Struma disaster

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Struma disaster
Coordinates 41°23′N29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217 Coordinates: 41°23′N29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217
Date24 February 1942
TargetThe ship Struma, carrying Jewish refugees from Romania to the British Mandate of Palestine
Attack type
Ship sinking
Weapons torpedo
Deaths781 Jewish refugees, 10 crew members (5 Bulgarian, 3 or 4 Jewish, one Hungarian) [1]
Perpetrators Soviet Navy

The Struma disaster was the sinking on 24 February 1942 of a ship, MV Struma, that had been trying to take nearly 800 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 [2] but had recently been re-engined with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine. [3] [4] 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) [5] [2] but an estimated 791 refugees and 10 crew were crammed into her. [6] [1]


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 boat 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. [6] Only one person aboard, 19-year-old David Stoliar, survived (he died in 2014).

The Struma disaster joined that of SS Patria – sunk after Haganah sabotage while 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. [7] [8]

Voyage and detention

Struma had been built as a luxury yacht, [4] 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. [9] The Mossad LeAliyah Bet intended to use her as a refugee ship, but shelved the plan after the German entry into Bulgaria. [9] Her Greek owner Jean D. Pandelis instead contacted Revisionist Zionists in Romania. [9] 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. [9]

Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship. [9] [10] The exact number is not certain, but a collation of six separate lists produced a total of 791 passengers and 10 crew. [6] [11] Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas. [12] Ion Antonescu's Romanian government approved of the voyage. [10]

Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage. [13] Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees' valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them. [13] 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. [14] The berths were bunks on which passengers were to sleep four abreast, with 60 centimetres (2 ft) width for each person. [14]

On 12 December, 1941, the day of her sailing, Struma's engine failed so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa. [15] The waters off Constanţa were mined, so a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield. [13] She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine. [15] She transmitted distress signals and on 13 December the Romanian tug returned. [15] The tug's crew said they would not repair Struma's engine unless they were paid. [15] 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. [15] Struma then got under way but by 15 December her engine had failed again so she was towed into the port of Istanbul in Turkey. [15]

There she remained at anchor, while British diplomats and Turkish officials negotiated over the fate of the passengers. Because of Arab and Jewish 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. [14] At night each child was issued a serving of milk. [14]

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, Madeea Solomonovici, was admitted to an Istanbul hospital after miscarrying. [10] 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 ] According to some researchers, a total of 9 passengers disembarked while the remaining 782 and 10 crew stayed on the ship. [1] Others believe that there had only been 782 passengers initially, only Madeea Solomonovici being allowed to leave the ship. [16]

Towing to sea and sinking

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) Struma-map.jpg
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. [14] 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. [14] The police detached Struma's anchor and attached her to a tug, which towed her through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea. [14] [17] 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. [18] [ 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. [14] [18] [ page needed ]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. [19] [20]

Struma sank quickly and many people were trapped below decks and drowned. [21] 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. [14] [21] Of the estimated 791 people killed, more than 100 were children. [22] Struma's First Officer Lazar Dikof and the 19-year-old refugee David Stoliar clung to a cabin door that was floating in the sea. [23] [21] The First Officer died overnight but Turks in a rowing boat rescued Stoliar the next day. [21] He was the only survivor. Turkey held Stoliar in custody for many weeks. Simon Brod (1893-1962), a Jewish businessman from Istanbul, who during World War II helped to rescue an untold number of Jewish refugees who reached Turkey, arranged for Stoliar's meals during his two-month incarceration. Upon his release, Brod brought Stoliar home. He provided him with clothes and a suitcase, and a train ticket to Aleppo after Britain gave him papers to go to Palestine. [24] [25]


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". [26] Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, serving in the British army at the time, wrote a scathing poem, mourning the loss and betrayal of Struma. Having volunteered in the British army to fight the Nazis, he now called the British khaki he wore a "badge of shame." [27]

For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered that Shch-213 [28] had fired a torpedo that sank the ship. [29] Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources. [30] 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. [31]

Frantz and Collins call Struma's sinking the "largest naval civilian disaster of the war". [32] Greater numbers of civilians perished in other maritime disasters of the war, including Wilhelm Gustloff , Cap Arcona and Junyō Maru , but there were also military personnel aboard those ships 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]. [33]



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 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 Struma; the wreck found by the Turks was far too large. [34]

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 chose to not attend for family reasons. [35]

Soviet Shch-213 submarine

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. [36]

See also

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Sources and further reading