Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The SS President Arthur: The Zionist Mayflower, Part I

Once I tracked down the story of my great-grandfather's death at sea and burial in Haifa (see June 19, 2012, blog entry), I was determined to learn as much as I could about the circumstances surrounding his voyage. 

In fact, it was an historic voyage for many reasons, many "firsts," but I never have been able to determine why he was on it.  Was he a fervent Zionist?  Was he planning to make aliyah?  Though he had a round-trip ticket, that may have been a requirement of the British mandate government.  Was he planning to go, as were so many of his fellow travelers, to the opening ceremonies of Hebrew University?  At almost 70, was he looking for a thrill:  to be on the first ship to display the "Zionist flag"?  Or was it simply the next ship leaving for the Middle East?  Alas, no one will ever know.

The ship itself, however, and its voyage, prove to be irresistibly interesting to me.  While a Wikipedia entry gives an outline of its story, I found so many more details to fill in.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone interested in publishing it, so I will take the route of many and tell the story here in several installments.

For Jews in the United States and around the world, Wednesday, April 1, 1925, marked a watershed moment, the founding of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. The institution fulfilled the dreams of many Jews, including – among the most prominent – Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and the first president of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann.

Many American Jews attending the ceremonies had arrived only the day before on a steamship that deserves its own place in Jewish and Zionist history. Its story is more than a footnote to the many forms the Zionist dream has taken over centuries; at the same time, its short life demonstrates how a group of entrepreneurs appropriated that dream until it literally went up in smoke.

Jacob S. Strahl
Jacob S. Strahl, an active Zionist and municipal court judge from Brooklyn, headed a syndicate of owners of the new American Palestine Line and its ship, the S.S. President Arthur. On October 9, 1924, these owners announced their intent to operate regular passenger service between New York and Palestine.[i]

For what they said was “the first of the ships to be operated by the new line,”[ii] they purchased a 25-year-old ship built by A. G. Vulkan of Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland). Originally a passenger ship for the Hamburg-American Line to be named the Borussia, and then the Teutonia, it was finally launched as the Kiautschou. The North German Lloyd Company bought it and changed its name to the Princess Alice

The U.S. captured it in 1914 and renamed it the Princess Matoika before using it as a troop transport through the rest of World War I.  In 1920, the Matoika was a last-minute substitute that carried some members of the U.S. Olympic team to Antwerp. They found conditions on the ship, which by then had been converted to a mail carrier, so terrible that they “mutinied.” After a total reconstruction, the Matoika made nearly a dozen trips from Europe, bringing immigrants to the U.S. It had two more owners and finally was renamed the President Arthur to conform with the names of other ships owned by the United States Lines company. [iii]

Strahl clearly was a master at publicity. Prior to his announcement on October 9, 1924, he had traveled to Palestine, and while passenger lists routinely appeared in the New York Times, his name always had a modifier. Among the passengers departing on the Paris on July 23, 1924, was Strahl, on his way “to Jerusalem to organize a Jewish life insurance company.”[iv] When Strahl returned on the France, the Times described him as “one of America’s leading Zionists.”[v]

[i]  “Zionists to Run a Fleet,” New York Times, October 10, 1924, Sports/Automobiles section, 21.
[ii]  Ibid.
[iii]  A complete history of the ship appears on Joe Hartwell, “USS Princess Matoika,” Accessed March 18, 2009.
[iv]  “Ocean Travelers,” New York Times, July 23, 1924, 6. The company became the Judea Industrial Corporation, which Strahl and others ran from 1927 to 1929.  “Celebrate Stock Sale,” New York Times, August 15, 1927, 11; “Start New Fire Insurance Company,” New York Times, July 6, 1928, 32; “ “To Invest Funds in Palestine,” New York Times, August 16, 1928, 33; “Judge Strahl Feted in Jerusalem,” New York Times, August 17, 1928, 5; “Asks Judea Accounting,” New York Times, April 13, 1929, 14; “Fight Adding Stock in Judea Company,” New York Times, July 6, 1929, 14; “Judea Directors Upheld,” New York Times, May 9, 1930, 24.
[v]  “Jusserand Due to Arrive Today,” New York Times, October 3, 1924, 11. Accessed December 10, 2009.

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