Jewish WWII refugees can still teach a lesson on genocide - opinion

Genocide is still a reality and, as long as we turn a blind eye to human suffering and oppression, it will never go away.

 AN ISRAELI FLAG is raised by relatives of the ‘Struma’ victims during a memorial service off the coast of Istanbul in 2000 (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI FLAG is raised by relatives of the ‘Struma’ victims during a memorial service off the coast of Istanbul in 2000
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Voyage of the Damned, chronicling the tragedy of the German-Jewish refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis before World War II, is a 1976 film based on the nonfiction book of the same title written by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts (published in 1974).

Half a year after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom throughout the Greater Reich, a boatload of more than 900 Jews from Germany escaped the Third Reich and arrived on the shores of Cuba. Almost all the passengers held Cuban visas but the new island government refused them entry. The St. Louis refugees were unsuccessful at bribing the Cuban government. The ship was forced to leave Havana.

The liner attempted to land in Florida but the US Coast Guard fired warning shots. The fate of the refugees was sealed. What remains a stain on America was the turning away of the St. Louis, forced to return to Europe. The denied refugees were resettled in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Only Britain escaped the Nazi vise.

There are debates about how many refugees were on board and how many refugees survived the war. This issue still remains a matter of debate. The best estimate is that 365 of the 620 passengers who returned to Continental Europe survived the war. Of the 288 passengers sent to Britain, the vast majority were alive at the end of WWII.

The tragedy of the St. Louis deserves the attention it has received, especially considering president FDR’s refusal to admit the Jews to the United States. But another “voyage of the damned,” long forgotten, is that of the Struma, an overloaded ship crammed with Jewish refugees that sunk off the coast of Turkey in February 1942. The Struma left one survivor. It faced a worse fate than being forced to return to Europe.

 GAZING AT the carnage of  Kristallnacht, November 1938. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) GAZING AT the carnage of Kristallnacht, November 1938. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Martin Gilbert writes, “Beyond the area on Nazi control, the precarious fate of those who had succeeded in escaping was cruelly demonstrated when a small cattle boat, the Struma, was torpedoed in the Black Sea.”

On board this rickety refuge were 767 Jews fleeing Hitler, among them 70 children and 260 women. The boat left the Romanian port of Constanta on its journey to the Land of Israel. The European Jews were desperate. The war began and the struggle was to escape mass murder. It was February 1942 and there still was a chance to survive, although the Germans already murdered more than a million Jews.

There are parallels with the St. Louis and the Struma. When the Struma reached Istanbul the boat was halted for two months, as was the ocean liner for a shorter time, when it reached Cuba. Under pressure from the British government, the Turks would not allow the Struma to proceed on its voyage to the Mandate.

Historian Howard M. Sachar writes, “Fearful of angering either the Germans or the British, [Turkish president Ismet] Inonu and his colleagues required all refugees to possess official entry papers to Palestine, and Syrian transit documents, before being admitted. Few Jews did.” Unlike the St. Louis, the Struma’s engine was malfunctioning and its hull leaking – it certainly was no ocean liner.

The Turks allowed a pregnant woman to depart – she was permitted to leave the ship. But the Turks refused to relent, despite being neutral in the conflict, although they considered allowing children to settle in Palestine. But even the plight of children did not dissuade them. They ordered the Struma to turn back into the Black Sea. Despite the pleas of Jewish organizations, the Turks remained obstinate. They ordered the Struma to weigh anchor. Five miles out at sea, the vessel was destroyed. According to historian Gilbert, “On the night of February 24 it was sunk.”

For 36 years the last moments of the Struma were a mystery. Did the leaders of illegal aliyah plant an explosive to cripple the ship and force it to be towed to its destination? Did the British navy torpedo the ship to prevent immigration? The Struma flew the flag of Bulgaria, a nation at war with Russia. Finally, the Soviets proudly announced that they sunk the Struma. 

Gilbert writes, “The history added: ‘Sergeant Major V.D. Chernov, Unit Commander Sergeant G.G. Nosov, and the Torpedo Operator Red Navy man I.M. Filatov, demonstrated exemplary courage in the action.’” 

Although the history of the St. Louis and the Struma are years apart – and the German-Jewish refugees of the St. Louis were on an ocean liner and the refugees of the Struma were packed desperately in horrid conditions – the indifference of the world toward their plight is an aspect they share. In the end, Jews were not worth saving, and politics and economics trumped morality.

I am afraid we have not learned the lesson of these vessels. Genocide is still a reality and, as long as we turn a blind eye to human suffering and oppression, it will never go away.

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.