The Stories Behind the Voyage of the Exodus

These video testimonies from the Toldot Yisrael Collection offer a behind the scenes look at the story of the famous ship

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

For a certain generation, the story of the Exodus, the ship that carried 4,500 Jewish refugees from post-war Europe to Mandatory Palestine, encapsulates the essence of Israel’s creation – a journey, an exodus – from the hellish depths of the Holocaust to the exhilarating heights of independence and nationhood.

Indeed, there are many who first became aware of the story of the modern State of Israel thanks to “Exodus” – the 1960 Hollywood hit film, though the movie is only very loosely based on the history of the actual ship.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Toldot Yisrael project, which is hosted on the National Library of Israel’s various platforms, was able to gather several video interviews which tell the true story of the voyage of the Exodus, as well as provide a rare glimpse into events which transpired behind the scenes.

When Monica Levin finally saw the film starring Paul Newman, her father – Louis “Shorty” Levin – shocked his daughter by telling her, “I want you to know that that ship belonged to me…”

Levin had owned the ship back when it was known as the “President Warfield”.

The Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The organization that eventually purchased the ship from “Shorty” Levin was known as HaMossad LeAliyah Bet (“The Institution for Immigration B”). This was a branch of the Jewish underground Haganah organization, devoted to facilitating clandestine, illegal, Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

To mask its activities, the underground group made use of front organizations which it could hide behind. When it came to buying the President Warfield, things were run through a straw company answering to the very non-Jewish sounding name: “The Chinese American Industrial Corporation”. The only Jew on the company board was a Haganah operative who had a habit for popping up just about everywhere, the future mayor of Jerusalem – Teddy Kollek…

Monica Levin relates the full story below:


“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

These were trying times. A third of world Jewry had just been annihilated in Europe, and the men and women of the various Zionist organizations had no intention of being deterred by bureaucratic or even legal obstacles getting in the way of what was seen as a matter of pure survival.

Before ships could be arranged to carry Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine, those ships had to have their papers in order. David Macarov was one of those tasked with speaking to diplomatic consuls in New York, who could provide the flag papers necessary to embark on the rescue voyages. Unsurprisingly, Macarov often had to grease a few palms. A typical sentence of his became:

“Mr. Lopez, I have an envelope for you. Do you have an envelope for me?”

In a surprising twist, David Macarov also revealed how the voyage of the Exodus was tied to the price of bananas on the international market…


A ship to Oklahoma?

Sam Schulman was one of the few who boarded the President Warfield at its home port in Baltimore, on its way to collect refugees from France. Even in a friendly American port, there was a need for discretion and secrecy.

When Schulman reached the pier, he approached the men manning the ship at the docks…

“I says – ‘This the ship that’s goin’ to Palestine?’ They said, ‘No, no, no, we’re goin’ to Oklahoma.’ In my mind [I’m thinking]  – “Oklahoma is landlocked…”

Schulman went on to describe the fateful voyage of the Exodus in detail, including just how the ship was converted to hold so many refugees, as well as the dramatic altercations with the British Royal Navy…


You can find hundreds of interviews with the men and women of Israel’s founding generation here, and you can learn more about the Toldot Yisrael project here.

Thanks to Aryeh Halivni, director of Toldot Yisrael, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.


If you liked this article, try these:

Captives in Lebanon: The Story of the “Marine Carp”

When the Egyptians Bombed Tel Aviv

The Man Who Would Be King: Delusions of (Royal) Grandeur in Mandatory Palestine

The Jews Who Treated the Hindenburg Survivors

The little-known story of two immigrant professionals who acted quickly after the Nazi airship disaster

The Hindenburg disaster, May 6, 1937 (Public Domain / Gus Pasquarella)

The pride of Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg — officially designated LZ-129 Hindenburg — was the biggest commercial airship ever built, and, at the time, the most technologically advanced. It was 803.8 feet (ca. 245 meters) in length and 135.1 feet (ca. 41 meters) in diameter. It was more than three times larger than a Boeing 747, and four times the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Four engines powered the Hindenburg and it could reach cruising speeds of 76 mph (ca. 122 km/h) with a maximum speed of 84 mph (135 km/h).

The Hindenburg featured 72 passenger beds in heated cabins, a silk-wallpapered dining room, lounge, writing room, bar, smoking room, and promenades with windows that could be opened in-flight. Special precautions were taken to ensure that the smoking room was safe, including a double-door airlock to keep hydrogen from entering.

The Hindenburg was named for former German Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934). It took its first flight in March 1936, and flew 63 times, primarily from Germany to North and South America.

The recently launched Hindenburg over the Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, Germany (Public Domain / Bulgarian Archives State Agency). Click image to enlarge

The Hindenburg was already under construction when the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933. The Third Reich saw the Zeppelin as a symbol of German strength, as the Hindenburg was partly owned by the government and partly owned by the Zeppelin Company, its creators. Giant swastikas were painted on its tail fins. The German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the Hindenburg to embark on a propaganda mission early on, before the ship’s endurance tests had even been completed. For four days, it flew around Germany, blasting patriotic songs and dropping pro-Hitler leaflets.

After opening its 1937 season, by completing a single round-trip passage to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in late March, the Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt, Germany on the evening of May 3. It was the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. American Airlines had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle the passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark, New Jersey for connections to airplane flights.

Except for strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the Atlantic crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise uneventful, until the airship attempted an early-evening landing at Lakehurst three days later on May 6. Although carrying only half of its full capacity of passengers for the accident flight, the return flight, which never happened, had been fully booked. Many of the passengers with tickets to Germany were planning to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London the following week.

The Hindenburg’s first landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1936 (Public Domain / Wide World Photos/Minneapolis Sunday Tribune). Click image to enlarge

The airship was hours behind schedule when it passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and its landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, Captain Max Pruss charted a course over Manhattan Island, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out into the street to catch sight of the airship.

After passing over the field at 4:00 p.m., Captain Pruss took passengers on a tour over the seaside of New Jersey while waiting for the weather to clear. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, Pruss directed the airship back to Lakehurst to make its landing almost half a day late.

At 7:25 p.m., the Hindenburg caught fire and exploded during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, filling the sky with smoke and fire. On board were 97 people (36 passengers and 61 crewmen). There were 36 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen), as well as one ground crewman, a civilian linesman.

The massive airship’s tail with its Nazi symbol fell to the ground, while its nose, hundreds of feet long, rose into the air like a breaching whale. It turned to ashes in less than a minute. Some passengers and crewmembers jumped dozens of feet to safety while others burned. Despite the sheer ferocity of the colossal fire, 62 of the crew members and passengers survived, but most of them were severely burned.

The majority of the victims were burnt to death, while others died jumping from the airship at an excessive height, or as a consequence of either smoke inhalation or falling debris. Immediate survivors were taken with broken bones and burns to the small, 40-bed, Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood, New Jersey, eight miles (13 kilometers) away, which was overwhelmed by the number of patients.

A passenger of the Hindenburg sheds his burning clothing as he is helped away from the wreckage of the airship (Public Domain / Acme News Photos)

Treating the Hindenburg patients, regardless of Nazi party affiliation or religion, was prominent Lakewood physician, Adolph Towbin, M.D. (1888-1966), a Jewish immigrant from Kaments-Podolski, Ukraine. Dr. Towbin arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15 in 1903, and had graduated from Fordham University Medical School in 1916. After an internship at Flushing Hospital in New York, he was drafted into the army and assigned to Lakewood, New Jersey in 1918 as WWI soldiers were being treated at the Laurel in the Pines Hotel, following poison gas injuries. He liked Lakewood so much, he decided to stay and open up his medical practice after the war.

Dr. Adolph Towbin, prominent Jewish physician who treated the survivors (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

The treatment at the time for burns, malaria, herpes, and smallpox, was picric acid, as it was an astringent and antiseptic. With the number of patients being treated, the hospital quickly ran out of picric acid, gauze, bandages, and other medical supplies. Dr. Towbin immediately called his best friend and relative by marriage, pharmacist Max Gitow, R.Ph. (1894-1973), the owner of Lakewood Pharmacy, to bring him all that he had in stock.

Max Gitow, RPh, Jewish owner of the nearby Lakewood Pharmacy, who provided critical supplies to treat the injured (Courtesy: Phil Goldfarb)

Gitow, (whose original name was Moishe Gitovich), was another Jewish immigrant, from Mogilev, Belarus, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1904. He had graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1913 at the age of 18, and his father, who was also a pharmacist in Belarus and later in Ukraine, had purchased Lakewood Pharmacy in April 1914. He personally brought over the needed supplies to the hospital 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away and stayed to see if he could be of assistance. It was these two Jewish professional men whose quick actions helped save the lives of numerous German (several of whom were Nazis) and non-German Hindenburg passengers.

At the time, the Hindenburg was supposed to be ushering in a new age of airship travel, but the crash instead brought the age to an abrupt end, making way for the era of passenger airplanes. The crash was the first massive technological disaster caught on film, and the scene became embedded in the public’s consciousness.

The actual site of the Hindenburg crash is marked with a chain-outlined pad and bronze plaque where the airship’s gondola landed. It was dedicated on May 6, 1987, the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Hangar No. 1, which still stands, is where the airship was to be housed after landing. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1968.


Special thanks to David Richmand, M.D., of Plainfield, New Jersey, the maternal grandson of Dr. Adolph Towbin, who provided input for this article. Max Gitow, R.Ph., was the maternal grandfather of the author.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 edition of the Tulsa Jewish Review. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


If you liked this article, try these:

Marcel Marceau: The Legendary Mime Who Saved Jewish Children and Fought Nazis

The Book That Survived Kristallnacht and Made It to the Land of Israel

The Artist Who Forewarned the Dangers of the Nazis

New Effort Launched to Identify and Catalogue Every Hebrew Book in Italy for First Time Ever

Some 35,000 volumes from dozens of communities and institutions across the country will be included

A ground breaking collaborative effort to create a unified listing of all Hebrew books in Italy for the first time ever has been announced by The Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI), the Rome National Central Library (BNCR), and the National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem. The “I-Tal-Ya Books” initiative is being made possible through the support of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.

Jewish communities have existed in Italy for more than two millennia and over the centuries it has played a critical role in global Jewish history, particularly as a significant center for manuscript production and printing.

Today in Italy, thousands of uncatalogued rare Hebrew books dating back hundreds of years are held among collections belonging to local Jewish communities, as well as libraries owned by the state, the Italian Church Institutions (CEI) and the Vatican.

Some of the collections have been partially catalogued; however, there is no single integrated and standardized listing of these holdings and so while many of these books have significant historical importance and hold tremendous potential for scholars, they are often difficult if not impossible to find.

The “I-Tal-Ya Books” initiative will ensure the protection, preservation and provision of access to these cultural treasures as never before using technology developed specifically for the project. The Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI) will oversee the project, with the Rome National Central Library (BNCR) hosting the catalogue, and the National Library of Israel (NLI) providing the relevant training, support and expertise related to Hebrew books.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel commented: “As the national library for both the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, we are honored to partner in the I-Tal-Ya Books initiative, sharing our expertise with colleagues in order to help identify and catalogue thousands of texts that would otherwise essentially be lost to history.”

An initial pilot phase has just concluded, and the full-scale project starting now will include an estimated 35,000 volumes from 14 Jewish communities and 25 state institutions. It will take approximately three years to complete.


If you liked this article, try these:

A 15th Century Jewish Prayer Book Has Been Fully Restored by the National Library

Kehilot Moshe: The Discovery of a Rare Illustrated Bible

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Revealed: Photos of Macedonian Jews Who Perished in the Holocaust

A collection of photographs received by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People documents the lives of thousands of residents of the town of Bitola, who were sent to Treblinka in 1943

Macedonian Jews who were murdered during the war: Hanna Nachmias and her daughter Boina

It has been seventy-seven years since disaster struck one of the world’s last Ladino-speaking Jewish communities. The National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) have revealed a unique collection which serves to commemorate the members of this historic community. The collection includes photographs and written information relating to thousands of residents of the town of Bitola (still known to many Jews by its former name, Monastir), which during the war was home to 810 Jewish families (3,351 people). The Sephardic-Jewish community was a vibrant one, and in the interwar period, the Zionist movement played a key role in its cultural and political life. Many members of the community aspired to reach the Land of Israel.

Issik Mushon and Lanna Issik Casarula

The Jews of Macedonia comprise one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. The first Jewish settlers arrived in Macedonia in the 3rd and 4th centuries. At the time, the Jews settled in the cities of Skopje, Stobi, Bitola, Strumica, and others. However, most of that glorious community, which at its height included approximately 8,000 people, was annihilated in the Holocaust. During the war, Macedonia was annexed as a province of Bulgaria, a state that cooperated with the Nazis. In March 1943, Bulgarian policemen and soldiers conducted raids all over Macedonia, rounding up Jews and sending them to the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, where 7,144 of them were murdered. The only surviving Jews were several dozen young men who, shortly before deportation, fled to the mountains and joined the partisans who fought the Bulgarian army.

David Buchur Hasson
Sara Avram Hasson

Bulgarian government officials were the ones who prepared the tidy photo albums, ahead of the rounding up of the Jews pictured in them and their later transport to Treblinka. On the back side of each photo, information was jotted down, such as family ties, occupations, professions, residential addresses, and more. Somehow, the photographs found their way to Israel after the war. The pictures and personal information, written in Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian, gave faces and names to the victims. They were preserved in the Eventov Collection, founded by The Association of Immigrants from the Former Yugoslavia. Today, the albums are stored in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP). Among the many family names documented, are the names Elbuchar, Aroesti, Ashkenazi, Bachar, Versano, Chazan, Cohen, Moreno, Kalderon, Kimchi, Russo, and more.

Moiz Yaacov Ovadia
Raphael Russo

According to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, the director of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, this is important and exciting documentation of a Jewish community with almost no survivors left. “The photographs were recently scanned and were uploaded to the website of the Descendants of Macedonian Jewry in Israel, managed by Yael Unna. All personal information was translated into Hebrew by Chaim Pekovic from the archives team. We are pleased to help preserve and provide access to the memory of a glorious, Zionist Jewish community with so few survivors.”

If you liked this article, try these:

Back in the USSR: Recollections of an American College Kid Turned Manuscript Smuggler

The Jewish Heroes and Heroines of Victory Day

How Lenin’s Great-Grandfather, a Convert, Informed on the Jews