A Struma memorial in Ashdod.
(photo credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The excesses of chutzpah never cease to amaze. A galling example was provided by Turkey’s purportedly big-hearted recent memorial for the 768 Jewish refugees (including 103 babies and children) who drowned off its coast on February 24, 1942, when WWII raged.
These refugees from Nazi horrors were packed like sardines on the unseaworthy Danube barge Struma which left the Rumanian port of Constanta heading “illegally” toward British-mandated Eretz Yisrael. It barely made it into Istanbul Harbor. It couldn’t continue. Its makeshift motor failed. There was no fuel, food or water.
Contrary to what was asserted at the ceremony, Turkey was hardly magnanimous.
Moreover, for the first time in 73 years, official Turkey saw fit to remember, but not to apologize – although it insisted on Israel’s apology for foiling the 2010 Mavi Marmara provocation. In its first-ever Struma commemoration, Ankara’s Foreign Ministry belatedly – almost three-quarters of a century late – “extended condolences to the victims’ relatives and to Turkish-Jewish citizens.”
The ministry averred that “Turkey always adopts a humane approach with respect to humanitarian tragedies that occur in its vicinity.” It was content to blame the Struma’s sinking on the Soviets, realizing full well that they only unknowingly delivered the coup de grace to the helpless refugees.
Turkey’s official line nowadays is that the Struma was only anchored in its waters “for a few days.” In fact, it was a 75-day (from December 12 to February 24) spectacle of apathy and inhumanity in which the Turkish role was most prominent.
Turkey was then supposedly neutral in WWII, but its much-ballyhooed nonalignment didn’t extend to Jewish refugees. The Arabs – who were openly and unreservedly Nazism’s avid collaborators – pressured London into denying endangered Jews asylum in the Jewish homeland and His Majesty’s government did precisely that.
Ankara adamantly refused to let anyone off the crippled vessel except for the handful who had British entry visas to Eretz Yisrael. Turkey’s premier argued that “Turkey cannot be expected to serve as a refuge or surrogate homeland for people unwanted anywhere else.”
Thus hundreds were imprisoned for two-and-a-half months in narrow, unventilated confines. A sign saying “Help!” was suspended over the Struma’s side.
The freezing below-decks reeked, but there wasn’t sufficient room above. Refugees took turns to climb up for a breath of air. There was not enough 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.
Eventually, Turkey 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, nonetheless, pitilessly ordered the condemned Struma tugged out to the Black Sea. Hundreds of truncheon-wielding Turkish policemen were dispatched to the ship on February 23. They viciously clubbed passengers below deck. Despite resistance from the refugees, the anchor was cut, the Struma was dragged out and was left paralyzed, to drift 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 Struma, which sank in minutes. It is 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. A lone survivor hung on, semi-conscious.
Why did Turkey only remember the Struma now? A pageant of ostensible solidarity was produced at a time when Turkey sides with the Jewish state’s most genocidal enemies and castigates Israel in what can only be described as anti-Semitic overtones, including outbursts from its viscerally anti-Israel President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
While we welcome any empathy with the Jewish people, we cannot but suspect that rather than voicing genuine remorse, Turkey’s memorial was a cynical ploy designed to disguise other sentiments.
For Israelis, more than anything, the Struma powerfully illustrates what happens when Jews rely on others’ goodwill.