By Ayhan Ozer
Published in The Turkish Times Feb, 1992
This year is the 50th anniversary of a tragic event that took place during World War II, involving 769 Jews who perished in a ramshackle ship called Struma while escaping from Romania.
The woeful circumstances that surrounded this event were a grim global war, clumsy diplomatic maneuvers conducted by the British to keep the Jews away from Palestine, and also a hypocritical international politics. Jews all over Europe were desperately trapped in this chaos relentlessly haunted by a pathological Nazi hatred.
In 1941, the war had already been going on for two years. The German troops scored whirlwind victories throughout Europe, and marched on eastward to Russia, forcing the Jewish émigrés from Poland, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to Romania, on riverboats and barges, each filled to over capacity, traveling down the river Danube. Their destination was the port city of Constanza in Romania, and their dream was to travel to Palestine via the only route open, the Black Sea and Turkey.
During the war, the Arab factor was a sensitive issue for both the Allies and the Axis blocks. Hitler coveted the rich oil fields in the Middle East, and aggressively sought the Arab alliance. He made a pledge to the Grand Mufti (the highest religious figure of the Palestine Arabs) of Jerusalem that no Jews would be allowed to escape to Palestine. His notorious anti-Semitism won enormous sympathy in the Arab world.
At that time, Palestine was a British mandate administered by a British governor. Under the circumstances, the British policy was not to offend the Arabs. They were afraid that even a perception of leaning towards the Jews could provoke a wide-spread Arab revolt. Furthermore, admitting any Jewish refugees to Palestine would have triggered a rush of Jewish immigration to Palestine from all over Europe and Balkans, which could lead to a grand scale settlement and relief problem. Therefore, the British blockaded Palestine to-prevent any clandestine entry by the Jews. Their excuse was possible infiltration of German spies under the guise of Jewish refugees.
Turkey, as a neutral country. in a global war, and in geographically ideal location, was already flooded with refugees escaping the German invasion in the central Europe. The pressure from the British, the Germans, and from the Arabs not to admit any Jewish refugees to Turkey, and not to accommodate the refugee ships coming through the Black Sea, was enormous.
Before World War II, Romania's Jewish population was about 900,000. About half-a-million Jews perished in Romania during the war, some of them under the German occupation and in the territories ceded to Bulgaria and to the Soviet Union. Some of them were deported to Nazi death camps, but a large majority died in the pogroms organized by the State and the militia.
However, the persecution of the Jews in Romania began long before the war. Under the oppression of the Romanian Iron Guards (the equivalent of the German SS) the Jews began fleeing the country from the port of Constanza to Palestine in 1938. An Associated Press dispatch dated March 2, 1939 described the city of Constanza as a huge refugee camp with thousands of Palestine-bound Jews forming lines in front of travel agencies that sold tickets for fly-by-night shipping companies. This inaugurated an era of the so-called "coffin ships" as all the vessels chartered for this purpose were rickety, unseaworthy boats devoid of amenities, crammed 5 to 10 times their normal capacities, and their destination was, in most cases, fatal.
The Romanian authorities cashed in on this bonanza enormously as the passengers had to ransom their way out of the country illegally. In early December 1940, a Uruguayan registry rotten ship called "Salvador" ventured a voyage to Palestine. Salvador had no cabins or bunks, no compass, no weather instruments, and no life-jackets. It could carry only 30-40 passengers, but instead,327 refugees were packed in tightly. Salvador miraculously made it to Istanbul. However, after she departed, a severe storm raged across the Marmara Sea, and the dilapidated ship sank on December 15, 1940, causing 204 passengers, including 66 children to die. Out of 123 survivors, 63 were deported back to Bulgaria, and '--O managed to stay in Istanbul. They were picked up by another refugee ship, DARIEN II, bound to Palestine with 723 passengers on board. DARIEN II almost made it to its destination, but the British captured the ship near the coast of Palestine on March 19,1941, and interned.
The tragic fate of Salvador did not discourage the Jews of Romania to flee the country. Their living conditions were unbearable, and deteriorated by day. Many a Jew saw the handwriting on the wall, and they wanted to get out of Romania at all cost, and soon.
Judging from the developments in the world scene, the Turks expected more refugee ships in the Istanbul harbor in the near future and more calamities at sea. In an effort to solve this problem, the Turkish government approached the United States government with a plan for an orderly transportation of 300,000 Romanian Jews through Turkey to Palestine with the concurrence and cooperation of the British. However, Cavendish W. Cannon of the State Department's Division of European Affairs rejected the Turkish proposal on the grounds that there were not sufficient ships to handle the migration, and also it was contrary to the British White Paper published in 1939, allowing only 75,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine within the next five years. He further cited the Arab reaction to a Jewish exodus to Palestine.
However, the Romanian Jews were quite resolute for their salvation. Around that time, a shipping agency began advertising a voyage to Palestine on a luxury liner. Their posters and brochures even featured the picture of Queen Mary.
In reality, a cruel scheme was underway. In those days, the Germans requisitioned all ships, large and small, to transport foodstuffs and cattle from Romania to Germany via the river Danube. Therefore, to find an available ship was a major problem. The Germans, however, were not impressed at all by a ramshackle riverboat called MACEDONIA, abandoned in a dock. She was too old to risk cattle. This was a fluke for the ship owner, and he immediately took possession of the vessel. At that time MACEDONIA was 74 years old, and measured only 50 feet long and 20 feet wide (later on these measures were confirmed in a New York Times article dated March, 13, 1942).
After a cursory repair, she was put under Panamanian registry, and renamed Struma. Within a short period of time 769 Jews responded favorably to the offer; 269 women,, some of whom were pregnant, 103 infants or toddlers, several professionals, including 30 physicians, 30 lawyers, 10 engineers, a number of businessmen, merchants, craftsmen, students and a select group of youth leaders called Betarim.
When all these people saw the ship, their disappointment was beyond description. She had only 100 bunks, and not a single toilet! The ship owner had prepared himself for that moment; he soothed the worries of the passengers by saying that as the advertised ship carried an American flag she had to lay outside the territorial water of Romania; therefore, Struma was merely an intermediate transportation.
On December 7,1941 the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, and the world seemed to be heading for a widespread conflagration. The prevailing mood for the Jews might have been not to waste any more time, and leave as soon as possible. In that haste Struma sailed from Constanza on December 12,1941. When they reached the open sea the passengers faced the harsh reality. There was no luxury liner waiting for them; yet, it was too late, there was no way they could go back to Romania.
They arrived in Istanbul on December 15, 1941. The engine was malfunctioning, and there was leak in the hull. The captain of the ship requested a permit to stay in the harbor until those repairs were completed. The Turkish authorities, considering the recent catastrophe that befell Salvador and its Jewish passengers in the Sea of Marmara, generously accorded the permission to stay beyond what the transit regulations provided.
In view of the unbearable conditions on the ship, the Turkish authorities were willing to permit the passengers to disembark while the ship was in repair; however, it became known that none of the passengers had entry visas to Palestine. As a compromise, the Turkish Foreign Office requested at least an assurance from Mr. Adrian Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British ambassador in Ankara, that all the passengers were to be issued visas to Palestine. However, the British refused to give such assurance.
Thereupon, the Turkish-Red Crescent, The American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Turkey, and the Jewish community in Istanbul mobilized to feed all 769 people on board.
Struma stayed in the Istanbul harbor 71 days, during which time the Turkish government conducted intense negotiations with the concerned states to find a viable solution to the Struma affair. To that end, the British were reminded that the yearly quota of 10,000 allowed by the White Paper was still unfilled. Could it possibly be allocated for the passengers of Struma? The British dismissed this possibility claiming that as Romanians, these passengers were enemy aliens; as such they did not qualify for this quota.
Shortly afterwards, the Turkish Foreign office engaged to an another initiative, this time on the part of the Romanian ambassador in Ankara, Alexandre Cretzianu, and proposed that Struma be allowed to return to Romania. The ambassador asserted that those Jews had left the country in an illegal manner, therefore, it was impossible to re-admit them to Romania.
On January 19,1942, the United States entered the war. Panama followed suit, and Joined the Allies. These developments affected the status of Struma unfavorably, in that the captain and some crew members were Bulgarian citizens, and now Bulgaria was officially at war with Panama. The captain declared that they could not stay on a ship that belonged to an enemy country. Besides, he claimed, the Mediterranean was dangerous to travel with a crippled ship and a large number of Jews on board. The port authorities refused to relieve the captain from his post in such a critical time.
In February, the British made a vague concession. They indicated that they might issue visas to the 70 children on board to enable them to travel to Palestine via the land route. It was not a firm, official declaration; in fact, shortly thereafter they revised the age category to include only those ages between 11 and 16. Yet, the Turkish government declared that such a decision was never confirmed to them. In fact, days passed and nothing further was heard from the British.
In the meantime, a communication was received from London with regard to the Jewish quota to Palestine for the year of 1942. This triggered a new attempt on the part of the British government with a renewed hope. Yet, the British dismissed this initiative as well, asserting that this quota was not applicable to the persons who were traveling under an immigrant status prior to the announcement of this quota.
Amidst all this turmoil, there was a case of miscarriage in the ship. A pregnant passenger, Medea Solomonowitz was in critical condition, and was permitted to be taken to the Or-Haim Jewish hospital in Balat, Istanbul. Four more passengers were allowed to leave Struma. A Turkish businessman, Vehbi Koc, interceded on behalf of a Socony Vacuum Oil Company (present day Mobil) executive and his family, and obtained visas for them from the British Consul in Istanbul. They left the ship to go to Palestine via a land route.
Two months had passed with endless negotiations, high level contacts, and diplomatic stunts without any remedy to the stalemate, and the Turkish government became convinced that it had exhausted all the ways and means to find a viable solution to-this dilemma. All the sincere and constructive efforts the Turks put forth to bring about a happy ending to this human tragedy were to no avail. Their frustration, and their indignation with the profound hypocrisy that shrouded the whole affair kept mounting. The barriers were raised deliberately by the British to obstruct the Jewish immigration to Palestine; they had resorted all along to twisted dilatory tactics to drive the matter into the maze of politics. The Turks finally resigned themselves to the fact that no goodwill and humanitarian efforts, no concession or compromise could overcome the British intransigence.
Thereupon, on February 23, 1942, the captain of Struma was ordered to leave the harbor. A tugboat towed Struma to the Black Sea. Mrs. Solomonowitz had lost her child, and was recuperating in the hospital when the ship pulled out slowly, leaving her behind.
The following day, February 24 at 9:00 A.M. the tragic news came through. An unexplained explosion had torn apart Struma while she was about 4-5 miles from the Cape Igne Ada. Several Turkish rescue teams were immediately dispatched to the area. They arrived on the scene struggling with huge waves and high wind. Alas, with the exception of one survivor all- 763 women, men and children had perished. The survivor was David Stoliar, a 21-year old Romanian Jew.
He and Mrs. Solomonowitz were later granted admission to Palestine.
There were speculations about the cause of the explosion. A German, Russian, Romanian, as well as a Bulgarian submarine was a strong possibility. The engine of the ship being rather small was ruled out as the source of explosion. A mine was a remote possibility, but was not ruled out entirely. Sea storms and freezing weather contributed to the fatalities, but did not account for the explosion. Or, what was thought to be an explosion was a sudden crack that caused the ship to come apart at the seams. Whatever it was, even today it is still a mystery.
The Struma incident, painful though for the Jews, had been an eye-opener for the Romanian authorities. They figured that instead of exterminating the Jews they could let them buy their own freedom. This option had been exercised in the case of Struma, and proved very lucrative.
The World Jewish Congress found out about this prospect and appealed to the U.S. State Department to allow money to be transferred through Switzerland to ransom Jews out of Europe, especially from Romania. The State Department agreed on condition that those freed would be admitted to Palestine by the British. To raise money for this likelihood, the Jews in the U.S. launched a fundraising campaign to buy freedom for their brethren. A Jewish American organization ran the following full-page advertisement in the New York Times on February 16, 1943:
"For sale to the humanity. 70,000 Jews!
Guaranteed human beings at $50 a piece."
However, the British refused any cooperation in that respect, and the venture fell through.
The loss of Struma provoked heated debates in the British Parliament. Sir Harold Mac Michael, the High Commissioner for Palestine, was blamed for deliberately delaying the information to the Turks in regard to the admittance of the children to Palestine, and was transferred to Malaysia. Josiah G. Wedgwood in the House of Commons, and Lord Davis in the House of Lords accused the Palestine authorities and the British policy with respect to immigration to Palestine, and urged the British government to repeal the prohibition imposed-, on the Jews to immigrate to the Holy Land.
The most reliable and detailed account about Struma's stay in Istanbul was chronicled by Mr. Abraham Galante, a prominent Turkish Jew who served two terms in the Turkish Parliament (1939-1946), and who was deeply involved in the Struma affair. He was in contact with the ship, with the authorities, as well as with the Jewish organizations in Turkey and on an international level on a daily basis. Furthermore, thanks to his legislator status he was privy to the behind the scenes efforts.
Besides being a politician, Mr. Galante was a scholar, journalist, and a linguist. He was fluent in seven languages. He authored several books in Turkish and in French. About the Struma affair, he wrote:
We, the authors of these lines, who followed closely the events during the stay of Struma in the harbor of Istanbul bear witness that the government of Turkish Republic did everything possible within its power to alleviate the lot of those involved in this tragedy. Besides the activities of the Work for Refugees in Transit Committee, which was composed of Henry Soriano, the president of the Jewish community in Istanbul; Edmond Goldberg, the former director of Deutsche Bank of Istanbul; and several notable Jews, such as Simon Brod, Rifat Caraco, Daniel Angel and others, the municipality of Istanbul, the Health Department, and the Turkish Red Crescent worked diligently and with solicitude to satisfy the needs of the passengers. Therefore, we express our gratitude to the government authorities for their hospitality during the extended stay of the ship, as well as for their intercession with the foreign governments to enable the passengers to immigrate to Palestine."
The Struma was not the end of the expeditions from Romania to the Holy Land via Istanbul. Rather, this outrage brought the predicament of the Jews to the attention of the world, whereby admittance to Palestine was considerably relaxed. Furthermore, the land route via Syria, which was under Allied occupation at that time, was also established; therefore, the sea-crossing was needed only between Romania and Istanbul, which was shortened considerably. Thus, even smaller ships could be used for that purpose.
The Presidential archives in Hyde Park, N.Y. records an initiative by the President Roosevelt in early 1944 that coincides with that newly adopted relaxation policy for the Jewish immigration to Palestine. According to On the Record, November 1979 issue published by the General Service Administration, president Roosevelt authorized a cloak-and-dagger mission to rescue 50,000 Jews from the Nazi-occupied Southern Europe. The plan was to transport them with the Turkish boats to Istanbul and then to Palestine via the land route. For that purpose, president Roosevelt sent a department store executive, Mr. Ira Hischmann, to Turkey as his special envoy to make a deal with the Romanian ambassador to Turkey, Alexandre Cretzianu, Mr. Hirschmann had $5 million in gold sovereigns at his disposal to be used as needed. He met with the ambassador in the woods outside Ankara, and told him that the Soviet army was advancing, and not only his life but his family's life was also in danger. If he helped to get the Jews out of Romania on Turkish boats, in return, he and his family would be granted visas to the United States. According to Mr. Hirschmann, both sides kept their part of bargain, and the deal worked. Around that time, eight ships carried 2,936 Jewish refugees from Romania to Istanbul, and the Turks provided transit visas and trains to transport the Jewish refugees to Syria.
In that period of time, some rather small, enterprising boats were shipwrecked or ran aground near the Turkish coasts, however, all of them were rescued by the Turkish coast-guards without any fatality; they were taken care of and then sent to Palestine.
This operation ran successfully until August 1944, at which time, a Turkish ship, MEFKURE, was chartered to carry 350 Jews from Romania to Istanbul. The ship flew a Turkish flag and also a Red-Cross banner. Unfortunately, MEFKURE was dastardly torpedoed in the Black Sea by an unidentified warship. All the survivors were machine-gunned in the water while they were struggling to escape. Only five passengers, but none of the crewmembers, were able to survive in that carnage.
This incident closed shut the only escape route for the Jews from Europe, leaving behind thousands more Jews abandoned to their grim fate.