SS Struma Is Sunk by a Russian Submarine

February 24, 2019


February 24, 1942

After being mistaken as an enemy ship, the SS Struma, carrying nearly 800 Jewish refugees, including 70 children, hoping to immigrate into Palestine is sunk by a Russian submarine in the Black Sea.  On December 12, 1941, the ship left from the Romanian port of Constanta on the Black Sea with 769 passengers bound for Istanbul, where the passengers planned to apply for visas for entry into Palestine.

The ship was a converted cattle transport which had been used to move livestock along the Danube River.  Originally intended to hold approximately 100 passengers, it was ill equipped for the voyage it was undertaking and lacked proper sanitary facilities.  The Struma arrived in Istanbul on December 16th with great difficulty, a result of its engines malfunctioning while on route.

Anchored in Istanbul harbor for nearly ten weeks (shown in photo) and in need of repairs, the passengers were refused the hoped-for visas to go to Palestine as well as entry into Turkey.  Appeals to British officials to allow the ship to travel to Palestine were refused.  On February 23rd the Turkish authorities towed the boat back into the Black Sea to send it back to Romania.  The passengers resisted the Turkish police at first, but reinforcements arrived and herded the passengers into the lower decks.  According to the only survivor, David Stoliar, as the ship was towed out to sea it lacked a working engine, anchor, radio, food or water.  The following day the ship was accidentally sunk by a Soviet submarine torpedo.

The Struma was part of a larger operation known as Ha Mossad L’aliyah Bet (The Organization of Aliya Bet—the ‘illegal immigration of Jews into the Land of Israel) which oversaw immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe in contravention of British restrictions.  From 1934-1939, HaMossad L’aliyah Bet organized fifty missions that brought 20,000 immigrants from Europe.  Efforts were interrupted during the war, but were resumed in 1946 under the code name of Bricha, meaning “rescue.” An office was set up in Paris and special envoys were sent to Displaced Persons Camps to help bring survivors to Israel.  From 1946-1948, 64 missions brought 80,000 immigrants from Europe to the land of Israel. The sinking of the Struma sparked outrage through the Jewish world and especially in Palestine against British immigration restrictions in wake of the 1939 White Paper. The photo below shows a wanted poster featuring British High Commissioner Harold MacMichael that was distributed in Palestine. (Photo source: Frantz, Douglas, Collins, Catherine, Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the ‘Struma’ and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2003.)