Exodus: bay ship and role in Israel Steamer: In 1928, the President Warfield began as a passenger boat on the Chesapeake, but in 1947 gained a new name and carried Jewish refugees to Palestine. She is the subject of a new exhibit.

June 27, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The true story of the Old Bay Line steamer that glided out of Baltimore harbor nightly on a circuit to Norfolk and wound up playing a role in the founding of Israel is one of those maritime sagas so rich it became a best-selling novel and then a movie.

Now the passenger boat with two identities and lives -- one as the President Warfield, the other as the Exodus 1947 -- is the subject of a new exhibit at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, where the ship's original brass bell and steam whistle are on display. Also in the exhibit is a model of what was once called the "Queen of the Chesapeake," arranged through Dr. Barry Lever, chairman of the President Warfield/Exodus 1947 Committee, who organized the exhibit.

The six-foot scale model, shows the vessel in pristine condition, as she was July 18, 1928, when she steamed out of Pier 10 Light Street (just south of today's Harborplace) under the flag of the Old Bay Line, which carried passengers and freight between Baltimore and Norfolk. She was named for Solomon Davies Warfield, the president of the line who was the uncle of Wallis Warfield, later the Duchess of Windsor.

The ship's bell, on loan from Ruxton resident Sheldon Glusman and his brother-in-law, Joseph Bernstein, turned up last year at Sotheby's auction rooms in London. Because of the attention the Exodus story has garnered in the past 49 years, the object brought $13,000, a figure many times over what such a nautical antique might bring.

The steam whistle is on long-term loan to the historical society by Robert Kerstein. It made its way to a Hagerstown scrap yard and worked as part of a steam boiler for many years. But how the large metal piece got to Hagerstown is something of a mystery.

By 1947, after use in World War II, the President Warfield acquired a new name and purpose. Secretly acquired and refitted in Baltimore, she became the Exodus 1947, and carried 4,554 Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors seeking a home in what was then British-governed Palestine.

There was a short battle as the Exodus 1947 attempted to run the blockade. Ultimately, the refugees were denied landing rights and were sent back to Germany. But the incident would not be forgotten. In the end, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and thus created the State of Israel.

"We see this exhibit as the first in a line of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Exodus' voyage and the story of Zionism in Baltimore," said Barry Kessler, Jewish Historical Society curator.

The story of the Chesapeake Bay vessel attracted the attention of maritime historian David C. Holly, a retired Naval officer and former Hampden-Sydney College professor, who detailed the ship's life in a Naval Institute Press book called "Exodus 1947."

"The Warfield beat all the odds," Holly said from his home in Annapolis. "She was built for service on the relatively calm waters of the Chesapeake Bay and wound up crossing the Atlantic twice. She missed getting hit by a German torpedo in a convoy. She was built to carry 400 passengers, and she wound up carrying 10 times that number under the worst of circumstances."

Holly sailed on the President Warfield in the 1930s with his family on her trips from Baltimore to Norfolk. "In her day she was known as the Queen of the Bay, the finest example of steamboating around," he said. "I saw her again when she was tied up on Pier 5 after the war. My curiosity got the better of me. I went down to see her one day when I was on leave. She was an absolute wreck. It was a miserable, cold day there. I didn't tarry long."

During the war, the Warfield went into British service as a sailors' dormitory, beached off the coast of Devon. Later, she was refloated and carried troops along the Seine River in France.

She came back to Baltimore and was declared war surplus. Then began a lengthy, clandestine effort by the American Jewish community to establish what became Israel.

"Much of the story happened in Baltimore," Holly said.

American-based Zionists quietly bought the Warfield and refitted her in Baltimore. The plan was to have her sail to the Mediterranean and pick up as many displaced people as the ship could hold and sail to Palestine.

After the British offloaded the refugees, the ship was left in Haifa harbor. The Exodus was to become a floating museum, but in 1952 caught fire. She remains on the bottom of the Mediterranean off Shemen Beach near Haifa.

In the prologue to his book, Holly wrote a poetic tribute to the ship: "Her life began quietly on the placid, majestic waters of the Chesapeake, with a honeymoon of music and gentle laughter. It ended in the harsh glare of battle, fought passionately and despairingly for a cause. Exodus 1947 divided the world and became a symbol of hope for a divided people."

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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