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“One of the most striking events that brought the Holocaust and Turkey to an intersection.”

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The 46 metre converted ‘gentleman’s yacht’ Struma left Romania in December 1941, with 769 Jews aboard praying to be transported to the Holy Land. (Photo: supplied)

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“David was terribly tired. He kissed Ilse, after Saimon, Fredy and Thea left. He caressed her belly: ‘Heeey little man or little woman! You should also be very tired. Now sleep well with your mother. The dawn will bring a new day and a new struggle. You don’t know how lucky you are. Once you will be born, you will have no idea bout these difficult days. And you will take as story what we will tell you about the difficult life we had.’

Ilse and David hugged. Kissed for a while. Ilse climbed down to the lower deck to her rack. She curled up. Exhausted, she fell in a deep sleep. David, trying to avoid who were sleeping underfoot on the deck, found himself an unoccupied corner, to sleep at least for couple of hours. (…)

A heavy air and odor was coming up from the lower deck where hundreds of men, women and children were sleeping. Some were snoring others murmuring. There were also those who were crying and shouting while dreaming. (…)

 Dawn was already there. A breeze was gently blowing from the North. The sea was wavy… Suddenly there was a thunder like explosion. The old body of the vessel was splitted up into two. Hundreds of thousands metallic and wooden pieces went up to the sky. All sleeping in the lower deck were killed at once. Some others died a little slower, whereas some were scattered in the freezing sea. They were swimming hopelessly trying to find pieces of wooden logs where they could cling on.

 David and four others have fallen out to the sea, just with the explosion without being aware of what was happening. The ship had already disappeared in the wavy waters…(…)”

This quotation is taken from the first pages of Halit Kakinc’s novel, whose title may be translated as “Struma: The 72 days long tragedy of the 769 Jews, off Istanbul”. It explains the plight of those people fleeing the Nazi persecution to reach Palestine, for a better and secure life, in their own country.

The Struma sank in the Black Sea, early in a windy morning, near Istanbul’s remote village of Sile. The main character of the novel David Stoilar was the only soul that was saved by fishermen, from the terrifying explosion hitting the poorly equipped vessel. The sea devoured all other passengers, including his love Ilse and their unborn baby.

It was the 24th of February 1942. She had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine operating on a secret mission: To sink all vessels, no matter what they carried, just to keep the Nazi Army from receiving munitions.

The Struma left the port of Constanza, Romania on 12th of December 1941, with 769 Jews and 10 crew members on board. These Jews paid important sums expecting a safe trip to Palestine, via Istanbul, where they would receive their visa to get in the Holy Land.

Things were getting extremely tough for Jews in Romania. A neutral country at the beginning of the war, Romania chose to go along with Hitler after the coup that toppled down King Carol II. The new leader was the Army Marshall Ion Antonescu. A devoted Nazi sympathiser, Antonescu was also backed by the fascist paramilitary organisation, the Iron Guard, who do not miss to join the Einsatzgruppen on the murder of 400,000 Romanian Jews from 1940 to 1944.

Being charted by the Revisionist Zionist Movement, the 74 years old Struma was obviously not in a position to complete this very difficult journey from Romania to Palestine. An engine that only worked from time to time, 120 places to be shared by 769 passengers, limited food and medication, no hygiene, were the conditions imposed on the desperate passengers.

The Struma arrived in Istanbul on the 15th of December. Anchored off the Topkapi Palace from where the Ottoman Sultans ruled for centuries, it started a vigorous and tense diplomatic negotiation between the Turkish authorities and British diplomats.

At that time, Britain was ruling the Palestine Mandate. The increasing Jewish immigration to the promised land and the Arab reaction to that, embodied in the revolt that started in 1936, had put the British officials in Palestine in a difficult position. The endless tension was intolerable, and Britain felt herself more and more threatened by Arab nationalists that were glimpsing to Hitler. Indeed, the Nazi rhetoric had a positive impact on the Arabs who were openly supporting the Führer who was opposing both their “oppressor”, Britain and their “troublemakers”, the Jews.

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The fragile situation compelled the London Government to work out a new “White Paper” in May 1939, just before the start of WW2. This was a document regulating the various policies related to the Palestinian Mandate. The document limited the annual immigration of Jews to 15 thousand per year for the five years to come… It was a tragic decree that was held active during all the years during which European Jews were systematically exterminated by the Nazis and collaborators.

Thus, passengers trying to reach the Holy Land and squeezed in the deck of the Struma were the subject of fierce negotiations between Turkey and Britain. Britain was reluctant to grant entrance visas – that were promised to the passengers – and Turkey was fearing a German outburst in case these Jews were allowed to land Turkish soil. Needless to say, the Ankara Government was torn between Britain and Germany, both trying to convince President Ismet Inonu to join the war at their side.

A delicate equation was in place in December 1941: There was fierce fighting near Moscow, Germans trying to break into the Soviet capital and the Red Army trying to stop them by all means. Furthermore, with the Pearl Harbor bombing by the Japanese Imperial Navy Air Service, the US was engaged in hostilities, declaring war on Germany on the 11th December 1941…

Obviously, caught on board the Struma, those Jews fleeing from the extermination squads had no idea about what was going on in the world. The Jewish community of Istanbul was helping them with food and medication. The community’s leadership was also negotiating both with the British and US delegations as well as local officials so that the situation could be cleared in a proper way.

A passenger, Madea Solomonovici, was taken out to the Or Ahayim Hospital – the still operating Jewish hospital. She needed medical treatment as there was a problem with her pregnancy. Saul Martin Segal, the Manager of the Standard Oil Company in Romania, and his family were also released from the floating coffin, with the efforts of the prominent Turkish industrialist Vehbi Koç.

On the other hand, Turkish technicians were trying to fix the engine, so that the vessel could go back to Constanza. Romania, at her end, already stated firmly that the refugees would not be accepted to land…

David Stoilar, at age 19, was the only survivor of the explosion of the Struma in 1942. (Photos supplied)

Then? Nothing! No permission was allowed to the rest of the passengers. In the end, with the continuous pressures, Britain made some steps back. British officials said they would accept the immigrants to Palestine provided they come by land. Having a ship at the shore of the Holy Land would be out of the question.

The Ankara Government, led by Prime Minister Refik Saydam, refused categorically to allow the immigrants to land on Turkish soil. This was the red line of the Turkish position. No doubt that officials in Ankara were reluctant to make further positive steps to bring a solution to the plight of Struma’s passengers. The only thing that could be done was to pull the Struma to the Black Sea, as it had been impossible to repair the engine.

This was a deliberate decision that excluded all negotiations and free from all humanitarian aspects. The Struma, with no engine, no energy was towed to the Black Sea and left to float at some 10 km to the North of the entrance of the Bosporus… She was somehow convicted to her tragic end. The sinking of the Struma was the “largest naval civilian disaster of the war. It was one of the most striking events that brought the Holocaust and Turkey to an intersection. It was an immense blow to Turkey’s Jewish community, which was enormously stressed, having the German Army nearly at their doors.

The Struma (Photos supplied)

Historian Ayşe Hür writes that then Prime Minister Refik Saydam later made the following statement:

“We have done everything that was possible to be done. We have no responsibility on that incidence. Turkey cannot be home to other’s unwanted immigrants. This is our way. That’s why we did not allow them the disembark the passengers…”’

In 2005, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Prime Minister told the Knesset: “The leadership of the British Mandate displayed… obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates of Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus, were rejected the requests of the 769 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).”

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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