Another Tack: Lessons from the floating coffin

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 marginal annotation.

Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the pedantic literal sense they weren’t executed by Third Reich henchmen.

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.

Such apathy-cum-enmity hasn’t disappeared. Only its form and context had mutated but the essence is still ultra-relevant to the Jewish state. 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 Israel.

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 notwithstanding).

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 regime. 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 destination. After all, with Europe in the throes of war, thousands of Jewish immigration certificates (British Mandate permits) remained unutilized.

But the British authorities refused unequivocally. The 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 Yisrael.

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 reply.

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.

The British 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 Israel.

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 older kids. 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.

In 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 Mac Michael’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 Mac Michael’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 obliteration. 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.

29 thoughts on “Another Tack: Lessons from the floating coffin

  1. A timely reminder of the world’s hatred of anything and everyone the Lord Almighty has chosen. The prophet Zechariah reveals what the end will be. see Ch. 12 and 14. Only God can, and will save the Jewish people. Meanwhile may the IDF have courage, strength and wisdom. As a UK citizen, I am deeply ashamed of much of our history. An apology is inadequate, none the less it is given with all my heart. Dick Worth.

  2. The story of the Struma has haunted me my entire life. And I have always been filled with an aching despair that almost no Jews in the world are aware of the details of this tragedy. And naturally most non Jews never heard the name “Struma” and couldn’t care less.

    It has always amazed me that Jews and Jewish organizations worldwide have never seen fit to make a powerful full length blockbuster film (similar to “Exodus”), with the biggest name actors available, to tell the story of the fate of the Struma and its hundreds of victims- who were so desperate to make it to safety and Life.

    Such a film needs to be made and the voices of the dead, including over a hundred children, who went down with the Struma, literally cry out from the grave that their story be told. The fact that such a film has not been made is a despicable black stain on the world’s most powerful and financially viable Jewish Foundations that will remain forever. To my most recent knowledge the lone survivor is still alive and could introduce the story at the beginning or be shown at the conclusion of the movie. Even a close up of his face looking out to sea would be sufficient to convey his, and our, never ending pain.

    A worldwide campaign should be initiated to ensure a movie about the tragedy of the sinking of the Struma be made. The fact that it has not been made to date is in a very real sense another embodiment of the “EightyFirst Blow”. A continuing tragedy piled upon the original tragedy.

    David Pakter

  3. Sarah’s account is chilling and harrowing in its description of the callousness with which Mandatory administrators reeled off letter-of-the-law justification for their de-facto death sentence of the Jewish refugees on the Struma. The connection to today’s reality is of course pertinent: that Israel is being asked to show restraint in the face of Iran’s weapons development is no surprise, these are simply new words being sung to the same very old tune from the international community’s hymnbook. However, the absence of historical events like the Struma in the Israeli education curriculum is truly disturbing. Israel is a democracy and of course citizens are free to espouse a left-leaning outlook if they desire, but doing so from a place of ignorance is dangerous and unconscionable. John F Kennedy’s observation that ‘the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all’ seems to have been tailor-made for Israel.

  4. The imitation leaders of Israel have long ago become servile and submitted to the green light ‘permission’ to defend fellow Jews from the same evil forces.
    Somewhere along the line the well understood statement ‘Never Again’ became ‘Never Learn’.
    Modern day Israel’s greatest sin was to think the world had changed and that following the US agenda would bring peace and security.

  5. “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.” – A nation’s history is its soul. The French – amazingly for our information-open time – had managed to falsify their WWII full-scale collaboration with the German occupiers, presenting it as a nearly hundred per cent La Résistance française, until very recently when a few brave reporters dared to break the unannounced but powerful taboo. The honour of national history was at stake. Turkey, in its own, much cruder (not to say primitive) way denies its slaughter of the Armenian people threatening all and sundry with its wrath should they question its own version of its past. The post-Thatcher Britain and post-Reagan America are rapidly going down because they’ve allowed Marxist historians and media to blacken their history. The history of the people of Israel is tragic but noble; if they allow cynical and corrupt ideologues to turn it inside out, the results may be the sinking of the Struma on an apocalyptic scale.

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  7. Sara, god bless you for so eloquently bringing this horific story back to life. Your article brought me to tears. As a child in Bucharest Romania’s Jewish Cemetary when visiting my grand father grave, with my father, we will always pass by the little main square where a little monument stood will all the names that perished on Struma inscribed on it, including one with our last family name, a distant relative. My own mother almost got on Struma and prevented doing so by her father. She always described the feverish desperation of the Jews borowing money to get on Struma trying to escape the genocide.
    Like other readers I believe this chapter should be part of mandatory education to all Jeish children in Israel and abroad.

  8. I was born in a displaced persons camp hospital, St. Ottilien, in Bavaria. I am steeped in the history of the Holocaust by my Parents’ suffering and murder of family members. Because of my background I read a lot about what happened and internalized it, to my detriment. When I discuss the danger faced by Jews today I am often thought to be an hysterical mental case. Jewish truth is horribly painful, most prefer lala land at their peril. Thank you Sarah.

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  10. Politically correct authors and trendy leftwing filmmakers are a manifestation of the ErevRav -Mixed Multitude of Egyptian ancestry who left Egypt- and still identified with Egyptian enemy. In this case substitute for Egypt the EU.

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  13. Concerning the Holocaust one can find a lot of fine rhetoric, some monuments and no doubt regret among Europeans, but no true change of heart, because the Europeans misunderstand the lessons of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was not about the Jews at all–it was about the Germans and the other European gentiles who perpetrated it or did nothing to stop it. The Jews were the object, the scapegoat, but not the moral agent. The Jews suffered, and the lessons from that suffering are pertinent to the Jews, but the overall moral dimensions of the Holocaust are most pertinent to the European gentiles, something these gentiles have never really faced up to. In other words, the moral rot of gentile Europe led to the Holocaust, that rot being a manifestation of a virulent defect in European character which has never been properly extirpated, because it has never been recognized for what it is. This explains the observation that, while Germans and other Europeans may say many fine things about dead Jews, they seem to have little concern for live Jews, judging from what most Europeans these days actually do.
    In the end, apologies are only words, and as Hamlet stated:

    My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
    Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
    Hamlet (III, iii, 100-103).

    We Jews cannot truly forgive the gentiles for the crimes they committed during the Holocaust nor for their other malevolent acts against Jews over the centuries. It may sound paradoxical, but the truth of the matter is that only when the gentiles in their own hearts understand that they must learn to forgive themselves for their crimes and errors will they truly make significant progress in acknowledging and understanding the nature of the moral transgressions that they committed, and how deeply they have permitted anti-semitism to penetrate into their consciousness.
    I have been fortunate to have grown up in the USA, which overall has been most kind to Jews. That is because in the past the worth of the individual has always been highly esteemed in the US. Unfortunately I am seeing a bad old habit of mankind starting to reappear in my own country–a desire to entrust one’s life to a powerful central political authority rather than taking responsibility for taking care of oneself (one thinks of the first book of Samuel). By supporting the authoritarianism of the left, American Jews are digging their own graves, and do not even know it. As night follows the day, once America exalts big government and authoritarianism over the freedom and dignity of the individual, it will not be long before anti-semitism follows. Where will these American Jews turn then? That is why Zionism and Israel must never die, and what every Jew must not forget.


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  15. Our friends Mike and Rochelle invited us to go with them to Istanbul, Turkey and meet up with their son Jonathan, who was part of a team of deep-sea divers searching for the Struma, we thought that it would make a nice holiday. Although I knew that there was going to be a commemoration ceremony, I had no idea of the impact that these few days would have on us all.

    The Struma set sail from Constanza, Romania with just under 800 Jews on board, including 103 children on 11th December 1941 their destination was Palestine. They had paid 1000 dollars a head to pack into a converted cattle boat which had been adapted to take 150 people, it had one freshwater outlet and one toilet. After just a few hours at sea the engine broke down and the crew of a passing ship agreed to fix it in return for all the unfortunate passenger’s jewellery and money. On 15th December the little boat limped into Istanbul and the passengers celebrated, they had arrived in neutral Turkey albeit after a four day journey which should have taken 12 hours. The Turkish authorities under the direction of the British refused to allow them to dock, they were kept on the boat for 71 days, obviously sanitary conditions deteriorated and dysentery and lice were rife. All appeals to the Turks and the British failed and on 23rd February 1942 a tug towed the Struma out to the Black sea, with its broken engine, if indeed it had an engine at all, and the Jews were abandoned to their fate. The following morning a Soviet submarine torpedoed the helpless vessel with its helpless human cargo, and with only one exception, everyone on board lost their lives.

    The organiser of the trip was a young man called Greg Buxton, who lost his paternal grandparents in the Struma, he is also a diver who volunteered with his fellow divers, at their own expense to try and locate the wreck. He announced his intentions on the Internet and was overwhelmed with the world-wide response from relatives of the passengers. Greg organised a documentary film crew under the Direction of Simcha Jacobici to make a documentary film of the search and the memorial events, for the bereaved relatives in honour of those who perished. Greg’s father told me that he had left Romania in 1935 to study engineering at London University, he had been in a fight with a member of the Iron Guard and could never again return to his native Romania. After the death of his parents he joined the British Army ‘to fight Nazis’ first as an engineer, then a glider pilot and finally when the war ended, as an interrogator, he apparently speaks many languages fluently and without accent. While interrogating a suspected German war criminal the man told him that he was not a German but that he was a harmless Romanian and produced documentation which showed that he was a member of the hated Iron Guard, needless to say that was a great mistake on his part.

    The group all got together before Shabbat on Friday night; some of the relatives had photographs of their loved ones. There was one very emotional meeting between a lady whose first cousin was a young bride who had married four days before embarking on the Struma, she did not know her cousins married name and was therefore unable to identify her from the list of passengers. The sister of the groom recognised the photo of the young couple, and these two people who both lived in Israel and should have met at a wedding in Rumania met each other for the first time 58 years later in Istanbul.

    Then there was the David family who had a four generation family photograph; thirteen of those smiling faces perished on the Struma. The Iron Guard had killed the grandfather and put his body, stamped ‘Kosher Meat’ on a hook in the slaughterhouse, the rest of the family understandably panicked and left Romania on the Struma.

    Simcha who spoke fluent Romanian, and Hebrew told me that the one survivor David Stoliar who was 19 at the time, clung to a piece of the deck for 24 hours before some Turkish men, probably searching for wreckage, found him and took him to a lighthouse. He had lost the use of his limbs in the icy water and was hospitalised; two weeks later he was arrested and thrown into a Turkish jail for six weeks as an illegal immigrant, until eventually the British authorities relented and gave him a visa to go to Palestine.

    Earlier in the week Simcha had decided to find a village near to the lighthouse where David Stoliar had been taken, because he had information that some of the bodies had been washed ashore there. He took 84 year old Elana who had lost her brother on the Struma with him. They met a man in this village who was 12 years old at the time of the sinking, he remembered that seven Jews and one crewman had been buried between the Moslem and Christian cemeteries under a fig tree and pointed out the exact place. Elana told me that she does not know how she managed to clamber down the steep incline to find the grave but she did, Simcha found a little plaque on the fig tree and having identified the right place said Kaddish. Elana refused to be manhandled up the incline and so Simcha and the rest of the film crew had to haul her up by her hands. Octogenarian she might be, but her dignity remains intact.

    After Shabbos we all got together and the bereaved relatives who had come from Israel, America, Canada and the UK told their stories. One lady asked if anybody in the group had known her father who had been the ships’ Doctor, she said that she had never known him, as she had not been born when the Struma went down. Nobody present had known him personally but she was told that her father had saved the life of a pregnant woman, by informing the British that he would hold them responsible for the welfare of the lady and her unborn baby. The authorities eventually allowed her to go to hospital to give birth, although due to the squalor and disease that she had endured for the two months on the boat the baby boy was born dead.

    The next morning at breakfast I asked the questioner how she had escaped from Romania, apparently after her father perished, his young, terrified widow gave her baby away to a Greek Christian couple immediately after the birth, and some time later, took a job with them as her child’s nanny. The little girl always wondered why her ‘parents’ had black eyes and she didn’t, she also excelled at school and they were not at all academic. When she was twelve years old her mother revealed her true identity but when asked if they were Jewish the mother denied it, saying that it was not safe to be Jewish. The young girl won a scholarship to Russia and studied medicine for three years, during this time her mother gradually told her that they were indeed Jewish and that the only safe place for them to live was in Israel. I asked her if she had become a Doctor and she said yes, she is and is now a Professor of Medicine in Tel Aviv.

    We all gathered for a memorial service aboard a Turkish boat, and sailed to where it is believed that the Struma sank. The British Ambassador Sir David Logan, Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s special envoy, were among the dignitaries who joined the relatives and friends. The deputy Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Yitzhak Haleva and Chasan David Sevi conducted a moving service, Kaddish was recited the Shofar was blown and the relatives threw flowers and wreaths into the water. Many of the relatives read beautiful words and poems and then Simcha with his voice cracking said “this was the place that the world abandoned these Jews, nobody wanted them, they just wanted them to just disappear and be forgotten”. We were moved to tears as in one voice all the friends and relatives present spontaneously sang Am Yisroel Chai.

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  18. Never before have I heard or read the full, hair raising story of the Struma, although I have seen it alluded to—I am left to wonder if the Soviet ship murdered these people deliberately, or if it really was thought they were a vessel carrying enemy aliens, but the action of neutral Turkey, which was callous and heartless, is shocking, all the more so since they are credited with having saved many Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition, and since they were under no duty to the British or to the Germans, and the action of the British, especially with regard to the children whom they had earlier promised to save in part, was not only shocking and cruel, but cannot be called anything but outright murder, since they had a part in persuading the Turks not to help the hapless escapees from vicious Roumania and its Nazi overlords, on top of their own refusal to permit them entry into the Mandatory area. They could have issued the illegals temporary visas to enter Turkey, and remain there during the war, after which they could have admitted them to Cypress. They actually behaved better, in an earlier instance, agreeing to take some of the children from the “Voyage of the Damned,” which was moored off Cuba, without the great FDR and the isolationist Senate allowing its passengers to disembark, before sending the passengers of the ill-fated St. Louis back to certain death in Nazi Europe. But at the time of the Struma, all was known, and there is no excuse for the conduct evinced by the British government then. But no one has had the guts to make a movie telling the truth about this, and that is one reason the Israelis were not happy with the movie, “Exodus”, because as good as it was, the passengers of that ship were in real life, not allowed to disembark either, and the passengers of the Struma, were in effect, tortured to death. Maybe some of the ideas discussed in the above comments could be used to make the movie—there was a movie made about the St. Louis, called “The Voyage of the Damned.” This was about the voyage of those whom humanity had condemned, heartlessly, and even with deliberate sadism.

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  20. Thank you for wriing and posting this; it was news to me. OMG. And anti-semitism is re-emerging all over the world yet again. I lived in “occupied territory” for several years, surrounded by Armenians, who, when I complained about a noisy party after Sunday church, called me a “dirty Jew.” No one else had ever called me nasty names, although several men over the years had refused to date me because, perhaps, of my Jewish background, my height, or some other reason. For these reasons we Jews must all say “never again!”

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