Early “Boat People”
The story of the Struma is almost forgotten, except in Turkey where it is well documented. Yet it deserves to be commemorated, as a little-known episode of the holocaust, and as an early instance of “Boat People” being victims of human trafficking and cruel immigration regulations.
The roots of the story, i.e. the various alliances contracted by Romania at the start of W.W.II, are very complex. Suffice to say that in late 1941, Romania and Bulgaria were Axis-controlled, Turkey was neutral, and Palestine was a British (therefore Allied) protectorate. Jewish immigration to Palestine was controlled by the British, who had set a quota of 75,000 entries over the period 1939-1944. Hitler had made a promise to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (the spiritual leader of Muslims in Palestine) that no European Jews would find their way to Palestine.
By 1941, the Romanian port of Costanta was a temporary home for Jews from all over central Europe. Fleeing the Nazis, those refugees had followed the Danube to its estuary on the Black Sea. A passage to Palestine was their only hope. Neutral Turkey controlled the Bosporus, though which ships had to sail on their way from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Turkey was under considerable pressure from both the Allies and the Axis not to allow refugee ships through. Courageously, Turkey approached the United States and offered to participate in a plan to relocate 300,000 Romanian Jews to Palestine. Unfortunately, the State Department was unwilling to put pressure on the British and their bloody quota.
In such a desperate climate, you can always count on some crook without scruples to take advantage of his fellow human beings. In Costanta, it was a Greek ship owner, who had found a dilapidated Danube cattle barge called Macedonia, fitted her with some ancient engine, registered her under the Panamanian flag and renamed her Struma. Whereas the Struma was all of 50 feet long, the new owner printed posters with the image of the Queen Mary, advertising a luxury passage to Palestine. The price of the tickets was exorbitant, but it supposedly included the cost of the necessary immigration certificates.
Hope Quickly Dashed
The sailing was scheduled for December 12, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 769 souls who had snapped up the tickets probably felt lucky and hopeful. They were a bright bunch too: at least 30 doctors, 30 lawyers, as well as engineers, students and businessmen were part of the group, along with 103 young children.
Their hearts sank when they reached the dock and saw the tiny, dreadful old tub. But the owner assured them this was only a launch between the pier and the liner which was anchored just outside Romanian waters. With great apprehension, the passengers boarded the coffin ship. Of course, once on the open sea, there was no liner waiting for them. They were freezing cold and tightly packed on an unseaworthy ship with one toilet and no kitchen.
Immediately, the engine started failing, and it took the Struma three days to cover the short hop to Istambul. The ship was allowed to remain in Istambul, at anchor, while awaiting repairs to its engine.
In a laudable effort, the Turkish Red Crescent and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the famous “joint”) started smuggling food aboard for the miserable passengers. But soon afterward it was discovered that the promised immigration certificates to Palestine did not in fact exist.
The situation was truly infernal. The Struma’s passengers were not welcome anywhere. The British would not accept them in Palestine because, as Romanians, they were “enemy subjects,” possibly spies, and not eligible for the quota (which in all events went unfilled in 1941). When asked if the passengers could return where they came from, the Romanian consul replied that having left illegally to begin with, they would not be allowed to reenter Romania. The Turkish government worked very hard to find a solution, yet did not offer to open Turkey’s doors either, fearing reprisals from London and/or Berlin and waves of further refugees.
During the stay in Istambul, one family was allowed to disembark. The father, Israel Frank-Dinari worked for Socony Vacuum Oil (today Mobil Oil) and the company obtained legitimate papers for him and his family. They took the land route and made it to Palestine through French Syria.
Another passenger, Medea Solomonovitz, miscarried on the ship and was transported, in serious condition, to the Jewish Hospital in Istambul.
Medea Solomonovitz’ Story
Medea Marcovici was born in Bucharest in 1919. Her father was a cloth wholesaler. Medea’s mother died when she was 11 and her father remarried. Medea did not get along with her stepmother. A bright young lady, she found employment in a Bucharest architect’s office.
In 1940, Medea fell in love with Nezu Solomonovitz, a young man from a prominent family. Nezu’s father and sister were ready to accept Medea in their family, but Nezu’s mother couldn’t accept a nobody as her son’s bride. She did not attend Medea and Nezu’s wedding. Shortly after Medea discovered she was pregnant, Nezu’s father, wishing a better life for the young couple, bought them tickets on the Struma. Before leaving Bucharest, Medea went to visit her mother-in-law who told her: “May you suffer from cold, thirst for water, and starve for bread.”
On the ship, Medea miscarried, suffered an embolism and almost died. As she was carried ashore, she begged for her husband to be permitted to accompany her, but only Medea was allowed off the ship. While slowly recovering, Medea received the horrible news of the Struma’s fate. Upon her release, she was given the proper immigration certificates and made her way to Palestine via Syria. Before leaving Istambul, she wrote to her mother-in-law that every word uttered in her curse had been realized.
In Tel-Aviv, Medea became a diamond cutter. Later, she remarried and moved to France. Her husband was prosperous and she used her wealth to help old friends escape communist Romania. Medea passed away in France in 1996.
Stuck Offshore in Istanbul
Weeks passed. The engine was beyond repair. The situation was at a deadly standstill. Some passengers reportedly went mad with anxiety. Chillingly, it was during the time when the Struma’s human cargo was slowly tortured that the notorious Wannsee Conference occurred in Berlin, setting the specifics for the terminal phase of the holocaust.
The Bulgarian captain of the ship, when he learned that the Republic of Panama was officially at war against Bulgaria, declared that he could not fulfill his duties under an enemy flag and he too abandoned the Struma. By now, the ship and its accursed cargo had been languishing in Istambul for more than two months.
Turkish authorities had set a deadline of February 16 for the ship to sail away. Finally, on the evening of February 23, Turkish police informed the horrified passengers that the ship would be towed away, back to the Black Sea, later that night. The ship was towed for six miles and then abandoned, with no food and no engine.
The Struma was not marooned for long. About two hour after the tugboat left, there was a huge explosion. The Struma sank almost instantly. Many passengers drowned when the ship went down. Hundreds more slowly died of exposure while holding on to wreckage, with the coast only 4 miles away. By the time a fishing boat reached the scene, by chance, only one young man was still alive. That was David Stoliar, a gifted young man who had been studying in Paris until the Germans invaded.
Typically, sole survivor David was brought back to Istambul and jailed for two months. Finally, he was allowed to leave for Palestine via Syria. Later, he moved to Japan, and then to America. David’s testimony has been carefully recorded, notably by the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial.
The cause of the explosion was never ascertained. There has been much talk of a mine, or of a torpedo fired from a Soviet submarine. Forensic divers have made expeditions to find the wreck of the Struma without reaching clear conclusions. What is clear is that hundreds of innocents died after having enduring a protracted period of physical and psychological torture.
The best way we can pay homage to the victims of this tragedy is to remain aware of the human right violations and the enormous amount of suffering which accompany the phenomenon of illegal immigration. As you read these lines, people just like you and me are sweating in the back of trucks, shivering inside freight containers, and entrusting their safety and their life savings to bloodsucking scam artists.
While throwing open all borders is unlikely to happen soon, there are some steps that can be taken to limit illegal immigration and the abuses it entails.
Rich countries must increase the level and the quality of their aid to poorer countries. The planet is currently functioning on an apartheid system, with a wealthy minority living in gated communities like Western Europe or the United States. Such a system is dangerous for the planet and for the long term security of us, the privileged. Politicians should not spread fear about immigration. Immigrants contribute to a country’s good fortune in many ways.
Poorer countries should try to cultivate the philosophy that happiness is best available in most backyards. Would-be immigrants should be taught that the streets of America and Europe are not paved with gold, and that our prized liberties can have a disorienting effect on families brought up with different traditions: not only material misery but moral misery are likely possibilities at the end of the rainbow.
Those who prey upon defenseless hopeful immigrants should be investigated at the international level, and their prosecution and punishment should be the responsibility of agencies of great integrity.
Finally, laws should be more understanding of the realities for immigrants caught in legal limbo, be they authentic refugees languishing in overcrowded camps, or undocumented aliens who are part of the fabric of our lives but who jump every time the doorbell rings.