Struma disaster

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Struma disaster
Struma (ship).jpg
Photo believed to show the Struma in Istanbul harbor, 1942
Coordinates 41º23'N, 29º13'E Coordinates: 41°23′N 29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217
Date 24 February 1942
Target The ship Struma, carrying Jewish refugees from Romania to the British Mandate of Palestine
Attack type
Ship sinking
Weapons Torpedo
Deaths 781 Jewish refugees
Perpetrators Soviet Navy

The Struma disaster was the sinking in February 1942 of a ship, MV Struma, that had been trying to take several hundred Jewish refugees from Axis-allied Romania to Mandatory Palestine. She was a small iron-hulled ship of only 240 GRT that had been built in 1867 as a steam-powered schooner[1] but had recently been re-engined with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine.[2][3] Struma was only 148.4 ft (45 m) long, had a beam of only 19.3 ft (6 m) and a draught of only 9.9 ft (3 m)[1] but an estimated 781 refugees were crammed into her.[4]

Struma '​s diesel engine failed several times between her departure from Constanţa on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941 and her arrival in Istanbul on 15 December. She had to be towed by a tug both to leave Constanţa and to enter Istanbul. On 23 February 1942, with her engine still inoperable and her refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed Struma from Istanbul through the Bosphorus out to the coast of Şile in North Istanbul. Within hours, in the morning of 24 February, the Soviet submarine Shch-213 torpedoed her, killing an estimated 781 refugees plus 10 crew, making it the Black Sea's largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II. Until recently the number of victims had been estimated at 768, but the current figure is the result of a recent study of six different passenger lists.[4] Only one person aboard, 19-year-old David Stoliar, survived (he died in 2014).

The Struma disaster joined the sinking of the SS Patria laden with Jewish refugees 15 months earlier as rallying points for the Irgun and Lehi revisionist Zionist clandestine movements, encouraging their violent revolt against the British presence in Palestine.[5][6]

Voyage and detention[edit]

Last letter from a Struma passenger to his son, while confined aboard ship in Istanbul harbor

Struma had been built as a luxury yacht[3] but was 74 years old and in the 1930s had been relegated to carrying cattle on the River Danube under the Panamanian flag of convenience.[7] The Mossad LeAliyah Bet intended to use her as a refugee ship, but shelved the plan after the German entry into Bulgaria.[7] Her Greek owner Jean D. Pandelis instead contacted Revisionist Zionists in Romania.[7] The New Zionist Organization and Betar Zionist youth movement began to make arrangements but an argument over the choice of passengers left the planning in the hands of Betar.[7]

Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship.[7][8] The exact number is not certain, but a collation of six separate lists produced a total of 781 passengers and 10 crew.[4][9] Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas.[10] Ion Antonescu's Romanian government approved of the voyage.[8]

Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage.[11] Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees' valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them.[11] The passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. They found that she was a wreck with only two lifeboats.[citation needed] Below decks, Struma had dormitories with bunks for 40 to 120 people in each.[12] The berths were bunks on which passengers were to sleep four abreast, with 60 centimetres (2 ft) width for each person.[12]

On the day of her sailing Struma '​s engine failed so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa.[13] The waters off Constanţa were mined, so a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield.[11] She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine.[13] She transmitted distress signals and on 13 December the Romanian tug returned.[13] The tug's crew said they would not repair Struma '​s engine unless they were paid.[13] The refugees had no money after buying their tickets and leaving Romania, so they gave all their wedding rings to the tugboatmen, who then repaired the engine.[13] Struma then got under way but by 15 December her engine had failed again so she was towed into Istanbul in Turkey.[13]

There she remained at anchor while British diplomats and Turkish officials negotiated over the fate of the passengers. Because of Arab and Zionist unrest in Palestine, Britain was determined to apply the terms of the White Paper of 1939 to minimise Jewish immigration to Palestine. British diplomats urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent Struma from continuing her voyage. Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. While detained in Istanbul, Struma ran short of food. Soup was cooked twice a week and supper was typically an orange and some peanuts for each person.[12] At night each child was issued a serving of milk.[12]

After weeks of negotiation, the British agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue to Palestine overland.[citation needed] With the help of influential friends[specify] (Vehbi Koc),[citation needed] a few others also managed to escape. One woman was admitted to an Istanbul hospital after miscarrying.[8] On 12 February British officials agreed that children aged 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas, but a dispute occurred over their transportation to Palestine.[citation needed] The United Kingdom declined to send a ship, while Turkey refused to allow them to travel overland.[citation needed]

Towing to sea and sinking[edit]

Map of the Bosphorus strait showing where Struma anchored in quarantine in Istanbul harbour (1), and where she was torpedoed and sank in the Black Sea (2)

Negotiations between Turkey and Britain seemed to reach an impasse. On 23 February 1942 a small party of Turkish police tried to board the ship but the refugees would not let them aboard.[12] Then a larger force of about 80 police came, surrounded Struma with motor boats, and after about half an hour of resistance got aboard the ship.[12] The police detached Struma '​s anchor and attached her to a tug, which towed her through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea.[12][14] As she was towed along the Bosphorus, 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.[15][page needed] Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start. The Turkish authorities abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, about 10 miles north of the Bosphorus, where she drifted helplessly.[12][15][page needed]

The Shch-213 submarine... encountered on the morning of 24 February 1942 an unprotected enemy vessel Struma... The ship was successfully torpedoed from a distance of [1,118 meters] and sunk... Junior officers... Unit Commander and non-commissioned officers... and the Red Fleet sailor who fired the torpedo... have shown courage. (Soviet Military Archives)[15][page needed][16]

On the morning of 24 February there was a huge explosion and the ship sank. Many years later it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by the Shchuka-class Soviet submarine Shch-213, that had also sunk the Turkish vessel Çankaya the evening before.[17][18]

Struma sank quickly and many people were trapped below decks and drowned.[19] Many others aboard survived the sinking and clung to pieces of wreckage, but for hours no rescue came and all but one of them died from drowning or hypothermia.[12][19] Of the estimated 791 people killed, more than 100 were children.[15][page needed] Struma '​s First Officer Lazar Dikof and a 19-year-old refugee called David Stoliar clung to a cabin door that was floating in the sea.[20][19] The First Officer died overnight but Turks in a rowing boat rescued Stoliar the next day.[19] He was the only survivor. Turkey held Stoliar in custody for many weeks but released him after Britain gave him papers to go to Palestine.[21]

Aftermath[edit]

Wanted poster posted throughout Palestine by Jewish underground, accusing Sir Harold MacMichael of murdering the Struma passengers by refusing them entry visas[8]

On 9 June 1942, Lord Wedgwood opened the debate in the British House of Lords by alleging that Britain had reneged on its commitments and urging that the League of Nations mandate over Palestine be transferred to the USA. He stated with bitterness: "I hope yet to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler".[22] Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, serving in the British army at the time, wrote a scathing poem, mourning the loss and betrayal of the Struma. Having volunteered in the British army to fight the Nazis, he now called the British khaki he wore a "badge of shame."[23]

For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank the Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered that Shch-213[24] had fired a torpedo that sank the ship.[25] Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources.[26] 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.[27]

Frantz and Collins call the Struma '​s sinking the "largest naval civilian disaster of the war".[28] Greater numbers of civilians perished in other maritime disasters of the war, including the Wilhelm Gustloff, Cap Arcona and Junyō Maru, but on those ships there were also military personnel aboard at the time.

Israeli politics still refers to the Struma disaster. On 26 January 2005 Israel's then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Knesset:

The leadership of the British Mandate displayed... obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates to Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus were rejected the requests of the 769 [sic] passengers of the ship Struma who escaped from Europe – and all but one [of the passengers] found their death at sea. Throughout the war, nothing was done to stop the annihilation [of the Jewish people].[29]

Wrecks[edit]

In July 2000 a Turkish diving team found a wreck on the sea floor in about the right place and announced that it had found the Struma. A team led by a British 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.[30]

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, British and American delegates, but David Stoliar elected to not attend for family reasons.[31]

In November 2008 a team of Dutch, German and Romanian divers of the Black Sea Wreck Diving Club discovered the wreck of Shch-213 off the coast of Constanţa in Romania. Since the registration markings that could help identify the wreck were missing due to damage to the submarine, it took divers until 2010 to identify her as Shch-213.[32]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Lloyd's Register of Shipping. London: Lloyd's Register. 1932. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  2. ^ "Day 834 December 12, 1941". World War II Day-by-Day. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Allen, Tony; Lettens, Jan (22 December 2012). "SS Struma (Струма) (+1942)". The Wreck Site. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c Aroni, Samuel (2002–2007). "Who Perished on the Struma And How Many?". JewishGen.org. 
  5. ^ "Palestine: World War II". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 28 July 2010. 
  6. ^ "Israel: World War II". Country Studies US. Retrieved 28 July 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Ofer 1990, pp. 149–171
  8. ^ a b c d Frantz & Collins 2003[page needed]
  9. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 295–335.
  10. ^ "The Struma: The Boat That Never Made It". 20th Century History. About.com. 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c Druks 2000, p. 74.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i Druks 2000, p. 75.
  13. ^ a b c d e f "David Stoliar Born 1922 Kishinev, Romania". Holocaust Personal Histories. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  14. ^ Ofer 1990, p. 166.
  15. ^ a b c d Frantz & Collins 2003.
  16. ^ Zvielli, Alexander (18 August 2000). "Soviet fire, cold hearts claimed 'Struma' passengers". Jerusalem Post. 
  17. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur (1995–2010). "Shch-213". Uboat. Retrieved 12 July 2010. 
  18. ^ Rohwer, Jürgen (1997). Allied submarine attacks of World War Two: European theatre of operations, 1939–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 107. 
  19. ^ a b c d Rubinstein, Shimon. "David Stoliar". Personal Tragedies as a Reflection on a Great Tragedy Called Struma. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  20. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 196–197.
  21. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. xii.
  22. ^ Sicker, Martin (2000). Pangs of the Messiah : The Troubled Birth of the Jewish State. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 161. 
  23. ^ Laity, Paul (9 August 2008). "Identity in the East End". The Guardian. 
  24. ^ "USSR Shch-213". uboat.net. Retrieved 14 September 2010. 
  25. ^ Rohwer, Jürgen (1964). Die Versenkung der Judischen Flüchtlingstransporter Struma und Mefkura im Schwartzen Meer February 1942 – August 1944. Frankfurt am Main: Bernard Graefe Verlag für Wehrwesen. [page needed] Cited in Frantz and Collins, p. 253, and Ofer, 1990, p. 358
  26. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 252–254.
  27. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. 254.
  28. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. 255.
  29. ^ Sharon, Ariel (26 January 2005). "PM Sharon's Speech at Special Knesset Session Marking the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism". Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  30. ^ "The Struma Project". Nesia Ltd. 2000. 
  31. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 281–291.
  32. ^ "Divers discover Russian submarine" (in Dutch). 13 September 2010. 

Sources and further reading[edit]

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