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From Genoa to NYC: The REX Ocean Liner and the rescue of European Jews

It was the largest ship built in Italy before the war. It left Genoa for its first trip on 27 September 1932, heading to New York City

by Flavio Testi

The arrival of REX to New York, October 7th, 1932.

The REX was the first Italian liner to be used for cruises. Worthy of note are those in the Caribbean and Central America (Panama, Cuba, Colon, La Guayra, Trinidad, Rio, Barbados) and in the Mediterranean (Rhodes, Cyprus, Haifa, Port Said and Egypt). Inexpensive mini-cruises could also be made between Genoa and Naples and vice-versa.

The REX Ocean Liner

The life of the REX ocean liner began on 27 April 1930 at the Ansaldo shipyard in Sestri Ponente, in Genoa, Italy, with the ceremony of the first hull sheet. It was built in only fifteen months and was launched on 1 August 1931; an event that was presided by King Vittorio Emanuele III, and Queen Elena of Montenegro as godmother, in the presence of about 200,000 people.

It left Genoa for its first trip on 27 September 1932, in the presence of 15,000 people, for the transatlantic service between Genoa, Naples, Villafranca-Cannes, Gibraltar, and New York. On first arriving in New York, it was welcomed triumphantly and visited by over 50,000 people.

It was the largest ship built in Italy before the war, weighing 51,062 tons, 268.80 meters long, 31 meters wide, 37 meters high, with 145,000 hp turbine engines that operated 4 propellers of 4.70 meters diameter. It welcomed 2,258 passengers (604 in First Class, 378 in Second Class, 410 in Special Class, 866 in Third Class) and 756 crew members with maximum comfort, with air-conditioned cabins and telephone.

Its dimensions were similar to those of the Titanic, but it was much more technically advanced, with a fluid-dynamic keel designed by using the Vienna naval model basin, an example of technology combined with style, detailed refinement and luxury. It was powerful, beautiful, elegant, comfortable, fast, and innovative. A rare 1933 photo of the port of New York shows the REX next to the Olympic (the other sister ship of the Titanic) of similar dimensions. The ships were built twenty years apart and the Olympic would be dismantled a short time later.

On board, there were two swimming pools, gyms, cinemas and theaters, a library with 2,000 volumes, a photographic studio, a parish church, a physiotherapy studio, and several shops. The 500 square meters’ Baroque Ballroom also had a kilim carpet handcrafted in Anatolia of 170 square meters. The catering was excellent and tailored for all classes of passengers and, every day, 8,700 meals were served, with a 12-course first class menu.

The REX was the first Italian liner to be used for cruises. Worthy of note are those in the Caribbean and Central America (Panama, Cuba, Colon, La Guayra, Trinidad, Rio, Barbados) and in the Mediterranean (Rhodes, Cyprus, Haifa, Port Said and Egypt). Inexpensive mini-cruises could also be made between Genoa and Naples and vice-versa.

On 16 August 1933, covering 3,129 miles from Tarifa Point (Gibraltar) to the Ambrose lightship (New York) in 4 days, 13 hours and 58 minutes at an average speed of 28.92 knots, it won the Blue Ribbon for the world trophy for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic from Europe to North America. It snatched the record previously held by the pair of German ocean liners “Bremen – Europe”, provoking Hitler’s fury. It was the only Italian ship to conquer this supremacy, entering maritime world history, relaunching the excellence and quality of Italian shipbuilding, which still recognized today.

The REX leaves Genoa for its inaugural trip on September 27th, 1932

It arrived in New York 28 hours before, taking an Atlantic route farther north than usual, facing rough seas and a foggy day, without ever slowing down. Captain Francesco Tarabotto navigated it in the fog (the Radar did not yet exist) confirming to the Chief Engineer Luigi Risso to maintain the maximum speed and making the ship alarm run intermittently and transmit from the wireless operator Landini by radio the order to keep clear its course to New York on which it proceeded at 30 knots.

The REX entered USAF history for the legendary interception of 18 May 1938 in the middle of the Atlantic, 700 miles from New York, carried out by three prototypes of B17 bombers (flying fortresses), which located the ship and flew over it, demonstrating their ability to intercept, previously reserved only for the US Navy. The navigator Kurtis LeMay became General and adviser to the US president for operations in the Second World War. A tribute to this event took place on 24 August 2007 with the reply of the interception off Bermuda by three B52 USAF (REX REPLAY operation) of the support vessel John P. Bobo, which had a similar tonnage to that of REX.

3 USAF’s B17 bombers intercept and fly over the REX, 700 miles away from New York, on May 8th, 1938

In May 1940, the transatlantic service ended as passengers were now very few, the crossings had become dangerous because the ship was stopped and inspected several times by French and English military ships as it approached the Strait of Gibraltar, in addition to being intercepted and stopped by the British military convoys crossing the Atlantic.

With Italy’s entry into war, to save it from the bombing of Genoa, it was transferred to the port of Trieste, making its only trip to the Adriatic, preceded by the Albatros, a submarine-fighter belonging to the Italian Royal Navy, with reduced and shielded lights and no light signaling, as reconstructed by Fellini in his film Amarcord.

The showcases of the shops on the REX

On 8 September 1944, the REX was moved from the port of Trieste to avoid the bombing of the city, and towed between Isola and Capodistria, getting close to the shore. Thanks to the partisans’ signals, it was located by four Spitfires of the USAF that dropped their auxiliary tanks, and were immediately attacked in two successive waves by the Beaufighter of Royal Air Force bomber squads with 123 air-to-ground rockets and 4,000 cannon shots, which caused it to tilt on its left side and caused a violent fire that lasted four days.

After the war, it was kept in Yugoslav territory, where it was dismantled to recover the metals that made it up. The letters of the name and the bell have been preserved. One of its four bronze propellers is still hidden in the sand of the seabed, about 150 meters from the coast and 20 meters deep and could be recovered.

The REX sunk by USAF’s and RAF’s warplanes burns between Isola and Capodistria, on September 8th, 1944

A “family” liner

I am very attached to the history of this ship for family reasons. My grandfather Corrado from Ansaldo Meccanico participated in the construction of the engines and turbines. My father Metello at Ansaldo Elettrotecnico tested and participated in the installation of the power system. Both were on board during sea trials for delivery to the shipping company on 22 September 1932. The Italian company convinced my father to leave Ansaldo within four days and embarked him as an officer in charge of the power system.

My father, Metello Testi, officer assigned to the power station, near the REX’s  first class pool .

He remained on board during 88% of the ship’s time in service, more than any other crew member, from the first trip to the last transferal of the REX to Trieste, which took place with a reduced crew of forty. Since he was also a violin teacher, he played in the ship’s orchestra.

Unknown passenger

When I was a child instead of asking for fairy tales, I asked my dad to tell me about life on the REX and his American experience in the decade 1930-1940. I know many details of life on board, the organization of the ship, storms in the Atlantic, events that occurred to the crew and passengers, which were then verified by the ship’s logbooks.

My father was very impressed with the American lifestyle when plenty of goods and services were available. He described to me Macy’s department store, the largest in the world, which was always open and where anything customers wanted was available, the first Self Service with wall of box with glass, where on one side freshly cooked dishes were loaded and on the other, by introducing a few cents, the door was opened to pick up the chosen dish.

The REX was in the port of New York at the arrival of Italo Balbo’s Atlantic flyers on 19 July 1933 at 19.30 with the seaplanes flying over it before landing in Houston, greeted by the crew that also participated in the American celebrations. He was also present when the Hindenburg zeppelin caught fire during the landing in 1937, news promptly announced by the sliding banners in Times Square.

The REX transported two Breda trains on its decks to exhibit them at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with the theme “The World of Tomorrow”, which my father visited to see the innovations of the time: electric cars transported visitors, a huge writing machine by Underwood weighed 14 tons, the Futurama in the central sphere presented an imaginary future, modern kitchens were present with fridges, washing machines and dishwashers, and worked the humanoid robots ELEKTRO and its dog SPARKO of Westinghouse.

Waves shattering against the REX bow.

The American car traffic was already significant, from 1932 to 1940 cars became more modern and aerodynamic, the metro, buses and ferries were always crowded, as well as large skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building which at the time was the highest in the world and on which the first NBC television broadcast antenna was installed to transmit the signal in the largest possible area, and the first TV sets with circular screens shown in the shops.

Area of broadcasting of NBC signal, through the antenna installed on the Empire State Building in 1939 

The gala evenings and the evening entertainment programs on board always began and ended with “The REX Hymn”. Often famous passengers (actors, singers, musicians) participated enthusiastically. My father told me with regret that the conductor Arturo Toscanini, on the other hand, always refused to  perform on board. The REX orchestra was hosted for performances at the Radio City Music Hall and  at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Rex hosted both the Typical Argentina Orchestra and the Mandolin Orchestra.

As on all ships, there were instances of clandestine passengers on board and of staff desertion, mostly stewards or restaurant waiters who embarked in Italy and abandoned the ship just arrived in America, traveling free for their emigration.

Transatlantic journeys were often troubled by storms and hurricanes, more frequent in the Caribbean area. The ship, although large and stable, began pitching and/or rolling, and large waves invaded the bow deck, or even broke windows or damaged lifeboats; all the crockery destroyed, passengers fallen or injured. But painful situations also occurred, such as the accident on Christmas Eve in 1937, which cost the life of the boatswain Roberto Sbolgi and wounded two sailors during the dock-stead in Villafranca, where the anchor fell into a shallow unmarked deep, dragging all the chain links. It was then recovered on 6 April 1938 by the famous ship Artiglio with its deep-sea divers. But also medical advice was dispensed via radio when required by other ships, surgery performed in the equipped on board hospital, or funerals at sea.

The Mandolin Orchestra

the Typical Argentina Orchestra

During the period of its Atlantic service, from September 1932 to May 1940, the REX made 101 Italy-USA  round trips, and a dozen cruises, carrying over 300,000 passengers of all types and nationalities.

The rescue of European Jews

Jewish plate

In the decades between the first and the second world wars, the greatest number of European Jews resided in Russia and in the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria. There were about 45,000 Italian Jews and another 10,000 foreign nationals.

The exodus from Germany of five hundred thousand German Jews who lived there started with the advent of Hitler in 1933.  Before 1938, about two hundred and fifty thousand Jews had left Germany, many of them heading for Palestine (in 1933 alone, about 35,000). In 1938,  Germany’s annexation of Austria  forced an exodus of those Jews who were able to leave that country.

In May 1938, Hitler visited Rome to repay Mussolini’s visit and the following month German race experts came to Italy to instruct Italian officials on their pseudo-science. Two months later, on 14 July 1938, the “Race political program” was published, with the theory of the Italian Aryan race and a law was issued on 1 September 1938: all Italian Jews were banned from public life and the schools were closed to Jewish children. Within the Fascist party, Italo Balbo was among the few who opposed this law.

After a few days, a decree was issued, pointing out that on Italian ships the racial laws were suspended. In 1939, Dante Almansi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, was authorized to set up an organization to assist Jewish refugees arriving in Italy from other parts of Europe, known as DelAsEm, (Jewish Emigration Assistance Delegation) with headquarters in Genoa. Between 1939 and 1943 this organization would help over 5,000 Jewish refugees to leave Italy and reach neutral countries. In Vienna, on the other hand, the HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Assistance Society) specialized in obtaining new documents or visas.

The menu for the Jewish passengers on board, July 25, 1936

Jewish passengers on the REX,  boarding in Genoa or Cannes and distributed in all the ship’s classes, became noticeable as early as 1934, with a gradual increase until they reached high numbers in the following years until 20 May 1940 with the last trip of REX. On trips bound for the USA, the ship was full, while in Europe it carried only a few hundred passengers.

From 18 March 1936, the American Rabbi Max Green and chef Philip Klein were engaged in service by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America to cope with a large number of Jewish passengers fleeing Europe. A Kosher kitchen was set up on board with personalized menus and plates with Hebrew markings.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington shows several photographic, written and recorded testimonies of European Jews who traveled aboard the REX. All confirm the great care with which they were welcomed by the crew and the perfect treatment they received during the crossing, which compensated them for the sufferings they had endured and helped them to forget them.

The most frequently used escape-route was the passage from Austria to Trieste in Italy, continuing by train to Genoa, where they expected to board the REX. An alternative route was toward France to reach the ship at Cannes.

From the number of transatlantic voyages of the ship, considering a reduced average of passengers on board, it is calculated that about 30,000 Jews traveled on the REX to the United States.

Although many considered the ship an achievement of fascist pride, it became the “ship of salvation” thanks to the crew of the Italian REX liner, who fully deserved  the recognition of being included  among those in the “Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations “.

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