Struma Memorial in Holon, Israel
Struma was a ship chartered to carry Jewish refugees from Axis-allied Romania to British-controlled Palestine during World War II. On 23 February 1942, with its engine inoperable, the ship was towed from Istanbul through the Bosporus out to the Black Sea by Turkish authorities with its refugee passengers aboard, where it was left adrift. Within hours, it was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine on 24 February, killing 768 men, women and children, with only one survivor. It has been called "largest naval civilian disaster of the war".
Struma was commissioned by the Revisionist Zionist organizations in Romania, especially Betar, to carry Romanian Jews as immigrants to the Promised Land of Eretz Israel. Apart from the crew, there were approximately 790 passengers. They included some Betar members but were mostly wealthy Romanian Jews who could afford to pay the high price of a ticket. The voyage had the approval of the Ion Antonescu government.
Most of the passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. When they finally saw it they were shocked to discover it was far worse than they had imagined. Sleeping quarters were extremely cramped without enough space to sit up, and the ship had only two lifeboats. Passengers were not told that the engine was in even worse condition: it had been recovered from a wreck on the bottom of the Danube River.
The engine gave out several times after the Struma set sail from Constanţa, on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941. After three days, the ship was towed to Istanbul where it remained at anchor while secret negotiations were conducted over the fate of the passengers. In the wake of violent unrest within Palestine, the British government was determined to uphold its policy of restricting mass Jewish immigration and urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent the ship from sailing onwards. Turkey refused to allow the passengers off the ship. After weeks of negotiation, the British agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue overland. With the help of friends in high places, a few also managed to escape. One woman was admitted to an Istanbul hospital following a miscarriage.
On 12 February the British agreed that the children aged 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas, but then a dispute broke out over the means of their transport to Palestine. The United Kingdom refused to send a ship, while Turkey refused to allow them to travel overland.
While negotiations were still in progress and without notifying Britain in advance, Turkey towed the Struma back into the Black Sea and abandoned it on 23 February. As the ship was towed along the Bosporus, many passengers hung signs over the sides that read "SAVE US" in English and Hebrew, visible to those who lived on the banks of the strait. Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start, and the ship drifted helplessly.
On 24 February there was a huge explosion and the ship sank. Only one person survived, a man named David Stoliar who was found clinging to the wreckage, by crew of a rowboat sent out from one of the watchtowers along the Turkish coast. Stoliar was imprisoned in Turkey for six weeks, then released and admitted to Palestine. Later, he moved to Japan and then the United States.
For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank the Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered by that a Soviet submarine (SC-213) had fired a torpedo that sank the ship. Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources. The submarine had been acting under secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping entering the Black Sea to reduce the flow of strategic materials to Nazi Germany.
In July 2000, a Turkish diving team found a wreck on the sea floor at approximately the right place, and announced that they had discovered the Struma. A team led by UK technical diver and a grandson of one of the victims, Greg Buxton, later studied this and several other wrecks in the area but could not positively identify any as the Struma; the wreck found by the Turks was far too large.
On 3 September 2000 a ceremony was held at the site to commemorate the tragedy. It was attended by 60 relatives of Struma victims, representatives of the Jewish community of Turkey, the Israeli ambassador and prime minister's envoy, as well as British and American delegates. There were no delegates from the former Soviet Union.
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