Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, after Israel apologized for the Mavi Marmara affair in which nine Turks were killed while attempting to violently break the siege on Gaza, called upon Turkey to apologize to Israel for the almost-700 Holocaust survivor deaths after the Struma sank in February 1942.

Turkey had refused to permit them to remain there although there was no guaranteed passage for these Holocaust survivors to the Land of Israel, which was then under British control.

The Romanian Jews who were aboard the Struma were attempting to escape an almost certain death. In January 1941, there was a pogrom against Bucharest Jews, in which Jewish shops were looted and burned, while synagogues were destroyed. This pogrom claimed 120 lives. In June 1941, approximately 4,000 Jews were massacred in northern Romania and thousands more were forced out of their homes. Within a two-month period, half of the 320,000 Jews living in Bessarabia, Bukovina, and the Dorohoi district were murdered. A reign of terror was in full effect throughout the country. Jews were concentrated into ghettos. Starting in September 1941, deportations were commenced from Bessarabia to a region known as Transnistria. Within two months of deportations, 22,000 Jews were killed. The situation was very bleak for Romanian Jews during the Holocaust period.

In the beginning, Romania permitted Jews to escape this horrible fate by leaving the country. Leaving was their last hope for life. There were only two routes out of Europe, one through Portugal and the other through Turkey. Portugal closed its doors to the Jewish people after 1940. Many then headed for Turkey, with the goal of reaching the Holy Land.

As the late Ira Hirschmann, War Refugee Board representative, wrote in his book, Life Line to a Promised Land, “The gateway of escape through Turkey had been technically open since 1941 to a small number of refugees moving by rail from Bulgaria. In order to not overload their trains, the Turks made a restrictive limit of sixty persons to be carried each week from the Axis satellite countries—Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.”

Thus, in December 1941, 769 Romanian Jews attempted to go to Israel via Turkey aboard the Struma. Due to British anti-immigration policy as well as technical difficulties, the Struma was stranded in Istanbul. Although the passengers lacked sufficient food and water, and many were ill due to poor sanitary conditions, the only people who offered assistance were members of the Turkish Jewish community. The Struma passengers were thus stranded for 70 days under these atrocious conditions.

According to historian Bernard Wasserstein, writing in the Legacy of Islamic Anti-semitism, “The Turks refused to allow them to land unless they had guarantees of admission to some other country. The British refused to grant them certificates to enter Palestine. The failure of the two governments to agree culminated in the boat being towed out to sea and abandoned to the waves.”

By Rachel Avraham