In memory of a fallen hero from Exodus-47




By Jerry Klinger

Machal - Bernstein -1July 18, 1947, in international waters off the coast of Sinai, a shadowing British battle fleet attacked an unarmed American Chesapeake Bay steamer, the President Warfield. They had been shadowing the lumbering vessel since she left Sete in France. A warning to stop and submit to boarding came from the light cruiser Ajax at 2 a.m..  Flood lights illuminated the British target.

The steamer pushed her engines to full speed aiming her bow directly for Palestine.   The British did not wait. Heavy machine guns fire was directed at the ship. Two British destroyers rammed the steamer from both sides trying to crush her hull and possibly, unimaginably, to even sink her. British marines leaped unto the American ship, guns blazing, truncheons flaring.  The passengers on board fought off the initial attacks with water hoses, cans of potatoes, hands, anything.  The Marines were thrown overboard and some were captured. The British attacked again with more ferocity until the ship was taken.

The successful attack killed and wounded many Holocaust survivors including an American crewman on board.

The ship was not known as the President Warfield when she was attacked, she had been renamed the Exodus-47 at sea.  The ship would become the most famous, iconic story in the foundation of the State of Israel.  The Exodus was carrying 4,500 desperate, Holocaust survivors searching for a home in Palestine, the only place in the world that wanted them.

The Exodus was taken to Haifa.  The Holocaust survivors sang the Hatikva, The Hope, as the Exodus pulled into the harbor.  The survivors were immediately offloaded to awaiting prison ships and taken back to the “Camps” in Europe.

Though the British had hoped to keep the story of the Exodus quiet, it became a worldwide P.R. nightmare for them.  The Exodus story became a key part of the United Nations vote four months later giving birth to the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, Israel.

On board, in the wheelhouse, Bill Bernstein, a 24 year old American volunteer, the Second Officer, was clubbed to death by the boarding British when he refused to abandon the wheel.  His skull was crushed.

Bill Bernstein and the other victims of the British attack were buried in simple wooden coffins in a Haifa cemetery at the foot of Mt. Carmel.  Their resting places were modest, over time, obscured and forgotten by events.

For years the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation has been trying to complete a debt of honor and duty.  There are memorials to the Exodus, the ship the famous journalist, Ruth Gruber, rechristened as the “Ship that Launched a Nation,” in Germany, France, Italy and the United States.  Ironically, there is no specific memorial to the Exodus in Israel.  JASHP has been trying for years to place a memorial to the Exodus in Israel, with little response.

JASHP located the remains of the Exodus, now sunk in the Haifa harbor up by the Kishon River after an “accidental” fire burned her to the waterline while she was being refitted in 1951 as a museum of the Aliyah Bet.  Repeated approaches to Governmental authorities, especially in Haifa, Zionist organizations, Historical Societies and private businesses have not been successful.

Two months ago, JASHP tried again.  2017 is 70th anniversary of the Exodus.  After an extensive meeting with the Mayor of Haifa, the Haifa Society, architects and planners, we scouted possible memorial sites.  Afterwards, I needed to stop and place a small stone of memory on Bill Bernstein’s grave.  No one knew where it was except that it was located in the old Haifa cemetery by the water.  I was vaguely directed to the area and told he was buried adjacent to an Israeli army cemetery.  Hours of searching and his grave site was located.

I was dismayed.  His grave site, a flat, cracked stone slab had a simple pillow head stone identifying him as Bill Bernstein, who died on the Yitziat Europa, July 18, 1947.  There was no mention of who he was or why he died on the ship that few even recognized by name as part of the illegal, as the British termed it, fleet of life for Jews.

He was just another forgotten, obscure burial.  Forgotten was that he was born in Passaic, New Jersey or that served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in WWII. No one could know standing at his grave site he declined an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy to volunteer for the Aliyah Bet and died on the Exodus.

JASHP undertook a special project to give Bill proper memory and respectful honor for his sacrifice.  Working with noted Israeli sculptor Sam Philipe, an appropriate upgrading of Bill’s grave site was undertaken.  His family was contacted for their support and it was readily granted.  Text and the insignia of Machal, Volunteers from Outside of Israel 1947-1949, was added to his properly repaired grave site, per the photo above.

Giving Bill a proper memorial was the right thing to do.  It is linked to the larger effort for the Exodus itself.  Though it does not look like the effort to memorialize the Exodus in Haifa will work out again, the struggle to remember the past and shape the future is continuing, possibly in Jerusalem.


Jerry Klinger is the President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.  To date the Society has completed projects in 26 States and in five countries.  Nearly, 7,000,000 people annually benefit from their efforts.  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)


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2 Responses to “In memory of a fallen hero from Exodus-47”

  1. Murray Solomon Greenfield says:

    Dear Editor,The article by J Klinger is very nice, Bill Bernstein is not forgotten, His name is together with all the Machal men and women who fought on thE ships and in the land forces, His name is on thewall that we have naming all men and women who fell. Bill was buried and two men from the ship were at the burial.We do not try to make any special heroes of those who volunteered in those days just prior to the state and in the war of 47 .48,The book THE JEWS SECRET FLEET WITH AN introduction BY SIR MARTIN GILBERT IS MUST READING TO KNOW WHAT IT WAS THEN. As for memorials I would say the money should go to making a n exhibit at Atlit about all of our ships(so called)
    — Murray Solomon Greenfield, Tel Aviv

  2. Joan Levin Sacks says:

    Thank you Jerry Klinger.
    –Joan Levin Sacks, Scottsdale, Arizona


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