I met Elie Schalit only comparatively recently, about 5 years ago when he was the Chairman of Casa Shalom. I knew him as a charming and dedicated gentleman who had had an illustrious career and had many interesting stories. He was a philanthropist who had dedicated himself to Jewish/Israeli causes and who particularly was supportive of the work on Sefardi and Anousim projects. He was a founding member of the Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College. He sadly died last week at the age of 94.
Elie Schalit was born in Jerusalem in 1921 and graduated from the Herzliya Gymnasium and then the Reali School in Haifa in 1936. He went to Texas A&M in 1938, but returned to then Palestine because of the war. After WWII in 1946 he returned to the USA and took a BS degree in agricultural economics at Louisiana State University. Up to 1948 he was put in charge of clandestine transportation for the Haganah by David Ben Gurion. He travelled widely to England, Europe, USA, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and managed to procure many essential military supplies for the Haganah and subsequently for the IDF.
In 1947 he went to the USA to purchase ships in order to save the remnants of European Jewry by transporting the DPs across the Mediterranean to Israel. He helped found the so-called “Biltmore Group” a group of Jewish philanthropists who met in the Biltmore Hotel in NY City and who provided the funds to purchase the ships used for this purpose. He purchased the President Warfield, a ship that became famous as the “Exodus 1948” that was filled with Jewish DPs en route to Palestine and that was stopped by the British Royal Navy. He has written about this period and his work is described in the book “The Pledge” by Leonard Slater.
Following this period he continued to locate and transport to Israel military equipment, such as tanks and half-tracks from the Philippines and Panama. He also shipped 50 aircraft in crates mainly form Czechoslovakia to Israel. Because of his experience he was asked by Ben Gurion to help establish the Israeli merchant fleet and navy. He went around the Mediterranean buying dock facilities for repairing ships and later also had ships built in Germany. He co-founded the America-Israel Shipping line. He became one of the largest private shipping owners in France, Italy and Spain. In 1962 he organized a world-wide non-ferrous metal transport system and also built ships to transport frozen tuna. Up to 1986 he built 4 “non-combustible” ships for the Cunard Line, and then obtained the contract to built first 4 48,000 ton Carnival cruise ships and then 7 more larger up to 115,000 ton ships in Finland, Sweden and Italy. If you have ever been on a Carnival cruise the ships were most likely built by Elie Schalit’s company named the Colbert Group.
Apart from his own commercial interests in ship-building, he maintained a home in Spain with his wife Anna and became immersed in the history of Jewish Sefarad. At his own expense he collected memorabilia of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon) and in 1992 he mounted an exhibition that toured 5 cities in Spain that was intended to show the evidence that Colon was in fact of Anousim (Jewish converso) origin. This was opened in Madrid by the King and Queen of Spain, with whom Elie was friendly, and received wide spread international publicity. The exhibition was then also shown at the Maritime Museum in Haifa and is now owned by Netanya Academic College that intends to mount a permanent exhibition on this subject.
Before his death Eli Schalit was involved with a group of businessmen in planning a “floating” international airport to be built off the coast of Israel near Rishon Lezion. Elie Schalit had an amazing and fruitful life and dedicated himself absolutely to the State of Israel and the future survival of the Jewish people, his vision and dynamism will be missed.