The Australian Jewish Times (January 29, 1987)

At the beginning of December 1942, the Romanian government, in an about-face, permitted Jews deported to Transnistria to emigrate to Palestine. Although the plan for large-scale emigration failed, 13 boats left Romania between 1939 and 1944 carrying 13,000 refugees. Two of the boats sank. One, carrying 769 passengers, was the Struma. This is the story of the sinking of the Struma, a tragedy that occurred 45 years ago next month.

The 762 people who drowned when the Struma sank off the coast of Turkey in February 1942 were victims of much more than an accident at sea.

The tragic fate of the ship carrying its passengers from certain death in Romania to hope in Palestine quickly faded from the headlines as even worse horrors befell the Jewish people.

Now, 45 years later, the cruel story of the sinking of the Struma chillingly demonstrates the isolation and helplessness that was the Jewish lot during World War II.

In actual fact, it was a Soviet torpedo that mistakenly scuttled the Struma, but in effect, it was Nazi and Romanian barbarity, British callousness, and Turkish indifference that conspired to kill the 762 innocents aboard the Struma.

Dr. Dalia Ofer, a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, describes the sinking of the Struma as an important episode that illustrates the ugliness of that era.

“The problem with the Holocaust,” she explains, “is that a statistic like six million dead is incomprehensible.

Recalling the fate of the relatively small number of people to perish along with the Struma, however, really brings to life the kind of misery and humiliation that the Jews suffered during this period.”

The Struma was the worst of many tragedies that struck Jews attempting to enter Palestine despite the British policy of limiting immigration.

The British maintained their blockade even though hundreds of thousands of Jews had nowhere to go and faced certain death if they remained in or returned to their native lands.

This was the plight of Romanian Jewry in 1941 when the regime of Vice Premier Mihai Antonescu joined the Nazis and attacked the Soviet Union.

The Romanians quickly recaptured the provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had been seized by the Soviets in 1939, and the 150,000 Jews living in those territories were immediately denounced as communist sympathizers — even though this was a largely Orthodox community without strong political views.

Many were sent to concentration camps, while others were transported to the isolated region of Transnistria where thousands perished of starvation and disease. More than half of the area’s 150,000 Jews died.

Many Romanian Jews sought to reach Palestine, and a corrupt Greek shipping agent called Pandalis exploited the situation. He advertised, in the Romanian newspapers, passage to Palestine aboard the Struma. Even at the exorbitant price of over $200 per ticket, he was inundated with requests for tickets and sold over 700 places.

Rumors soon became rife that the Struma was a rickety old vessel and not a modern cruiser as advertised. One group of wealthy passengers even paid for an inspector to visit the boat’s berth at the Black Sea port of Constanza, but Pandalis bribed him to fabricate his report. By the time that the 769 passengers had crammed aboard the Struma, it was clear that they had been conned. The ship was dilapidated, the conditions were not sanitary, and it was not clear how British immigration control would be evaded.

Yet nobody disembarked. They preferred the dream of a new life in Palestine to Nazi-dominated Romania. The Struma set sail in December 1941. It should have taken a day and a half to reach Istanbul, but due to engine malfunctions, the journey lasted a week.

At Istanbul, the Turkish authorities allowed the ship to anchor, but no passengers were allowed to disembark. For the next ten weeks, the Struma remained at anchor in Istanbul.

The British Ambassador in Turkey was sympathetic and felt that the refugees should be allowed into Palestine on humanitarian grounds.

He cabled London, but was sent a tart reply telling him that his views could not be reconciled with the policies of His Majesty’s Government.

As the Struma remained docked in Istanbul, the world’s media turned its attention to the plight of its passengers.

This generated much sympathy, especially in Britain, and at two cabinet meetings, Prime Minister Winston Churchill raised the issue and asked if something could be done to help the Struma.

Colonial Minister Lord Moyne was adamant that nothing could be done.

He zealously defended the British White Paper, which had limited Jewish immigration to Palestine on the grounds that vital Arab support for Britain’s war effort would be undermined.

Meanwhile, conditions aboard the Struma had become intolerable.

The weather was bitterly cold, though at least that prevented the spread of disease.

Food, which was provided by the Jewish community of Istanbul, was insufficient, and courts were set up to deal with people who pilfered food. Punishment for those found guilty included the reduction of rations.

In an effort to ease the plight of the passengers, the Jewish community of Istanbul generously offered to pay all the costs of a refugee camp within Turkey for those aboard the boat.

But on principle, the Turks refused, fearing they would set a precedent for a further flood of such refugees. The British cynically offered to allow the children to enter Palestine but were not prepared to transport them there.

On February 23, the Turks lost patience.

Without warning, the police descended on the port, untied the Struma’s ropes, and forced it to set sail. They did not even allow the ship to load up food and other vital stores.

During its ten weeks in Istanbul, only six people had disembarked.

Three were hospitalized with various illnesses, and three were granted visas to enter Palestine and traveled there overland.

The others remained incarcerated in what was to become their grave. The Struma, however, did not slide silently out of sight. The ship was seven miles out to sea when a loud explosion was heard. It was generally believed that a Nazi U-boat had torpedoed the vessel, but later evidence showed that a Soviet warship had misidentified the Struma as an enemy craft.

David Stolei was the only one to survive.

Being a strong swimmer, he was able to get back to shore. Stolei eventually reached Israel and lived there for many years, but when last heard from, he was living in Japan.

Public opinion in the West had not been able to save the people aboard the Struma, but there was a violent outcry about its fate.

Lord Moyne was forced out of the cabinet, became a diplomat in Cairo, and was assassinated by Lehi (Lohamei Herut Israel, an armed underground organization in Palestine) two years later for his continuing attempts to obstruct Jewish immigration to Palestine. “The British must take responsibility for what happened to the Struma,” asserts Ofer.

“However, it should be stressed that they were pursuing their legitimate strategic interests. The problem was that at that time, the Jewish people had nobody to look after their interests.

Forty-five years later, this is the most important lesson to be learned.”