Aliyah Bet & Machal Virtual Museum



Honoring The Ship That Launched A Nation

2017 Dedication of Exodus Monument

By Daniel Fliegler

The elderly man recounted how as a child on board the Exodus 1947 he could see the port of Haifa and the Carmel mountains in the distance. Being so close to Israel he was filled with joy, but the men next to him started to cry. He asked them why were they crying. The reply was that they would be forced to go to Cyprus. Yet the knowledge was there that they would return. No one on that ship knew the future events that would lead to their return and how their determination to return would set into motion the final steps for the United Nations recognition of the Jewish state. 

This was elaborated in Haifa port on July 18, 2017, seventy years to the day that the British brought the Exodus 1947 to this port after capturing her. Now on this fateful day a fitting memorial was dedicated to this event with an appropriate ceremony.

After the Second World War, the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust wanted to leave Europe and come home to Israel which was then called Palestine. The British controlled the area through its League of Nations Mandate. It was the British intention to keep control of Palestine as a necessary step for the preservation of their empire. Thinking it more expedient to appease the Arabs, the British through its 1939 White Paper forbade the immigration of Jews into Palestine except for a monthly quarter of 1500. The Jews of Palestine through the Jewish Agency and the underground armies of the Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi brought in Jewish refugees none the less as part of a movement called Aliyah Bet. Since 1946, surplus war ships were brought cheaply in the United States and Canada. They were manned by crews consisting mostly of Jewish volunteers. The ships would sail from the US pick up hundreds and thousands of refugees waiting in Europe and continue onward to Palestine. The British navy succeeded in capturing most of the ships. British policy was to intern the refugees in camps in Cyprus. The Exodus 1947 was to be different. Formally called the President Warfield, it was originally  a pleasure boat transporting passengers and freight between Norfolk and Baltimore. It saw action in WWII with first the British and then the US navy being stationed off Normady, France. It returned to the US and was sold to a dummy company of the Hagana for scrap. The ship was taller than the average British warship making it harder to be boarded and seized by British Royal Marines. The plan was to openly land the refugees in Palestine in defiance of the British navy. With a stroke of genius Moshe Sneh head of immigration in the Jewish Agency came up with the name Exodus 1947 So the ship picked up 4515 refugees in Marseilles and headed to Palestine with the British shadowing it. Two British destroyers rammed the Exodus and the marines managed to board the ship. On the ship, the marines were met with stiff resistance by the refugees who threw everything including potatoes at them. Three people were killed as a result of the assault. One of them was Bill Bernstein an officer on the Exodus who tried to prevent the marines from capturing the wheelhouse which controlled the ship. Instead of being interned in Cyprus the refugees were imprisoned like animals and sent to France. The refugees refused to disembark in France and the French authorities refused to force them. The British decided to send the refugees to Germany and force them to disembark there. Expecting negative publicity, the British were totally unprepared for the firestorm of condemnations that followed. Reports by journalist Ruth Gruber and eyewitness accounts by the Reverend John Grauel who sailed on the Exodus as an official observer convinced the United Nations that this state of affairs could not continue. On November 29 of that same year the United Nations voted in favor for the establishment of the Jewish state. The Exodus 1947 truly earned its nickname as ‘the ship that launched a nation.

Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, learned that there were monuments for the Exodus 1947 in Italy, Germany, France, and the US but none in Israel where the main historical events occurred. It is entirely due to Klinger’s efforts that a monument now stands in the port of Haifa where the ship was taken to by the British. The monument, sculpted by Sam Philipe consists of an anchor behind or ‘launching’ a three dimensional map of Israel. A fitting monument for ‘The ship that launched a nation’.  The ceremony was most fitting going on for hours. Speaker after speaker spoke of their connection to Exodus, while on a screen behind the podium were video clips of the ship and the land of Israel. One of the most moving connections of the Exodus came from Natan Sharansky, former refusenik and now chairman of the Jewish Agency. When he was a refusenik in the former USSR, Sharansky would ask visitors to bring with them copies of the novel Exodus. Although the novel gave the story of a different Aliyah Bet ship it still had an impact on the refuseniks in their struggle to maintain their Jewish identity. In an irony of history, most of the American volunteers for the Aliyah Bet crews kept their involvement a secret for fear of criminal prosecution by the US government. At the ceremony, was Michael Snowden representing US Ambassador Friedman proudly recounting that most of the Exodus crew were American.

Singing icons Noy Sassover and Shuli Natan sung song after song with Natan including her famous renditions of Jerusalem of Gold and Captain My Captain. 

Representing American Veterans of Israel Legacy Corp were, Donna Parker, Jerry Klinger, and this writer.


Also See

Baltimore Jewish Times Article

Jerusalem Post Article

Video of July 18th Dedication Ceremony

William (Bill) Bernstein

William Bernstein was born on 27th January 1923 in Passaic, New Jersey.  At the age of 13 his family moved to San Francisco.  He graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco and attended Ohio State University.  Although entitled to a deferment from military service as a pre-medical student, he volunteered for the US Merchant Marines in World War II. He graduated from the Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in 1944 as a second lieutenant. After the war, he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, but volunteered for “Aliyah Bet” and served as second officer in July 1947 on the “Exodus,” which carried more than 4,500 Jewish men and women, survivors of the Holocaust from World War II displaced person camps to Palestine.

The night before the British captured the "Exodus," Bernstein told his shipmates about a premonition he'd had that he would die in the battle that lay ahead. On 18th July 1947, when the ship was 22 miles from its destination, the ship received a broadcasted message from the British destroyer “Pijax” to cease heading for the coast of Palestine.  The “Exodus” kept sailing on its course despite the warning, and the British attack was immediate.  Heavy machine gun fire was directed at the ship and two destroyers rammed into the “Exodus” from both sides. The first landing party boarded the ship and was bombarded with tins of preserves and potatoes by the passengers, with no effect. The British marines and sailors, armed with side-arms and clubs, attacked the passengers and crew and overcame their resistance.  They reached the bridge and viciously clubbed the “Exodus” captain, Second Officer Bernstein, and the helmsman.  Bernstein died almost immediately from his wounds.

The “Exodus” was then taken to Haifa, and the refugees forcibly transferred to three British Merchant ships, “Runnymeade Park,” “Ocean Vigour” and the “Empire Rival;” the refugees were then returned to Hamburg via Marseilles.

Bill Bernstein was buried in Martyrs' Row in the Haifa Cemetery.

Captain Yitzhak Aharonovitz of the refugee ship “Yetziat Europa 1947” described Bill in these words:  “Simple and direct of heart. He carried out his duties with enthusiasm and without a word of complaint for the more difficult tasks allotted over and above his duties.  Never once did he interfere with the refugee passengers or with their gaiety or their activities."

His name is included in the “Palmach Book."

Translated from the Yizkor website with additions by researcher Joe Woolf.

Exodus 1947: 70th Commemoration: Project Update

Exodus Baltimore Memorial

Congressman John P. Sarbanes of Maryland has entered into the U.S Congressional Record recognition of the famed Holocaust Rescue Ship, the Exodus 1947. (see copy below). The ship, out of Baltimore, was American funded and crewed.  Its historic voyage in running the British naval blockade of Palestine made it a foundation story of the modern State of Israel.  Ruth Gruber called the Exodus 1947, the "Ship that Launched a Nation". Nine other largely US manned ships sailed from the U.S. among the 66 ships that ran the British naval blockade to bring remnants of European Jewry to the shores of Eretz Israel between 1945 and 1948.

Seventy years have passed since July 18, 1947, when the battered Exodus 1947, with 4,454 Holocaust survivors on board, was towed into the port of Haifa by British destroyers that rammed her in international waters. The Second Officer, Bill Bernstein, was clubbed to death on the bridge by the British boarding detail when he refused to abandon the wheel.  He was the first Machalnik who gave his life in the struggle to establish the Jewish State.

This iconic episode in modern Jewish history will be remembered and honored at the AVILC Mickey Marcus Memorial taking place at West Point on May 7, 2017. Among the speakers  are Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel; Ambassador Vasilios Philippou, High Commissioner of the Republic of Cyprus; NYC DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mr. Jerry Klinger, President of JASHP. There will be an  exhibition portraying the “Aliyah Bet” or clandestine immigration that daringly confronted the British destroyers engaged in the naval blockade. There will also be a photo display of the refugees and crew apprehended by British authorities and shipped to internment camps on Cyprus.

This year being the 70th commemoration of Exodus 1947, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP) and Jerry Klinger, its president have launched the Exodus Memorial Project. A permanent historical, informative sculpture memorializing the Exodus 1947 has been commissioned and will be sited with supportive panels in the plaza of the port of Haifa. Jerry Klinger was instrumental in the restoration of Bill Bernstein’s  grave site with honor and dignity in  a Haifa cemetery.

Our purpose is to remember and reaffirm the saga of the Ma’apala (Clandestine immigration) and to tell  the story of the Exodus 1947 as emblematic of the Aliyah Bet operation and the creation of the Jewish State.   A dedication ceremony is being organized to be held at the port of Haifa on July 18, 2017, the day Exodus 1947 docked seventy years ago.

Those planning to travel to Israel and attend the July 18 dedication of the memorial in Haifa are asked to please contact Donna Parker at

Those interested in knowing more about the Exodus Memorial project in Haifa may contact Jerry Klinger, President, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, directly at

Donna Parker

Rafi Marom

Si Spiegelman



Congressional Record, Jan. 24, 2017




Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mr. SARBANES. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the extraordinary events surrounding the SS Exodus 1947, to which a historic memorial will be dedicated in the Port of Haifa in Israel this coming July.

The SS Exodus 1947, originally known as the President Warfield, was a passenger ship operating on the ‘‘Old Bay Line’’ between Baltimore, MD and Norfolk, VA. The ship served in that role for nearly 15 years before being repurposed during World War II, when it served both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy. Following the war, the ship returned to the U.S. and was placed in the Naval Reserve Fleet in Virginia, where it was to be sold for scrap.

Before the ship could be scrapped it was sold to the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. The Haganah intended to use it, amongst 9 other ships, to evacuate displaced Jews from Europe to what was then Palestine, at the time under British Control. Before undertaking this mission the ship was towed to Baltimore, where it was refitted and crewed, primarily by volunteer Jewish-American ex-soldiers.

Once in Europe, the ship originally designed for 400 passengers was loaded with 4,454 Holocaust survivors and departed from the French Port of Se`te. The ship was intercepted in international waters by a task force of eight British Naval vessels and was boarded by Royal Marines. While the unarmed crew and passengers fought back with whatever could be turned into weapons, they were eventually overwhelmed and taken back to France and then to displaced persons camps in Germany on British prison ships.

The events on the Exodus garnered international media attention and are considered by historians to have played a role in the passage of United Nations Resolution 181, which established the State of Israel. The mayor of Haifa in 1950 dubbed the Exodus the ‘‘Ship that Launched a Nation.’’

Memorials and historical markers for the Exodus have been placed in the Baltimore Harbor, as well as France and Germany. I am proud of the small role that Baltimore played in these historic events and also commend the work of my constituent, Dr. Barry S. Lever, with the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation to dedicate a memorial to the Exodus in Israel, and I congratulate them on their successful efforts.



Further reading:

1.  For reference information and lists of North American volunteers that served on the U.S-sourced Aliyah Bet ships, see Murray Greenfield’s The Jews’ Secret Fleet… (Gefen Publishing House).

2.  For a global perspective on all the Aliyah Bet ships (1938-1948) see Paul Silverstone’s Our Only Refuge; Open the Gates….

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