Louis S. "Shorty" Levin said later that he sensed something odd when his shipwrecking company sold that rundown troop carrier shortly after World War II.
He and his older brother, George, sold scrap metal in Charles County, but the men in New York interested in this particular ship talked about carrying passengers, as the ship had before the war when it steamed the Old Bay Line route from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va.
Indeed the deal turned out quite unlike other transactions made by the Potomac Shipwrecking Co. of Popes Creek. The passenger angle was a tip-off.
Levin died a few weeks ago at 90 in a south Florida hospital, a footnote to Middle East history. The ship his company sold in October 1946 would become famous the next year, but not under its Old Bay Line name, the President Warfield. When the vessel packed with 4,554 Jewish refugees neared the Palestine shore, a banner unfurled onboard: "Haganah Ship: Exodus 1947."
The story of the ship's resurrection would be transformed years later into a novel written by Leon Uris and a movie directed by Otto Preminger. But it broke first in the papers and on radio. That's how Levin heard about it.
"He said, 'Oh my God, that's the boat!' " said his daughter, Monica Levin Pollans, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"In his heart, he was so proud he could do something like that, that had such impact on the world."
The real impact of the "Exodus" episode on the founding of Israel is a matter of historical debate. Without question, though, Levin had a brush with a clandestine shipping operation run by Palestinian Jews, supported by the Jewish Agency for Palestine and affiliated with the underground military organization Haganah.
Between 1934 and 1948, the project involved 64 vessels carrying refugees from Europe to land under British control that would eventually become the state of Israel. Jews called the campaign Mossad le-Aliyah Bet or Beth; the British government simply called it "illegal immigration."
Named for a man from an old Southern slave-owning family who reportedly nursed Dixie nostalgia, the President Warfield entered popular culture as a liberation emblem. Levin's name would be linked with this one particular transaction in a lifetime of transactions, a quirk of fate landing him momentarily in the world of postwar international intrigue.
Jewish war refugees, many of them survivors of the Third Reich's Final Solution, were scattered around Europe in camps for "DPs," or "displaced persons," run by international relief organizations. Thousands more wanted to be admitted to Palestine than the British would allow. International pressure that would ultimately lead to Israel's birth mounted, although the role of the Mossad operation in bringing that pressure is subject to argument.
Whatever its impact, a soft-spoken man of unimposing stature named Louis S. Levin had a small part in it.
'An upbeat guy'
"You have to call him Shorty," said his daughter. "Everybody called him Shorty."
She was precise about reporting his height: 5-foot-7 1/2 , no more or less. Vertical challenge notwithstanding, Levin played basketball in amateur leagues in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. By all accounts, he was untroubled by obstacles.
"He was a really upbeat guy," Pollans said. "He did not let things get in his way. He was going to get around it."
In business, he was firm and reasonable, said John Droke, Levin's colleague for more than 20 years at Westwood Management in Bethesda, a commercial real estate firm where Levin worked after he had established liquor businesses in the Washington area. Westwood was founded in 1958 by a neurosurgeon, Laszlo N. Tauber, a Jewish World War II refugee from Hungary.
"He certainly wouldn't raise his voice," Droke said of Levin, who acted as a Westwood investor and Tauber's close adviser. "The people here in the organization knew that he knew what he was talking about and he meant what he said and he wanted it taken care of."
Levin often went out to construction sites to make sure contractors were living up to agreements, Droke said. He could quickly size things up, his daughter said.
Still, he had never quite dealt with the likes of the folks interested in the President Warfield, a vessel that first sailed the Chesapeake in July 1928.
At 330 feet, with room for 400 passengers and a crew of 58, she was, according to David C. Holly's book, Exodus 1947, the pride of the Old Bay Line and a gleam in the eye of Solomon Davies Warfield, who sustained the line as the heyday of the bay steamers was slipping into oblivion. As Warfield died only weeks after the laying of the keel, the ship was named for him.
Sold for scrap
War in Europe eventually crept aboard the otherwise festive President Warfield, outfitted with an ivory-paneled bar with sweeping views off the stern, a glass-enclosed palm room and splendid double stairway extending through two decks. By spring 1940, her freight decks filled with military cargo and she counted among her passengers increasing numbers of servicemen heading for military installations in Norfolk. In 1942, with the United States at war and urgently needing ships, President Warfield was drafted.
Coated in gray paint, fitted with guns and an array of wooden reinforcements for rougher seas, she sailed at different times during the war under both British and U.S. flags. After serving variously as signal ship, operations center and, finally, troop carrier, the President Warfield landed back in Virginia at war's end. She languished in the James River among other such veterans: "the outcasts, the forgotten - the unwanted hulks of war," as Holly put it. The federal government, meanwhile, arranged to unload tons of old military hardware.
The Levin brothers, Louis and George, would be there, having entered the scrap business with their partner, Paul Backer. They had followed the path of their entrepreneurial father, Jacob, an Eastern European immigrant who at various times sold from a pushcart, worked in a butcher shop, a clothing store, ran a gas station and a scrap-metal business. Jacob was supporting a family that grew to 10 children, with "Shorty" in the middle of five boys and five girls.
The Potomac Shipwrecking Co.'s first bid of $6,255 for the President Warfield was rejected as too low by the U.S. Maritime Commission early in the summer of 1946. Months later, the Levin brothers closed the deal with a bid of $8,028.
"Old Bay Boat Sold for Scrap" was the Aug. 29, 1946, headline in The Sun, which followed the ship's exploits before, during and after the war.
'You should be a Zionist'
The ship was just the sort of thing the Mossad was trying to find as it pursued vessels and crews in the United States and elsewhere. A man named Samuel Derecktor of the Chinese-American Industrial Co. - a legitimate importing business - got wind of Mossad's efforts, and apparently pursued the Warfield for that reason.
Holly describes Derecktor inviting George Levin and Edward Eaton, a principal officer of Potomac Shipwrecking, to lower Manhattan for a meeting to close the sale. Holly does not mention "Shorty," but Pollans said her father clearly recalled a meeting with Derecktor's company.
As "Shorty" told it, Pollans said, it sounded like a setup for an ethnic joke.
" 'I walk into this room full of Chinese guys,' " his daughter recalled him saying. " 'There's one European guy, the rest of them are Asian ... ' "
He specifically recalled one exchange with the European man.
"Are you Jewish?" Levin recalled the man asking him. Levin said yes.
"Then you should be a Zionist," Levin recalled the man saying without equivocation.
The Chinese-American Industrial Co. bought the vessel for $40,000. Days later, the ship was sold again for $50,000 to the Weston Trading Co., which historian Aviva Halamish described in The Exodus Affair as "no less than a cover for the purchasing activity of the Mossad in the United States."
The boat was towed in November from Virginia up to Baltimore for repairs and renovations that went on through February, costing about $130,000. In January, The Sun reported that the ship was bound for China, where it would ply the rivers much as it had the Chesapeake in days gone by. The article reported Capt. William C. Ash saying the ship might carry "a little cargo to be dispersed at some Mediterranean ports."
Indeed the vessel was headed for the Mediterranean, but the rest of the story was part of a Mossad cover. The ship left Baltimore for the last time on Feb. 25, 1947, but limped back to Norfolk two days later after hitting a gale off Cape Hatteras. After repairs, the President Warfield left Norfolk in March on a journey that would land her in mid-July famously overloaded with Jewish refugees off the coast of Palestine, in the teeth of a British naval blockade.
The hope was to run the blockade and, taking advantage of the ship's shallow draft, run the Warfield aground near Tel Aviv or Haifa. From there, the refugees might escape to shore and the deep-draft British warships could not get close. It didn't work.
Rammed by destroyers
Hours before dawn on July 18, 1947, the ship was rammed by British destroyers and boarded by servicemen, touching off a melee. The British used tear gas, smoke bombs, clubs and the occasional gunshot. Refugees and crew members fought with whatever they had: fists, clubs, bottles, cans of food, even raw potatoes. Three of them were killed - one by a blow to the head, two by gunshots - and about 70 were seriously hurt.
By dawn, the battle was over, the ship under British control. After being towed into Haifa, the refugees eventually wound up back in "DP" camps in, of all places, Germany. The ship was eyed as a floating museum, but caught fire in 1952 and burned. The remains sank years later off Haifa.
Ultimately, thanks to the book and the movie, the "Exodus" episode may have had a greater impact on the popular image of the struggle for a Jewish state than on creation of Israel. In her 1998 book, historian Halamish reports that mention of the "Exodus" and the Mossad turn up neither in recommendations of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine nor in the debates of the United Nations General Assembly and its committees.
"Shorty" Levin, according to his daughter, sister, brother and business associate, did not mention the subject very much in the course of his life. He remained devoted to his wife, two children and eight grandchildren, sentimental about the power of family ties and enamored of fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, where the President Warfield, too, saw her best days.