There is just so much going on around the world that it is sometimes easy to overlook milestones of historic impact.
But that’s what occurred earlier this month on July 11 when we reached the 70th anniversary of the journey of the Exodus.
Before it was the Exodus, the ship was known as the President Warfield, named after the head of the company, who built the vessel that cruised the Chesapeake Bay and was moored in Baltimore’s Harbor. The President Warfield was an Old Bay Line steamer, constructed in 1928, and made to transport passengers from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia.
The President Warfield would go on to see action as part of beach operations at Normandy during WWII. It would eventually be purchased by the Haganah to be used in the role of bringing Holocaust survivors to what was then still British Mandated Palestine. The ship would have to break through the British blockade on Jewish immigration.
The President Warfield became the Exodus 1947 on the trip that left the French port of Sete with its manifest of 4,500 Jews, including 1,700 women and 655 children.
Sadly, many of us have only a passing knowledge of the plight of the ship and its precious cargo from the 1958 Leon Uris novel and the 1960 Otto Preminger film “Exodus” starring Paul Newman.
It was on July 18 when five British destroyers and a cruiser blocked the Exodus and boarded it, killing two immigrants and a crewman while wounding 145. The Exodus was towed to Haifa and the immigrants were deported back to France. They would refuse to leave their ships’ holds for 24 days and then, with cruel irony, would be taken to Germany to camps there.
Though it certainly wasn’t the only reason or the major reason, the outcry of the treatment of these immigrants was in the world’s thoughts when the political discussion of the time focused on the need for a Jewish homeland. The Exodus would be known as “the ship that launched a nation.”
Months later, on November 29, the world passed UN Resolution 181, dissolving British Mandate Palestine and creating a partition plan calling for Jewish and Arab states.
Yes, there are issues on the table for us as Jews that stretches from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to Israel.
Twenty years ago, the Baltimore Zionist District (BZD) staged an Exodus reenactment in the Baltimore Harbor. And during a recent Sunday, scholar and Exodus expert Dr. Barry Gittlen shared some of his detailed research before a packed Jewish Museum of Maryland audience.
But sometimes we need to take the time to remind ourselves, and especially teach our children, of significant events in Jewish history. The world reacted with alarm to the plight of immigrants aboard a ship called Exodus.
Seventy years later, and in the future, we can never forget.
By Phil Jacobs
Phil Jacobs is on the Kol HaBirah Advisory Board. He is the Associate Editor of the New Jersey Jewish Link and writes from Baltimore.