Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The sinking of MV Struma - February 1942

On February 24, 1942, a ship was sunk in the Black Sea, just off the entrance to the Bosphorus straits. On the same day, nine other ships were sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, in what is known today as "the Battle of the Atlantic"--the German U-boat war against shipping to and from Britain. Other ships were sunk in the Pacific Ocean--three days later came the dramatic battles of Java sea, Sunda Straits and the Second Java Sea (all Allied defeats). The ship sunk in the Black Sea, the MV Struma, wasn't carrying supplies or troops – it was carrying Jewish refugees, escaping the "Final solution," the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe. The sinking of the Struma is regarded as one of the greatest maritime disasters of World War II, and the largest one with only civilian casualties (the three other major disasters: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Goya and the Armenia, also carried military personnel).
A photo of a ship believed to be The Struma (Wikipedia)
Struma was a river boat operating in the Danube River, and was built in 1867. It was converted to a livestock ferry sometime in the 20th century. It was a rickety ship in bad technical condition which became even worse after an unreliable engine was installed. The ship was purchased by the New (Revisionist) Zionist party in Rumania in the purpose of ferrying a group of immigrants (Olim) from Romania to British-mandated Palestine. A group of 300 Rumanian Jews registered for the trip, but the numbers swelled after the rise of the Anti-Jewish laws and persecutions in Romania and the filtering news of the killing of Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union. (Here's a report written to the Jerusalem District commissioner, probably by Moshe Sharett, the head of the Political department of the Jewish agency.)

The ship left Constanta port in Romania on December 11,1941, en route to Istanbul. It was assisted by a tug boat - a sign of its bad mechanical condition. Its engine broke down several times during the journey, and a trip that should have taken 14 hours took three days.  The Turkish authorities refused to allow the ship's passengers to disembark, despite the worsening conditions on the ship. There was an acute shortage in food and drinking water, despite help provided by the Jewish community of Istanbul. The passengers suffered from cold, filth and hunger. All that time, a frantic negotiation took place between the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee with the Turkish government and the British government (and the British Palestine government) trying to allow the passengers to land in Istanbul and reach Palestine. Both governments were resolved not to allow any of the Jews in the ship into Turkey or to Palestine. The British refused even to subtract the number of the Olim in the Struma from the overall number of Immigrants allowed under the limitations of the 1939 White Paper. At the same time, the British pressured the Turks to return the ship to Romania in order to block future immigration from the Balkans. Britain's High Commissioner in Palestine, Harold MacMichael, was especially adamant in his refusal to compromise on any offer of the Jewish Agency.

On February 23, 1942, after 10 weeks in Istanbul's harbor, the Turks had had enough. They forcibly towed the Struma outside of the harbor and into the Black Sea. Several hours later, in the early morning of February 24th, a Soviet submarine (later identified as the ShCh-213) launched a torpedo which blew the Struma out of the water. Her entire crew and all her passengers, save one, perished. The lone survivor, David Stoliar, was picked up by a Turkish fishing boat several hours later.
A map of the Bosporus straits. The number 2 represents the spot where the Struma was sunk (Wikipedia)
The sinking of the Struma caused a storm of protests and anger in the Jewish community in British mandated Palestine. In a letter to the chief secretary of the Palestine government, John Macpherson, Moshe Sharett blamed the British government for its discrimination against Jewish refugees while allowing the entrance of non-Jewish refugees without any limit, and demanded that Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter Palestine without limitation, since they were escaping persecution and murder. (The Israel State Archives used this letter in its publication Moshe Sharett – The Second Prime Minister, Selected Documents, 1894 – 1965.) The IZL – the National Military Organization (known as the "Irgun") underground published a "Wanted for Murder" poster with the picture of Macmichael on it (it tried to assassinate him in 1944) for his responsibility for the Struma disaster.

The Eichmann trial in 1961 revealed another side of the Struma disaster – the German side. In a letter to Eichmann's headquarters in Berlin, his representative in Romania, Richter, reported to him on his conversation with Mihai Antonescu, vice president and foreign minister of Romania, regarding the efforts of Jews to escape from Romania. Antonescu explained that he did not allow the Struma to leave Romania and her departure was approved by the head of the Siguranta, the Romanian secret police, who was sacked subsequently. The report notes that since the Turks were not willing to let the refugees enter Turkey, they would be sent back to Romania. (The letter shown here is a copy of the original letter in German. It's from the Israel's National Police Unit Bureau 06, which was responsible for preparing the police investigation, prior to the Eichmann trial in 1961.)

The Struma was another terrible chapter in efforts of Jews to escape from Europe during the Holocaust. It was another symbol of the helplessness and the trap in which the Jews of Europe found themselves. They could not escape their tormentors and pursuers and were not protected by the enemies of their enemies, which should have helped them, but instead sent them back to a certain death.