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Louis 'Shorty' Levin; sold ship that became 'Exodus'

WASHINGTON -- Louis S. ''Shorty" Levin, a Washington businessman who had an unexpected brush with history in the 1940s, when a ship he once owned became a symbol of Israel's independence movement, died Feb. 10 of an intestinal disorder at a hospital in Aventura, Fla. His primary residence was in Bethesda, Md., and he had a winter home in Aventura. He was 90.

Mr. Levin was a Washington native who embarked on several failed business ventures before he launched the Potomac Shipwrecking Co. with his brother in the 1940s. They bought out-of-service ships and sold the scrap metal.

In the fall of 1946, Mr. Levin was put in touch with the Chinese-American Industrial Co., a New York consortium seeking to rebuild one of his ships for cargo transport in Asia. He sold the firm a rusting excursion boat called the President Warfield for $10,000.

Mr. Levin didn't see the President Warfield again until the following summer, when it appeared in the news under a different name, trying to break the British blockade of Palestine, then under British jurisdiction. The Chinese-American organization turned out to be a front for the Haganah, an underground Jewish paramilitary group fighting to create an independent Jewish state.

The 320-foot President Warfield, launched in 1928, was secretly outfitted with hundreds of bunks and supplies in Baltimore and sailed from Marseille, France, on July 11, 1947. Originally designed to hold 400 passengers, the renamed Exodus carried 4,554 Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps toward Palestine.

Shortly before it was to enter the port of Haifa, British navy vessels rammed the Exodus at sea. British sailors killed two passengers and an American crew member. When the Exodus docked in Haifa, British authorities denied the Jewish refugees entry.

The refugees were placed on three squalid transport ships that took them back to France. After three weeks, when they refused to disembark, they were sent to detention camps in Germany. The Exodus was still in the Haifa harbor on Nov. 28, 1947, when the United Nations voted to establish an independent Jewish state.

The plight of those who escaped was described in Leon Uris's novel ''Exodus" and in a 1960 film directed by Otto Preminger.

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