The Ship That Launched a Nation

A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

The JMM’s current exhibition, Cinema Judaica, has inspired me to spend my evenings watching old movies. Some of these films I’ve been meaning to watch for a while and just never got around to doing so while others caught my interest while studying the film posters on display or learning about them from film scholar and exhibit curator, Ken Sutak.

One film I have always meant to watch is Exodus and despite reading (and loving) the book it is based on by Leon Uris, never seemed to find the time to do so.

Exodus - poster now on view in Cinema Judaica!
Exodus – poster now on view in Cinema Judaica!

The 1961 epic film tells the story of the fight to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine after the tragedy of the Holocaust and is based on a true life event, the attempt to resettle hundreds of Jewish refugees who were living in DP camps by sailing them through the British blockade to Palestine.

Some people might be surprised to learn that the actual story of the Exodus has a Maryland connection. The ship that became known as the Exodus started out in 1928 as the SS President Warfield, a flagship of the “Old Bay Line” and originally served as a luxury overnight steamer that sailed between Baltimore and Norfolk.

Old Bay Line
Old Bay Line

In 1942 the U.S. government requisitioned the vessel and loaned it to England as an amphibious training vessel.  Returned to the U.S. Navy in 1944, it became the command and control ship for the Allied invasion fleet off Normandy Beach and later a troop transport.  The Hagana, a Jewish underground organization, purchased the ship and converted it in Baltimore to a Jewish refugee ship to run the British blockade of Palestine (the events depicted in the film).  Unlike the film, which presents a fictionalized account of the ship’s safe arrival in Palestine (with the approval of the British), in reality, while still in international waters British warships rammed the boat, and royal marines boarded it. These actions resulted in 3 deaths and 149 injuries to the refugees who were returned to Europe.  However, although unsuccessful in its mission, this dramatic final voyage and its aftermath drew world media attention to the plight of European Jewry and helped turn public support in favor of the establishment of Israel. The Warfield/Exodus,1947  became the “ship that launched a nation.” (Click here for more details about the historical events.)

Thanks to the efforts of former JMM staff member and Exodus scholar-extraordinaire, Dr. Barry Lever, we have several related artifacts in our collections. Dr. Lever spearheaded a community-wide commemoration in 1995 which resulted in the creation of a tapestry,

This tapestry was designed by Alex Gelfenboim in 1995 and stitched with the help of community volunteers
This tapestry was designed by Alex Gelfenboim in 1995 and stitched with the help of community volunteers,
a ship model,
a ship model,
the issuing of a commemorative stamp,
the issuing of a commemorative stamp,

and the dedication of a plaque at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (in front of the World Trade Center).

If you have not had a chance to see the film (or have not seen it in a while), I enthusiastically recommend doing so. While it is indeed long (clocking in at about 3 ½ hours), having the chance to watch Paul Newman as hero, Ari Ben Canaan, is definitely an enjoyable way to pass some time!

Past Exhibits

1 reply on “The Ship That Launched a Nation”

Good afternoon,

To complete my list of scale models of 50 years of naval architecture from 1920 till 1970, I think that the collection would not be complete without a model of ss General Warfield as ss Exodus.
The problem is that accurate drawings are missing and I don’t want a model of a heavy battered ship as seen on arrival Haifa, so the model will have the characteristics of ss General Warfield, added with the extra life saving equiment.
The name of the ship was not painted on the bow, but on a board on the bridge deck.
Did the ship have a registered home port? (sure it was not Haifa)
I would appreciate if you want to share any info which cannot be traced on the internet.
The models will come in a scale 1:100 in an edition of 4 to 6 pcs

Best regards,

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