Today is the 75th anniversary of a tragic event that took place during World War II, involving 769 Jews who perished in a ramshackle ship called Struma while escaping from Romania.
The woeful circumstances that surrounded this event were a grim global war, clumsy diplomatic maneuvers conducted by the British to keep the Jews away from Palestine, and also a hypocritical international politics. Jews all over Europe were desperately trapped in this chaos relentlessly haunted by a pathological Nazi hatred.
World War II was already in fever pitch. Against the enormity of the then-unfolding Holocaust, the loss at sea of 781Jewish lives (103 of them babies and children) was at most blithely overlooked as a marginal annotation.Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the pedantic literal sense they weren’t executed by Third Reich henchmen.
The Struma disaster was the sinking on 24 February 1942 of a ship, MV Struma, that had been trying to take several hundred Jewish refugees from Axis-allied Romania to Mandatory Palestine. She was a small iron-hulled ship of only 240 GRT that had been built in 1867 as a steam-powered schooner[but had recently been re-engined with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine.Struma was only 148.4 ft (45 m) long, had a beam of only 19.3 ft (6 m) and a draught of only 9.9 ft (3 m) but an estimated 781 refugees and 10 crew were crammed into her.
Struma‘s diesel engine failed several times between her departure from Constanţa on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941 and her arrival in Istanbul on 15 December. She had to be towed by a tug both to leave Constanţa and to enter Istanbul. On 23 February 1942, with her engine still inoperable and her refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed Struma from Istanbul through the Bosphorus out to the coast of Şile in North Istanbul. Within hours, in the morning of 24 February, the Soviet submarine Shch-213 torpedoed her, killing an estimated 781 refugees plus 10 crew, making it the Black Sea’s largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II.
Until recently the number of victims had been estimated at 768, but the current figure is the result of a recent study of six different passenger lists.Only one person aboard, 19-year-old David Stoliar, survived (he died in 2014).
Struma had been built as a luxury yacht,but was 74 years old and in the 1930s had been relegated to carrying cattle on the River Danube under the Panamanian flag of convenience.
Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship.The exact number is not certain, but a collation of six separate lists produced a total of 791 passengers and 10 crew.Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas. Ion Antonescu’s Romanian government approved of the voyage.
Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage.Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees’ valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them.
The passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. Below decks, Struma had dormitories with bunks for 40 to 120 people in each. The berths were bunks on which passengers were to sleep four abreast, with 60 centimetres (2 ft) width for each person.
On the day of her sailing Struma‘s engine failed so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa. The waters off Constanţa were mined, so a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield. She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine. She transmitted distress signals and on 13 December the Romanian tug returned.The tug’s crew said they would not repair Struma‘s engine unless they were paid.The refugees had no money after buying their tickets and leaving Romania, so they gave all their wedding rings to the tugboatmen, who then repaired the engine.Struma then got under way but by 15 December her engine had failed again so she was towed into Istanbul in Turkey.(Last letter from a Struma passenger to his son, while confined aboard ship in Istanbul harbor)
There she remained at anchor while British diplomats and Turkish officials negotiated over the fate of the passengers. Because of Arab and Zionist unrest in Palestine, Britain was determined to apply the terms of the White Paper of 1939 to minimiZe Jewish immigration to Palestine.
British diplomats urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent Struma from continuing her voyage.
Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. While detained in Istanbul, Struma ran short of food. Soup was cooked twice a week and supper was typically an orange and some peanuts for each person. At night each child was issued a serving of milk.
After weeks of negotiation, the British agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue to Palestine overland. One woman, Madeea Solomonovici, was admitted to an Istanbul hospital after miscarrying. On 12 February British officials agreed that children aged 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas.The United Kingdom declined to send a ship, while Turkey refused to allow them to travel overland. According to some researchers, a total of 9 passengers disembarked while the remaining 782 and 10 crew stayed on the ship. Others believe that there had only been 782 passengers initially, just Madeea Solomonovici being allowed to leave the ship.
Negotiations between Turkey and Britain seemed to reach an impasse. On 23 February 1942 a small party of Turkish police tried to board the ship but the refugees would not let them aboard.Then a larger force of about 80 police came, surrounded Struma with motor boats, and after about half an hour of resistance got aboard the ship. The police detached Struma‘s anchor and attached her to a tug, which towed her through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea.As she was towed along the Bosphorus, many passengers hung signs over the sides that read “SAVE US” in English and Hebrew, visible to those who lived on the banks of the strait.
Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start. The Turkish authorities abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, about 10 miles north of the Bosphorus, where she drifted helplessly.
On the morning of 24 February there was a huge explosion and the ship sank. Many years later it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by the Shchuka-class Soviet submarine Shch-213, that had also sunk the Turkish vessel Çankaya the evening before.
Struma sank quickly and many people were trapped below decks and drowned. Many others aboard survived the sinking and clung to pieces of wreckage, but for hours no rescue came and all but one of them died from drowning or hypothermia. Of the estimated 791 people killed, more than 100 were children.Struma‘s First Officer Lazar Dikof and the 19-year-old refugee David Stoliar clung to a cabin door that was floating in the sea.The First Officer died overnight but Turks in a rowing boat rescued Stoliar the next day. He was the only survivor. Turkey held Stoliar in custody for many weeks but released him after Britain gave him papers to go to Palestine.
On 9 June 1942, Lord Wedgwood opened the debate in the British House of Lords by alleging that Britain had reneged on its commitments and urging that the League of Nations mandate over Palestine be transferred to the USA. He stated with bitterness: “I hope yet to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler”. Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, serving in the British army at the time, wrote a scathing poem, mourning the loss and betrayal of Struma. Having volunteered in the British army to fight the Nazis, he now called the British khaki he wore a “badge of shame.”
For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered that Shch-213 had fired a torpedo that sank the ship.Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources.The submarine had been acting under secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping entering the Black Sea to reduce the flow of strategic materials to Nazi Germany.
Harold Alfred MacMichael High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine was blamed for sending at least 768 Jewish refugees aboard MV Struma to their deaths. The Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine, whom the British called terrorists, pasted posters bearing his portrait everywhere in the country saying he was wanted for murder.
Walter Edward Guinness was regarded as one of the architects of Britain’s strict immigration policy, and to have been responsible for the British hand in the Struma disaster,which followed a refusal to grant visas to Palestine for its Jewish refugee passengers.
Israeli politics still refers to the Struma disaster. On 26 January 2005 Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Knesset:
The leadership of the British Mandate displayed… obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates to Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus were rejected the requests of the 769 [sic] passengers of the ship Struma who escaped from Europe – and all but one [of the passengers] found their death at sea. Throughout the war, nothing was done to stop the annihilation [of the Jewish people