers, no passports and no place to go. There were 4,554 of them -- including 1,732 women and 955 children -- and they had only one destination in mind: Palestine. By nightfall, the President Warfield was steaming in that direction with British warships on its tail and a new name, the Exodus, on its bow. "We thought we were just another blockade runner trying to make our way to the Land of Israel," says Klieger, a crew member on that fateful July 1947 voyage. "But then history took us over."

The voyage turned into a two-month odyssey when the British refused to allow the ship to land. In the process, the Exodus became a world-renowned symbol of Jewish longing for a homeland and the last symbolic nail in the coffin of British colonial rule. Eight months later, the state of Israel was born.

Tonight, as part of a year-long celebration to honor the 40th anniversary of the Exodus, hundreds of passengers, crew members and others involved in the Jewish independence movement gathered in Tel Aviv for a festive assembly in an auditorium whose stage was designed to resemble the ship. Government ministers and politicians toasted the aging heroes.

Earlier today, though, there was a more modest and bittersweet reunion aboard a small excursion boat in this port city, destination of the original Exodus. As the boat wound its way from Haifa to Tel Aviv on a sentimental voyage, members of the Exodus crew joined 130 young Jews, most of them from the United States, to talk about the veterans' experiences and to mourn, in passing, the loss of the Zionist idealism that drove them 40 years ago to attempt the impossible and to succeed.

"I was so proud to be part of it," recalled Ephraim Menaker, an Exodus crew member, who along with his wife, Fira, was on today's voyage. "I was no Zionist, but I knew after the war that my place was here in Israel and not anyplace else. At that time, the Jews were looking for a homeland. Today, the homeland is looking for Jews."

Klieger, an Auschwitz survivor whose tattooed concentration camp number is still visible on his wrist, was then a romantic 20-year-old looking to hook up with a girlfriend in a British detention camp on Cyprus. Today, he is a hard-bitten journalist for Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily, and he, too, wonders what happened to the dream. The fact that most Jews have remained in the diaspora bewilders and angers him.

"It was only 40 years ago, but it feels like 4,000," he said. "We created a country, not just for us but for the whole Jewish people, but the whole bloody people doesn't want us."

Answers were easier back in those days. The British, mandatory rulers of Palestine since the close of World War I, were weary and about to cut their losses.

The Mossad, not the slick Israeli superspy agency of today but a group of ragged, desperate Zionist patriots, was frantically combing the ports of Europe and North America for cheap boats for the high-risk run to Palestine. More than 60 eventually made the trip, carrying more than 90,000 Jews, the backbone of the Jewish state.

Mossad agents purchased the President Warfield in Baltimore in November 1946. It was named for Solomon Warfield, president of the Old Bay Line and an uncle of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the duchess of Windsor. The flat-bottomed, four-decked ferry navigated the choppy Atlantic and for months wandered from port to port in Europe under the watchful eyes of British intelligence. Sympathetic French immigration officials in the port of Sete at last allowed the boat to hook up with its passengers.

It was a time when ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds. Fira Menaker was 19, but she traveled overland from Poland to Czechoslovakia to Austria to Germany and ultimately to France with 52 orphans, ages 6 through 15, whom she escorted on board. They obeyed her every command, she says.

"They were wonderful," she recalled. "They looked at me as if I was a messiah. I had some kind of strength. Looking back, I don't know how I did it. I just did."

Menaker, a kindergarten teacher who lives outside Tel Aviv, still carries dog-eared, black-and-white photos from the voyage. One shows all 52 of her orphans, well-scrubbed and smiling, a few days before their departure. Another shows them on board a British prison vessel with the Union Jack flying overhead but defaced by a large swastika that Menaker says the passengers concocted out of toothpaste.

Klieger was quickly drafted to be a member of the mostly American crew and let in on their plan. The idea was to chug slowly toward the Palestine coast, then break loose near Haifa and outrace their British escorts to the shore.

But the British had other ideas. Six days out of port and 12 miles from shore, British sailors boarded the Exodus, setting off a pitched battle in which three Jewish crew members were shot dead and hundreds overcome by tear gas. After the boat was rammed, the passengers finally surrendered and were transported to Haifa, only to be reloaded into three British prison ships and returned to France.

Britain wanted France to take back the Jews in order to discourage future attempts. But a young French Cabinet minister named Francois Mitterrand announced that his government would not force the passengers to leave the ships, and the passengers themselves refused. "None but dead men will land here," said a spokesman.

For 19 days, the British kept the passengers aboard the ships outside Port-de-Bouc in desperately hot, disease-ridden conditions, playing a waiting game while world opinion inexorably built against London. A French newspaper dubbed the ships a "Floating Auschwitz." Five babies were born on board, and one died.

Finally, after a British Cabinet meeting, the ships departed for Hamburg. The spectacle of 4,500 Jews being forced to disembark in Germany, the heartland of the Holocaust nightmare, added poignancy.

"The British plan was the right plan," says Klieger. "It took everything into consideration but one thing -- the spirit of 4,500 people from the death camps who didn't even consider giving up."

Within a few weeks, a special United Nations committee had recommended immediate freedom for Palestine and its partition between Arabs and Jews. The British left, and the Arab-Israeli wars began. As for the passengers of the Exodus, consigned to two displaced-persons camps in Germany, all eventually made their way to Israel within six months of its birth in May 1948.

The ferry rusted in a corner of Haifa's port until it was towed out to sea and allowed to sink.

Today's ferry was not much of an improvement over that early boat. There was plenty to drink and eat but the lone toilet soon was overflowing. The young passengers sat listlessly baking in the Mediterranean sun as the boat wended south.

They are in Israel working on kibbutzim or attending Hebrew-language classes and many are weighing whether to emigrate to a society whose idealism sometimes seems to have been overwhelmed by too many wars, too many promises and an overdose of cynicism.

"We need to find some way to connect with these kids, to make them understand what Israel can be," said Reuben Surkis, an official of the World Zionist Organization, which organized today's outing. "We thought if they learned about the struggle for Jewish independence, it might help."

Many of the young people seemed interested in today's effort, but some said they were tired of being lectured to, tired of being made to feel guilty for not living in this difficult land. "Usually you get the same spiel," said Nigel Broskarsh, 25, a social worker from London. "You get some guy from the Jewish Agency telling you what to think."

Klieger is pessimistic. "People are so cynical about Zionism and about Israel," he said. "This trip won't change anything."

Still, he smiled when he recalled the days 40 years ago when a seeming defeat -- the failure of the Exodus to elude the British ships and get to Haifa -- turned into a victory.

"If we had succeeded in doing what we set out to do, we would have disappeared into history," he said. "Instead, out of sheer luck, we failed, and we became what we are."