Marking the start of Israel Homage: Thousands of stitches create a new tapestry. On its threads of water rides the Exodus, bound to a new nation.

May 22, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It looks like a toy boat made from yesterday's papers, a half-century old sheet of folded newsprint sailing away from the darkness of war toward the elusive light of peace.

The image -- part of a 5-by-7-foot tapestry of nearly a million stitches -- represents "Exodus 1947," the Chesapeake Bay steamer from the Roaring '20s whose fate was pivotal in establishing the nation of Israel.

The boat, and its reflection in the water below it, form the Star of David.

The tapestry, designed by Russian artist Alex Gelfenboim, was unveiled last night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It accompanied the debut of an overture also commissioned to commemorate the voyage of a ship that vainly tried to deliver 4,500 Holocaust survivors to the Promised Land.

The orchestral piece -- "Vessels of Courage and Hope" -- was composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli composer Shulamit Ran.

These are the last of nearly a dozen memorials commissioned to honor the role that the Exodus -- formerly the SS President Warfield, which nightly steamed between Baltimore and Norfolk -- played in the underground Zionist effort to create a Jewish homeland.

Some 4,500 Jews the Warfield/Exodus picked up in France were turned away from Tel Aviv by British warships blocking immigration to Palestine. The English rammed the ship and Royal Marines boarded. The crew and passengers fought with fists, potatoes and cans of food. Three Jews were killed and the rest were eventually sent back to displaced persons camps in Germany, causing a global outcry that helped expedite the establishment of Israel.

Barry S. Lever, a Baltimore dentist who chaired efforts to highlight the ship's 50th anniversary, said some $280,000 was raised from private citizens for remembrances ranging from a re-enactment of the Warfield leaving Pier 5 in Canton in 1947 to the salvaging of the ship's whistle and a public television documentary.

"This is a great Baltimore story and a great world story," said Lever. He noted that the conversion of the Warfield into the Exodus took place here, and was heavily financed by Mose Speert, a Hanover Street liquor distributor, and some of his business friends.

"The tapestry is part of our effort to commemorate the ship in as many artistic venues as we could, to create a mythic image of a peace ship."

While the founding of modern Israel has led to barely a moment's peace in the past 50 years, Lever says that is no reason not to move toward the ideal, however slowly.

"The Talmud says that the greatest vessel that Israel could have is peace," said Lever. "Peace isn't made with a handshake on the White House lawn, it's the day-to-day work on the ground.

"On the bow of the ship [in the tapestry] are the words 'vessel peace,' but they're not spelled out fully because peace isn't complete," he said.

Rita Lenkin Hawkins, who coordinated the work of 35 stitchers from 18 states, feared she might not live to see the 17,000-hour project completed.

"I had [ovarian] cancer in the middle of the project and because of it, we all ended up seeing what the voyage of the Exodus was really about," said Hawkins, whose Russian father lost 20 members of his family in the Holocaust.

"For three weeks I didn't know if I was going to live or die. Everything stopped. But nothing was going to stop us from finishing the needlework, just like they finished the voyage. They got to Israel in the end. That's the bottom line."

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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