Businessman and Philanthropist

Robert Sylk La Quinta City Mayoral Candidacy  


Robert Sylk credits much of his character and zest for life to his father, who he describes as being "one hell of a guy." Harry Sylk opened his first drug store in 1929 when he was in his mid-20s. Over 40 years, he built Sun Ray Drugs into a 400-store chain in six states. Says Robert of the early days, "My father taught me to treat everyone right. He firmly believed that every person deserved respect and that every success came with responsibility to one's community."

Throughout a colorful business career, Harry Sylk maintained businesses in the Caribbean, lived for a time in Cuba, owned the Philadelphia Eagles, and son Robert sported a pair of cufflinks given to him by Meyer Lansky, the so-called "Mogul of the Mob." While Sylk was a legitimate businessman and Lansky was a member of the Syndicate, they shared at least one thing in common - a passion to see Israel achieve independent rule and become sanctioned by the United Nations.

Harry Sylk was named president of the Jewish National Fund in the mid 1940s and became involved with fundraising and international diplomacy, often convening with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower on the Israeli statehood issue. When Israel needed water to use as a bargaining chip in a peace treaty with Jordan, Robert's brother Leonard Sylk was instrumental in building one of the largest reservoirs south of the Sea of Galilee. The Sylk Family was honored in 1995 by the Jewish National Fund with the Price of Peace - Water for Life tribute, presented by Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

As Robert Sylk recalls fondly, "Once I came home from school to find Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in our kitchen chatting with my father. Another time, I went along for the ride to Albert Einstein's house in Princeton where my father and Mr. Einstein called the President to discuss some sensitive national security matters."

In fact, those visits with distinguished dignitaries were a part of history. Harry Sylk is credited with purchasing the ship that launched a nation, the Exodus 1947, was memorialized in the 1960 movie "Exodus," starring Paul Newman as an Israeli resistance fighter who brings 4558 European Jews from British-blockaded Cyprus into newly partitioned Palestine after World War II.


Robert's parents Harry and
Gertrude at the Sylk estate in Lower Merion, PA.

President Harry Truman with Harry Sylk.

Robert's dad with Marylin Monroe.

Harry and Gert with Bob Hope in the early years.

The Exodus, 1947, The Ship that Launched a Nation, was purchased by the Sylk family for the Israeli government.
Harry and William Sylk with Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion.

Robert's sister Norma and her husband Larry in Israel in front of the Reservoir Complex named for Harry S. Sylk.
June 9, 1959: Robert, Harry and Gertrude Sylk with General Weizmann (son of Chaim Weizmann) of the Israeli Army at their home in Philadelphia.

Harry Sylk with President Eisenhower
Harry Sylk receiving award from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir

Robert F. Svlk's Exodus Speech to Hadassah 2010,
Jewish Community School 2011,
Stand up for Israel Night 2011
with Glenn Beck and Mayor of Jerusalem,
The Jupina Home 2012 and The Jewish School 2012,
Jewish National Fund (JNF) Movie Night 2015
Tolerance Center Palm Desert, CA January 2016 filming for YouTube
Tolerance Center Palm Desert, CA May and June 2019 (Sold Out 500+ people)

The Exodus, the movie, directed by Otto Preminger, was adapted from the 1958 book by Leon Uris, who was inspired by the 1948 book by Ruth Gruber. The official 1947 statement from the Israeli Government was that the Exodus was acquired through a ’top secret ‘ intermediary. This is the story of that intermediary.

Ladies and Gentlemen, “Boys and Girls”, over 6500 plus years ago, an ember was lit and that flame of freedom is still inside of us. 6500 years ago in Sumaria and Judea where a drop of water meant life or no life and where today it means the same.

lsrael has always been a land of sand. lt was 6500 years ago and it is today if not for water. I remember being in lsrael on one of the 15 trips there in 1946 and 1947 and looking down a long road and on this side was green grass and on this side was sand, and you knew that this side was lsrael and this side was not. I stand before you today as I again remind myself of those turbulent days after WWll.Coming home from school one day in 1946 I found Golda Meir in our kitchen telling my father that he has to go to Haifa to meet with Ben Gurion the Prime Minister of lsrael.

Coming home from school one day in 1946 I found Golda Meir in our kitchen telling my father that he has to go to Haifa to meet with Ben Gurion the Prime Minister of lsrael.

Certificate from Consul General of Israel
Los Angeles CA

She said to me, "Robert, if you want something said ask a man, but if you want something done, ask a woman." We left that week and we stayed at the Maggido Hotel in the Port of Haifa looking over the harbor. I remember my father telling me that "the lsraeli's live on the sunrise side not the sunset side. lt's the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that is gone." Ben Gurion said, "Harry, we need $500,000, which would be in 2012 $$'s, about $10 Million + to purchase and refit 10 vessels to break the British blockade to bring the dedicated and struggling immigrants to lsrael. The first of these ships is to be named The Exodus." He said Mr. Prime Minister, we will purchase the vessels and the money for the crews and repairs, docking fees, etc. will be sent to you in the usual manner and that's how we got Paul Newman to lsrael by promising him an ocean cruise.

On that visit in August 1946, Ben Gurion said "before you have a country, you have to have people." We need people not only to populate our country but to populate our armies for the wars yet to be fought. ln fact at dinner that night, David Ben Gurion's wife Paula told me that a war was inevitable but that the war would last less than 2 weeks because she said "her son joined the army and he has never held a job more than 2 weeks in his life" and she was right.

We knew this was to be a total commitment (Cow and Chicken story) The Cow and the Chicken decided to open a restaurant together and call it “Steak and Eggs”. Etc……The cow says for you it’s an everyday thing but for me it’s a total commitment. When we returned to America and Philadelphia, my father was on the telephones constantly for days and the following week, in September 1946, we got on the train to Baltimore and were taken to this ship. We walked up the gang plank and boarded, we spoke with some men and about 2 hours later were back at the railroad station going home. I stood on the deck of the Exodus before it was the Exodus. Purchased by the Sylk family as war surplus and in a clandestine effort she was outfitted in Baltimore as part of a secret fleet to transport holocaust survivors through the British blockade against Jewish immigration to the land of lsrael. The ship was formally the packet steamer SS President Warfield, named for the president of the shipping line carrying passengers and freight between Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland in the United States, from the ships launch in 1928 until 1942. During WWII, it served both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy as the USS President Warfield. In 1942 it was attacked by a German submarine west of lreland on September 25,1942. The ship evaded one German submarine’s torpedos’ and reached Belfast safely.

It joined the U.S. Navy on May 21,1944 and served at Omaha Beach at Normandy. lt finally arrived in Virginia in July 1945 and left active navy service September 13. lt left the U.S. Navy registry on October 11, and returned to the War Shipping Administration (WSA) on November 14, 1945. But this ship was to take part in one more event which ensured its place in history. On November 9, 1946, the Sylk family under the name of the Potomac Ship Wrecking Company of Washington D.C. who were acting as an agent of the Jewish political group Haganah purchased the ship. The ship ended up with the Mossad-the underground Jewish organization in Palestine intent on helping underground Jewish immigrants enter Palestine. lt was renamed Exodus after the biblical Jewish Exodus from Egypt to Canaan.

Following WW ll, many holocaust survivors were unable or unwilling to return to their native countries and were living in displaced person camps scattered throughout Europe. Many wanted to immigrate to Palestine, then under British rule but British policies prohibited that. Jewish organizations aimed to draw international attention to the refugees' plight by staging a mass illegal immigration to Palestine in July 1947 when delegates of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine would be on a fact finding visit to the region. The Mosad based in Palestine and France oversaw this operation. The Exodus left Baltimore February 25, 1947 and headed for the Mediterranean port of Sete France.

During this time my father asked me to get into his car with his brother Bill and we drove to Princeton New Jersey to speak with Albert Einstein. We arrived at this ivy covered building with FBI men in suits and ties near all the entrance ways. Inside we were escorted to a large room with black boards on all the walls with equations and formulas written in chalk. Mr. Einstein welcomed us and picked up the phone and made a call. He said "He will call us back". While we were waiting there was small talk and in the middle of a sentence Mr. Einstein would stand up and erase a number and write in its place. He did this two times on different blackboards and a few moments later the phone rang and he answered it and said "Yes, he is standing next to me" and handed the phone to my father. My father said" Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Yes Sir and Thank you and good-bye and hung up. We left and driving off the campus they both let out a big hooray. The man on the phone was President Harry Truman who confirmed to my father that the US Navy would be near-by our ship to make sure its voyage would be relatively safe. Later we found out that on the blackboards were some of the formulas for the Hydrogen Bomb.

We flew to Haifa on July 15, 1947 and waited for its arrival. With Palmach (Haganah's Military Wing) it sailed as the Exodus with 4515 passengers and 43 crew including 655 children from the port of Sete France on July 11, 1947 and arrived at Palestine shores 7 days later on July 18. The waters were tumbling and the ship sheared as the bow cut through the dark Mediterranean night. The old ship, dangerously overcrowded with human cargo, had left Sete as the President Warfield. In the night, she was given her new name. It was not a name chosen by the crew or the passengers but by the Command of the Haganah. In the morning light, her name, her flag, her hoped for destination, became clear. The Exodus carrying 4558 people on a ship meant for 400 pushed eastward, shadowed by 6 British Destroyers and the light cruiser Ajax; a battle fleet against the Jews. The Ajax had earned famed in recent WWII. She helped sink the German Battleship, the Graf Spree. Now, she followed an unarmed, aging, derelict of the Chesapeake Bay. The British high command’s orders to the British battle fleet-stop the Jews. The British Royal Navy rammed the ship in the dead of night a few miles from shore in international waters where the Royal Navy had no jurisdiction. Two passengers and one of the crew died and 30 others were injured before the ship was taken over. During the struggle the new ship's name, Exodus 1947 was proclaimed to the world. The ship was towed to Haifa where the immigrants disembarked.

As reported by Ruth Gruber the only American journalist at the scene. "The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off; the lifesaving rafts were dangling all crazy angles."

The 4,500 Jewish refugees were unloaded from the tattered ship. They were separated from their few belongings and days later placed on three ships (one hospital ship; two prison ships). We went to the Exodus but were not allowed to board but I reached out and touched it with my left hand. Seeing the heroic determination of those passengers disembarking and the condition of the Exodus in Haifa Harbor to this day haunts me still. Built to carry only 400 passengers and a crew of 58, the ship had escaped from a French port on July 11, with more than 4,500 Jewish refugees aboard. ln the July 18 battle underground members evaded capture by going to hiding places aboard ship. After the Exodus docked at Haifa, a work detail of Jews came aboard at Haifa to clean the filthy vessel, and dozens of the Mosad walked off among them. These refugees were supposed to go to the British camp for captured refugees (those caught while trying to illegally enter Palestine) on Cyprus. Cyprus was a twentieth-century purgatory, a hot hell of desert sand and wind blowing against tents and tin huts, a hell circumscribed by two walls of 4 barbed wire whose architecture had come out of Dachau and Treblinka, a hell which privacy was unknown. The three ships were sent on August 22nd , 1947 by the British to Hamburg, Germany. For those on board, going back to the same concentration camps, to the same German Guards, and to the country that had murdered their families was an outrage. Here, the refugees were forced off the ships and taken to prison camps in the British occupation zone of Germany. The Exodus incident played an important role in fostering public awareness and support for the creation of the State of lsrael. lnternational outrage at the refugee's treatment at the hands of the British resulted in an outpouring of empathy. All of the passengers of the Exodus eventually made their way back that year and settled in lsrael.

The bravery of the Exodus passengers and crew may well have hastened the end of British rule here, as a result of the international attention and anti-British feeling which this series of events generated. This highly publicized international incident heavily influenced the United Nations resolution authorizing the partitioning of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Thus, the Exodus 1947 voyage acted as the catalyst in the forming of a new nation. The secret American involvement focused on clandestine and illegal American Jewish efforts led by my father, Harry Sylk, to finance and crew the most infamous of the ten American ships that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine, events that shaped world history to this day. Between 1947 and 1948 volunteers from the United States and Canada acquired, equipped and manned the other ships which carried over 40,000 refugees through the British blockade.

The Exodus itself, battered and abandoned, burned and sank in Haifa harbor in 1952. After the history making voyage, the ship was tied up in Haifa harbor and forgotten. This ship that opened the doors and created the State of lsrael in 1948 which brought massive immigration of European Jewish refugees from displaced persons camps into lsrael. 700,000 Jews arrived that year in the new State. There was little time and money to focus on the meaning of the Exodus. ln 1950, the Mayor of Haifa proposed that the ship that launched a nation should be restored and converted into a floating museum. During the process of restoring the ship that had been left decaying in the harbor a mysterious accident occurred and the Exodus burned to the water line. The hulk was towed and scuttled north of the Kishon River near Shemen Beach. ln 1964 an effort was made to raise her iron hull. The effort failed and she sank once again. ln 1974, again an effort was made to raise the remains of the Exodus. The remains were refloated and being towed toward the Kishon River when she sank again. Without fanfare or ceremony the City of Haifa built its modern ship extensions on top of the remains of the Exodus. The area where the remains of the Exodus are buried today is a "holy" security zone and is not accessible. Historical markers and plaques exist for the Exodus in Southern France, Germany, ltaly, and in Baltimore harbor in the United States. There are no memorials or markers in lsrael.

This is our long train of history-As our present continues to reconnect to our past. Ladies and gentlemen, when I am old and gray and the lights start to dim I will think again of those golden days and I will remember this journey and I will remember all of you. God Bless America and God Bless lsrael and thank you.

Robert F. Sylk


Jewish National Fund
invites you to a screening of

The Israel Liberation Medal Presented in 1948 Tel Aviv to those few who made a difference - The Sylk Family and Harry S. Sylk by Ben Gurion and The Israeli Government.

Robert giving Exodus Presentation at
The Tolerance Center January 12, 2016 to sold out audience.
My mother Gertrude was promoted from Major to Colonel to Brigadier General in the Civilian Corps and received a medal and awards from President Roosevelt. She was in charge of all the USO's in Greater Philadelphia during WWII from 1941 thru 1946.  She also served as Hadassah Chairwoman and Co-Chairwoman. She was raising money for Hadassah for the War effort as my Father was for Israel. I have so many more newspaper clippings of Hadassah during those turbulent days and I think these two you would like.