Exactly 70 years ago – on February 24, 1942 – 19-year-old David Stoliar
terrifyingly clung to bobbing debris in the Black Sea. At first he heard screams
in the frigid waters but the voices died down. It eventually emerged that
Stoliar was the sole survivor of the Struma, an un-seaworthy vessel chuck-full of
frantic Jewish refugees.
World War II was already in fever pitch. Against
the enormity of the then-unfolding Holocaust, the loss at sea of 768 Jewish
lives (103 of them babies and children) was at most blithely overlooked as a
Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the
pedantic literal sense they weren’t executed by Third Reich
This atrocity was the coldblooded handiwork of Great Britain
(committed while it combated the Germans but remarkably without compassion for
their Jewish victims), supposedly neutral Turkey (whose so-called nonalignment
didn’t extend to outcast Jewish refugees), by the Arabs (who were openly and
unreservedly Nazism’s avid collaborators and who pressured London into denying
endangered Jews asylum in the Jewish homeland) and, finally, by the Russians
(who targeted the immobilized sardine can that carried Jews to whom nobody would
allow a toehold on terra firma).
The entire world seemed united in
signaling Jews how utterly unwanted they were anywhere.
apathy-cum-enmity hasn’t disappeared.
Only its form and context had
mutated but the essence is still ultra-relevant to the Jewish
We’re still threatened with annihilation. Nonetheless,
unmistakable harangues from Tehran notwithstanding, the international community
worries about an Israeli preemptive strike – not a genocidal strike against
To put it plainly, our fate today interests other nations just
about as much as the fate of the Struma’s Jews did back then, which (to resort
to understatement) was hardly much.
Today’s disingenuous post-Holocaust
lip-service is invariably accompanied by hand-wringing about lack of
foreknowledge of Germany’s fiendish plot to systematically exterminate the
defenseless Jewish people (unmistakable harangues from Berlin
What sets the Struma apart and imbues it with
extraordinary significance is that from December 16, 1941, until the afternoon
of February 23, 1942, its ordeal was played out before the entire watching but
unfeeling world. No country could deny awareness of the impending calamity and
yet all countries let it happen in full view.
The Struma, then a
115-year-old Danube cattle barge, was a pitiful peanut-shell of a boat packed
with nearly 800 refugees from Romania. Bound for the Land of Israel, they
desperately fled Hitler’s hell and the horrors of Bucharest’s fascist
Pogroms and ghastly atrocities had already sullied cities like
Iasi, where thousands of Jews were assembled in the market square and mowed down
with machine guns. Venerable old rabbis and Jewish community leaders were
impaled on meat hooks in town centers.
THE STRUMA wasn’t struck suddenly.
It was slowly tortured, accentuating with demonic deliberation how disposable
Jews were, just when genocide’s monstrous machinery was switched into high gear.
This 75-day shipboard melodrama underscored the total helplessness and
humiliation of Jews without power.
Struma passengers gathered in the
Romanian port of Constanza on December 8, 1941. For four days, Romanian customs
officials “examined” their belongings. In fact, they pilfered all they saw –
clothing, underwear, jewelry and most important, food. The immigrants left on
the perilous journey bereft of provisions and medications. But the Struma did
carry 30 doctors, 10 engineers and 15 lawyers.
On December 12, the
rickety vessel chugged out to sea. After four hair-raising days (instead of the
routine 14 hours) the Struma unsteadily dragged itself into Istanbul Harbor. It
couldn’t continue. Its makeshift motor had sputtered its last. There was no
fuel, food or water.
Several passengers held valid entry visas into
pre-independent Israel. All others were “illegals.”
The hope, though, was
that once in Turkey, they’d all be allowed to proceed to their
After all, with Europe in the throes of war, thousands of
Jewish immigration certificates (British Mandate permits) remained
But the British authorities refused unequivocally.
Arabs raged and rallied against giving haven to Jewish refugees. Eager to
appease pro- Nazi Arab opinion, Britain chillingly declared that under no
circumstance could the Struma’s human cargo set foot in Eretz
Furthermore, Britain pressured Turkey not to let anyone off the
crippled boat at its end either.
Obligingly, the Turkish premier argued
that “Turkey cannot be expected to serve as a refuge or surrogate homeland for
people unwanted anywhere else.”
Thus hundreds were imprisoned in narrow,
unventilated confines. A sign saying “Help!” was suspended over the Struma’s
side. One of the visa-holders, who after weeks was allowed ashore, described the
boat as a “floating coffin.”
The freezing hull below reeked, but there
wasn’t sufficient room on deck. Refugees took turns to climb up for a breath of
air. There was no sleeping space for all, no infirmary, no galley, no bathing or
sanitary facilities. Minimal food rations, provided by local Jews, were smuggled
aboard after enough Turkish palms were greased.
An official Jewish Agency
appeal, forwarded to the British on January 19, 1942, stressed that the Struma
transported refugees escaping the most tangible threat of massacre. The
Mandatory authorities didn’t even dignify the Jewish Agency with a
On the next day, the Struma’s 35th in Istanbul, the Wannsee
Conference opened in suburban Berlin to formally decide on “the final solution
for the Jewish problem.” Hitler surely hadn’t overlooked this latest
demonstration of utter callousness toward hapless Jews.
didn’t bother to answer ensuing emotional Jewish Agency entreaties on January 30
and February 10. Then they acquiesced to the entry of four visa-holders, who
only at this point were permitted to disembark. More news of the dreadful
conditions on the Struma now came out.
The new British line was that the
Struma’s refugees were suspect Nazi agents because they came from enemy
territory. The assertion that the Germans’ most hideously persecuted victims
were their tormenters’ spies was labeled “Satanic” in embryonic
In a very long February 13 communication to the Mandatory
government, the Agency noted that Britain was helping with much fanfare to
resettle in the Mideast thousands of non-Jews – Greeks, Yugoslavs, Poles and
Czechs – all of whom came from German-controlled areas.
More than any of
them, Jews had reason to be loyal to the Allies.
On February 15, the
British announced they’d make an exception in the case of Struma children aged
11 to 16. Wartime rationing was cited as the pretext for barring younger or
The Jewish Agency guaranteed maintenance for all 103 underage
Struma captives. In the end no child was freed.
Meanwhile, Turkey, egged
on and emboldened by Britain, threatened to tow the floundering deathtrap beyond
its territorial waters.
The Jewish Agency warned that “the boat is in
total state of disrepair and without life-saving equipment. Any sea-journey for
this vessel cannot but end in disaster.”
The Turkish government, however,
pitilessly ordered the condemned Struma tugged out to the Black Sea. Hundreds of
truncheon-wielding Turkish policemen were dispatched to the Struma on February
23. They viciously clubbed passengers below deck. Despite resistance from the
refugees, the anchor was cut, the Struma was towed out and was left paralyzed,
to drift precariously without supplies or a drop of fuel.
On February 24,
an explosion ripped it apart.
A Soviet submarine, Shchuka-213, patrolled
northeast of the Bosporus. Stalking Axis craft, it torpedoed the wobbly barge,
which sank in minutes. It’s estimated that as many as 500 were killed outright
by the blast. The rest flapped feebly in the waves, till they expired of wounds,
fatigue and hypothermia. Stoliar alone hung on, semi-conscious.
pre-state Israel there was shock and grief.
Demonstrations were mounted.
For one day all work and commerce were halted and the population imposed a
voluntary protest curfew on itself. Posters appeared on exterior walls
everywhere bearing British High Commissioner Harold MacMichael’s photo and
announcing that he was “Wanted for Murder.”
The Struma’s heartrending end
marked the effective end to most attempts to break Britain’s anti-Jewish
blockade until the conclusion of WWII. A few fishing and sporting sailboats
briefly tried to ferry handfuls of refugees. Some of them were sunk. Europe’s
Jews had no escape left. Embattled Britain took time out from the war to make
sure of it.
Stoliar was imprisoned by the Turks for six weeks for the
crime of not drowning. He was finally allowed into Mandated Palestine despite
MacMichael’s warnings that “this would open the floodgates” and “completely
undermine our whole policy regarding illegal immigrants.”
Today, to most
Israelis, Struma is a curious street name in a few towns. Israeli school
children barely encounter its esoteric story. Politically correct authors and
trendy leftwing filmmakers shun the subject, preferring postmodern portrayals of
Arab terrorists as Zionism’s prey.
Oblivion is perhaps the greatest sin
against the Struma but also against ourselves. If we forget the Struma, we
forget why this country exists, why we struggle for its survival. We forget the
justice of our cause.
Dimmed memory and self-destructive perverse
morality hinder our ability to protect ourselves from the offspring and
torchbearers of the very Arabs who doomed the Struma. They haven’t amended their
hostile agenda. We just don’t care to be reminded.
The state the Jews
created is threatened with destruction and its population with
Yet there’s negligible sympathy for Israel and even less
practical support to avert tragedy. The Struma’s story is seminal in
understanding why the Holocaust was possible and why a second Holocaust cannot
be ruled out. More than anything, the Struma powerfully illustrates what happens
when Jews rely on others’ goodwill.