As the world reaches out to aid refugees from Ukraine who have lost everything in this moment, a Stevenson History class has worked all semester to uncover Baltimore’s pivotal role during a similar humanitarian crisis in the wake of WWII. In the process we may be developing a new field: forensic history.
CAPTION: President Warfield steaming early in its service on the Chesapeake. (Courtesy of NAVSOURCE. Contributed by Mike Green)
Stevenson students have recently learned how survivors of the Holocaust were prevented from immigrating to their Jewish homeland by British immigration laws, British warships, and British soldiers in the aftermath of WWII. They learned how hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, living in squalor in displaced persons camps in Europe, homes destroyed and families exterminated, sought entry to Jewish Palestine by legal or illegal means. They learned the story of how Baltimore helped relocate those people. The story involved a local ship that became famous, three other ships of lesser fame, dozens of Baltimore businesses, thousands of volunteers from Baltimore, local Jewish organizations and congregations, prohibition era gangsters, underground Jewish paramilitary organizations, the FBI, CIA, and Coast Guard, and tens of millions of dollars in donations.
CAPTION: President Warfield dockside before sailing to Europe in 1947. (Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Murray T. Aronoff )
From Baltimore’s perspective, the most prominent character in this story is the old Chesapeake steamer President Warfield. Built in 1928 to carry people between Baltimore and Norfolk in a grand style, the President Warfield was pressed into military service in WWII. Returning from the war, a battered and rundown version of its former self, the ship was sold for scrap to the Potomac Shipwrecking Company of Maryland in 1946. Within a few days it had been sold twice more and had been saved from the scrap heap. Purchased by a front corporation acting on behalf of the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary organization supporting the Jewish population prior to the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, the President Warfield was towed to Baltimore. Here it was refit and sailed for Europe in late-February 1947. Once in Europe, over 4,000 Holocaust survivors set sail to break through the British blockade of Palestine. As events unfolded, the ship was renamed Exodus 1947, rammed by British warships, seized, and returned to Europe. It made headlines around the world. Its story was loosely told in the novel Exodus by Leon Uris, and that story turned into Otto Preminger’s Academy Award winning movie of the same name.
CAPTION: The Exodus 1947 (Former President Warfield) dockside after being rammed by British warships. (Creative Commons license: Courtesy of the Palmach Museum and Archives, Israel)
While a compelling story and a true story, the story of the President Warfield is only part of the story of Baltimore’s contributions to impowering Jewish refugees after the war. There wasn’t just one ship- Baltimore’s waterfront saw five other Haganah ships as well. Actions were undertaken in a clandestine fashion by Baltimore’s Jewish community, area businesses, and many other individuals. Even though the vast majority of activities in Baltimore were entirely legal, and certainly moral, the organization directing the effort–the Haganah–was banned in Palestine and undertook its worldwide efforts covertly. For operational security purposes the Haganah couldn’t allow its activities in the US to be uncovered by the British. Hence, although legal, many of the activities in Baltimore were undertaken covertly. The question facing Stevenson’s undergraduate researchers was one faced more commonly by prosecutors. How do we document activities that were purposely left unrecorded? Stevenson’s History Program embarked on a style of investigation new to our experience. History wielded like a forensic tool.
CAPTION: President Warfield being loaded in Baltimore before sailing to Europe in 1947. (Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, credit to Avi Livney)
Years after the fact we are trying to locate and interpret evidence that will serve to support the existing story. We find ourselves engaging in what amounts to a “cold case” investigation not of a crime but of actions undertaken with the highest moral motives: delivering a future to victims of genocide at a time when governments weren’t able to achieve the same. In the same way prosecutors often develop a paper trail of activities criminals thought had been erased, Stevenson is attempting the same but for reasons of documenting multiple instances of heroism and altruism that highlight the moral compass of our community. While midnight deliveries of supplies, money laundering, front corporations, and the activities of individuals using aliases could be hidden, in a thriving business community there are always records. After all, business is business. Red tape is red tape. And you can’t do anything on a large scale without filling out the forms. Consequently, on the business side there had to have been records of orders, deliveries, statements, and footprints of many of the activities. On the government side there has to be records for the use of the piers and wharves, sailing and transit records, and possibly inspection records. Time has erased many of those records. However, some may still exist in corporate files, family collections, the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the National Archives, and the Baltimore City Archives. With that evidence we can document Baltimore’s brilliant efforts to support refugees who had lost everything in the wake of WWII and shine a light on the many people and companies who took those righteous actions.
CAPTION: Several crewman of the President Warfield on Pier 18 in Baltimore Harbor in 1947. Location confirmed by MacLea Lumber Co. in background. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Avi Livney)
Stevenson University is unique in its focus on engaging its undergraduate history majors in public history projects that are compelling, relevant to the community, and include original research using primary sources previously untapped by other investigators. In this particular project our students are engaged in work requiring the highest level of critical thinking, analysis, and communications skills. Other institutions believe this kind of work is beyond the ability of their undergraduate History majors. At Stevenson, we believe a real education in history is best attained by “doing history.” We may not be a large program but we are unique in our approach.