The SS Exodus, Baltimore, Hollywood, and Harry Truman

Many people in America today have gotten their understanding of the birth of modern Israel and the journey of the ship Exodus from the best selling novel and movie of the same name. I saw the movie as a child and thought I was watching an accurate history lesson. The book still continues to sell worldwide. Its current paperback version states on its cover that there are "Over 1 million copies in print." I recently bought a copy of the movie in a major new bookstore in New York which had three or four other copies of the film in the rack. They were not dusty items from years ago, but clearly an item that the store believes people are still buying.

The paperback version of Exodus, while acknowledging the old ship was bought in Baltimore and not Cyprus as the movie states, downplays the efforts - and risks - taken by  some Baltimore Jews for their involvement in international politics and blockade running. The book also makes no mention of the tacit support of Harry Truman. Page 148 of the current paperback edition of "Exodus" states that,

"It was felt that the ship should be purchased in the United States or South America where the British would not be suspicious."
In fact, the British - and the American newspapers - got wind of it before the ship ever sailed, as I will explain later.

The movie Exodus, with a screenplay written by blacklisted Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo, has the old passenger ship being bought in Cyprus, but does indeed credit an American crew for sailing it. Admittedly, by having the start of the Exodus' voyage begin in Cyprus, it makes for a more concise, geographically focused script in what is already a movie that runs three and a half hours. But Trumbo's complete elimination of the ship's American origins and also Harry Truman's indirect support, to say nothing of Truman's public endorsement of 100,000 Jewish refugees being allowed into what is now Israel, with no mention of the ship being bought in Baltimore, also was consistent with Trumbo's leftist politics.

Harry Truman was an anti-communist who oversaw a successful guerilla war against the communists in Greece, approved the 1948 Berlin Airlift, resisted communist aggression in Korea, and launched the Cold War. Dalton Trumbo was an accomplished screen writer of such pro-WWII films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and A Man Named Joe. Although he had some political reservations about "enforced ideological conformity" in the Communist Party, he did
join it in 1943.  Previously, he had rebuked New Deal liberalism and even wrote an antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, which he later recalled from distribution after Hitler invaded Russia. Antiwar sentiments were suddenly no longer the Communist Party line - or Trumbo's. Perhaps Trumbo had realized that the Hitler-Stalin Pact did not buy "peace in our time."

To further express his politics, Trumbo has the film version of Exodus end with a burial of a murdered Jew and murdered Muslim in the very same grave. There was no Kadi and no one said Kadish. We can realistically assume that Trumbo was not interested in putting in a good word for Harry Truman's legacy in this or any movie. His personal preferred alternative to Truman in the 1948 election was probably not Republican opponent Thomas E. Dewey.
The movie Exodus was inspired by the 1958 best-selling book by Leon Uris and producer/director Otto Preminger rushed to buy the rights. Uris, a Baltimore native who dropped out of high school to join the Marines after Pearl Harbor, in turn was inspired significantly by Ruth Gruber's writings, she being a New York Post  foreign correspondent and author of press reports following the Exodus refugees after their landing in Haifa. She also wrote a 1948 book, Destination Palestine, which clearly tells in the early pages of the Baltimore origins of the ship. Ruth Gruber's book did not become the runaway best seller that Uris's book had been. As a side note, in another Gruber book from 2003, titled "Inside of Time," she states on page 329 that after later hearing about and reading her 1948 book, movie producer Otto Preminger stated he told Leon Uris that if he had seen Ruth Gruber's book "Destination Palestine" first, he would never have bought the rights to Uris's. I believe this story to be true because I have seen them both. Uris's book is a broader history, but Gruber's book follows the plight of the refugees in a more personal and emotionally compelling way - and is not a novel. That is, it is based on entirely true reporting. 

Ruth Gruber was reporting events in British Mandate Palestine at the time the Exodus landed in Haifa. She arrived at dockside to see the transfer of Exodus' 1947 refugees to British prison ships going back to Europe. Some - perhaps many - of you reading this may think that I've got it wrong. The Hollywood script of Exodus and the Leon Uris novel both had the voyage of the refugee ship conclude with a successful hunger strike convincing the Foreign Office in Whitehall to allow full legal entry of the ship's refugees into Haifa in present day Israel. That was not the case, but rather the Hollywood myth that lives on.

It was the return of the refugees to European Displaced Person camps in Germany that hurt the British image in the international press and helped the cause of the Jews to create the modern state of Israel.

Ms. Gruber, who is still alive and working as  of May 2007, would go on to write a currently available follow-up book to "Destination Palestine" in 1999 entitled "Exodus 1947." The Maryland Public Television program of the same name (available at I recommend it to those interested in the subject) would draw heavily on her original book's sources to correct the historical record. As is often the case, the real history is different but no less dramatic or informative than the watered-down Hollywood cartoonish version.

I found a copy of Ruth Grubber's' now out of print 1948 book at the NY Public Library Judicia collection. On page 35, she states,
"The Exodus story had begun in America, for the ship was an American excursion boat and the crew were GIs and sailors and Merchant Marine men. She was a holiday boat in America, she had carried Sunday excursionists and honeymooners up and down Chesapeake Bay. In America, she was called the President Warfield, after the president of her shipping line. Eighteen years after, she had been built in Baltimore, friends of the Haganah, the Jewish Army of Resistance, purchased her to move Jews out of Europe on the "underground railroad" to Palestine, on the route they called "Aliyah Bet."
Later in the book, Ms. Gruber also mentions John Stanley Grauel, a Protestant minister who was a crew member and supposedly a "neutral observer," who sailed on the ship from Baltimore, through the Atlantic storms to Europe and a British Royal Marine boarding (where they killed three people) to arrive with them in Haifa. He later gave testimony to a commission and to Ms. Gruber.

A Maryland Public Television program based on Ms. Gruber's 1999 book further tells the story with documentary accuracy. (Perhaps it's easier to get documents and people to talk when they reach old age). The ship had also been used to carry US troops in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and was later sold for scrap. After W.W.II, European shipping had been decimated and the best source of old steamers was the war surplus scrap heaps of America, a fact known to the Haganah, the British, and the United States. The purchase by a group of Baltimore Jews, notably Moses Speert and others, was not a risk-free activity.

The ship was refurbished in plain sight on a Baltimore dock, drawing curiosity. The Baltimore Sun printed an article asking on the day the ship first sailed (February 25, 1947) into a midwinter Atlantic storm, why did  the "General Warfield" which was supposed to go to China, have navigation maps for the Mediterranean?  The Sun could have told the FBI or the Republican Mayor of  Baltimore Theodore McKeldin (the immediate predecessor to Nancy Pelosi's father Mayor Thomas D'Alsesnadro, Jr.) while the ship was still anchored on the waterfront. Worse yet, the 1928 ship, built for river and coastal excursions, had to turn back 75 miles out to sea after a fierce winter storm. It returned to Norfolk, Virginia before a second successful try at crossing the Atlantic.

By this time, the once secret Haganah ship was quite a widely known story to both the British government and President Truman's opponents, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. The US could have impounded the ship for interfering with US foreign affairs in Norfolk. I suspect the old worn steamer could have been impounded for safety violations and having an unlicensed crew as well. In fact, Britain was trying to get the ship's Honduran registration revoked.

Some would say that there were no political risks with the Truman administration because Harry Truman was publicly in favor of their cause, but the people procuring the ship in 1946 did not know if Harry Truman would win the 1948 election. England had previously thrown out their wartime leader Winston Churchill in a postwar election. And Harry Truman, who was an unelected President at that time, was very low in the polls. Presidential poll comparisons are a topic in the news today. Glen's Blog discusses the irony of Newsweek contrasting the current Pres. Bush with Harry Truman, yet Truman polled as low as 22% before the 1948 election.
Stephen Medvic at Old Dominion University also reminds us that,
"Nevertheless, the science of polling was far from perfected. In 1948, polls would again mistakenly project a winner, forecasting that Harry Truman would lose the presidential election."
So anyone who risked personal freedom and reputation to help launch the Exodus 1946-47 in Baltimore had no guarantee that they would not be in prison in 1950 - or sued by Britain in civil court. And Harry Truman could have lost the 1948 election, in part, because of his support for the Exodus. His vote was split within the Democratic Party by the segregationist Dixiecrats and the socialist "gentleman farmer" progressives lead by Henry Wallace. Had Truman been as poll-driven as more modern politicians, he would have impounded the Exodus in Baltimore or Norfolk.

There is a town in Israel renamed Kfar Truman in 1950 in appreciation for what Harry Truman did for Israel. Originally settled in 1949, the Jewish Agency approached the creators of the town to change the name to honor Israel's benefactor and friend. Although the book and movie show Israel in a generally favorable light, there is no Kfar Uris and no Kfar Trumbo.

Jack Kemp is not the politician of the same name.