The Struma

A Ship Filled With Jewish Refugees, Trying to Escape Nazi-Occuped Europe

The Struma, a ship filled with Jewish refugees headed to Palestine.
The Struma was a vessel bound for Palestine from Constanza, Romania in December 1941, which was torpedoed off the shores of Istanbul. (February 1, 1942). (Picture from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Stoliar)

Afraid of becoming victims of the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis in Eastern Europe, 769 Jews attempted to flee to Palestine on board the ship Struma. Leaving from Romania on December 12, 1941, they were scheduled for a short stop in Istanbul. However, with a failed engine and no immigration papers, the Struma and its passengers became stuck in port for ten weeks.

When it was made clear that no country would let the Jewish refugees land, the Turkish government pushed the still-broken Struma out to sea on February 23, 1942.

Within hours, the stranded ship was torpedoed -- there was only one survivor.

Boarding

By December 1941, Europe was engulfed in World War II and the Holocaust was fully underway, with mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) killing Jews en masse and huge gas chambers being planned at Auschwitz.

Jews wanted out of Nazi-occupied Europe but there were few ways to escape. The Struma was promised a chance to get to Palestine.

The Struma was an old, dilapidated, 180-ton, Greek cattle ship that was extremely ill-equipped for this journey - it had only one bathroom for all 769 passengers and no kitchen. Still, it offered hope. 

On December 12, 1941, the Struma left Constanta, Romania under a Panamanian flag, with Bulgarian captain G. T. Gorbatenko in charge.  Having paid an exorbitant price for passage on the Struma, the passengers hoped that the ship could safely make it to its short, scheduled stop at Istanbul (ostensibly to pick up their Palestinian immigration certificates) and then on to Palestine.

Waiting in Istanbul 

The trip to Istanbul was difficult because the Struma's engine kept breaking down, but they did reach Istanbul safely in three days. Here, the Turks would not allow the passengers to land. Instead, the Struma was anchored offshore in a quarantine section of the port. While attempts were made to repair the engine, the passengers were forced to stay on board - week after week.

It was in Istanbul that the passengers discovered their most serious problem thus far on this trip - there were no immigration certificates awaiting them. It had all been part of a hoax to jack-up the price of the passage. These refugees were attempting (though they had not known it earlier) an illegal entry into Palestine.

The British, who were in control of Palestine, had heard of the Struma's voyage and had thus requested the Turkish government prevent the Struma from passing through the Straits. The Turks were adamant that they did not want this group of people on their land.

An effort was made to return the ship to Romania, but the Romanian government would not allow it. While the countries debated, the passengers were living a miserable existence on board.

On Board

Though traveling on the dilapidated Struma had perhaps seemed endurable for a few days, living on board for weeks upon weeks began to cause serious physical and mental health problems.

There was no fresh water on board and the provisions had quickly been used up. The ship was so small that not all the passengers could stand above deck at once; thus, the passengers were forced to take turns on the deck in order to get a respite from the stifling hold.*

The Arguments

The British did not want to allow the refugees into Palestine because they were afraid that many more shiploads of refugees would follow. Also, some British government officials used the often cited excuse against refugees and emigrants -- that there could be an enemy spy among the refugees.

The Turks were adamant that no refugees were to land in Turkey. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) had even offered to create an on land camp for the Struma refugees fully funded by the JDC, but the Turks would not agree.

Because the Struma was not allowed into Palestine, not allowed to stay in Turkey, and not allowed to return to Romania, the boat and its passengers remained anchored and isolated for ten weeks. Though many were sick, just one woman was allowed to disembark and that was because she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

The Turkish government then announced that if a decision was not made by February 16, 1942, they would send the Struma back into the Black Sea.

Save the Children?

For weeks, the British had adamantly denied the entry of all the refugees aboard the Struma, even the children. But as the Turks' deadline neared, the British government acquiesced to allow some of the children to enter Palestine. The British announced that children between the ages of 11 and 16 on the Struma would be allowed to immigrate.

But there were problems with this. The plan was that the children would disembark, then travel through Turkey to reach Palestine. Unfortunately, the Turks remained stringent on their rule of allowing no refugees onto their land. The Turks would not approve this over-land route.

In addition to the Turks' refusal to let the children land, Alec Walter George Randall, Counsellor in the British Foreign Office, aptly summarized an additional problem:

Even if we get the Turks to agree I should imagine that the process of selecting the children and taking them from their parents off the  Struma would be an extremely distressing one. Who do you propose should undertake it, and has the possibility of the adults refusing to let the children go been considered?**

In the end, no children were let off the Struma.

Set Adrift

The Turks had set a deadline for February 16. By this date, there was still no decision. The Turks then waited a few more days. But on the night of February 23, 1942, Turkish police boarded the Struma and informed its passengers that they were to be removed from Turkish waters. The passengers begged and pleaded - even put up some resistance - but to no avail.

The Struma and its passengers were towed approximately six miles (ten kilometers) from the coast and left there. The boat still had no working engine (all attempts to repair it had failed). The Struma also had no fresh water, food, or fuel.

Torpedoed

After just a couple of hours drifting, the Struma exploded. Most believe that a Soviet torpedo hit and sank the Struma.

The Turks did not send out rescue boats until the next morning - they only picked up one survivor (David Stoliar). All 768 of the other passengers perished.

* Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (London: Clarendon Press, 1979) 144.
** Alec Walter George Randall as quoted in Wasserstein, Britain 151.

Bibliography

Ofer, Dalia. "Struma." Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Ed. Israel Gutman. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1990.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945. London: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.