With the arrival on April 15th, 2012 and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury ship RMS Titanic, its story is ubiquitous. There are hundreds of articles written about it everywhere, and the 3-D remake of the 1997 box office smash Titanic has just opened in theatres.
But how many of you have heard of a quite different-type of ship, which sank on February 24th, 1942, during Word War II, that in addition to being a "tragedy" was also an atrocity, perpetrated by commission, by at least four countries: Romania, Turkey, Britain and Russia; and by omission, by the rest of the Free World. The name of this ship was the S.S. Struma, chartered in December, 1941 by Jews desperate to escape the Nazi regime in Romania to seek safe haven in Israel, then called Palestine. There were 769 passengers on board, including 269 women and 103 children, who were lied to about being promised legal entry into Palestine, and lied to about the ship and its condition: they were told it was a renovated ship and engine, but were not permitted to see it until they boarded, after paying an exorbitant price for the trip. In actuality, the ship was a wreck: it had one bathroom, no kitchen, and an engine taken from another wreck on the bottom of the Danube. In three days they reached Turkey, who did not let them disembark. They were docked for 10 weeks under terrible conditions, including very little food (donated by the Turkish Jewish community once a week). Meanwhile the British and the Turkish government argued over who was responsible to take care of this matter.
For the next 71 days the ship lay at anchor, the refugees not allowed to leave. Food and water were provided by Jewish relief organizations. During this time secret negotiations were conducted between the Turks and British on the fate of the passengers. The British would not give the refugees entry papers into Palestine – fearing more violence in the Middle East if they did not restrict massive Jewish immigration. The Turks were neutral in the war at this time, and were a trading partner of Nazi Germany. They did not desire to become the conduit for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.
On February 23, 1942 the Turks apparently believed that an impasse with Britain had been reached. They decided to rid themselves of the situation completely. Turkish authorities boarded the disabled ship and towed it through the Bosphorus strait to a site ten miles away in the Black Sea. The Turkish authorities then abandoned the ship with over 760 refugees and crew aboard. Without power for propulsion or food or water – the Struma, her crew, and over 750 refugees drifted on the Black Sea. On the morning of February 24, 1942 the Soviet submarine SC-213 torpedoed the Struma. The vessel sank almost immediately – at least 768 people died, including over 100 children. The Soviet submarine was under orders to sink any unidentified vessel to keep war materials from reaching Germany. Only one man survived the sinking of the Struma – a 19-year-old man named David Stoliar.
If we find ourselves these days thinking about the Titanic, let's stop a moment, and remember 768 Jewish men, women and children, who were trying to escape being murdered by sailing to their Promised Land, only to die anyway, not directly by the hands of the Nazis, but by the turned backs of the uncaring world.