Were it not for the whips being brandished by Hitler's conscientious disciples, 769 individuals would never have dared to leave their lives to the mercy of hostile waves and stormy seas, inside a nutshell that breathed laboriously on account of its own weight.
Excerpt from the testimony of David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma disaster.
Life on Board the Struma
The overcrowding on the ship was oppressive, and there were no sanitation facilities or safety features. The Struma left port about six months after the first murders of the Jews of Bukovina and Bessarabia in northern Romania took place, at a time when the Romanian Jewish community sought ways to confront the new reality. The passengers planned to reach Turkey, where they would receive entry permits to Eretz Israel. The ship arrived at Istanbul port, but the promised permits did not materialize. The passengers languished on board for ten weeks in an area designated for quarantined ships, and their situation gradually deteriorated. They subsisted thanks to the Jewish community in Istanbul. In postcards sent when they anchored at port, they wrote of their dire situation: the fact that the ship was not seaworthy, the severe shortages and their anxiety and suffering. At the same time, they expressed the hope that they would be able to realize their hopes and dreams, and reach Eretz Israel. In a postcard sent on 14 February 1942, one passenger wrote:
I have been on board the Struma on the Istanbul seashore for some two months now together with a large number of other emigrants, with no connection to the outside world, in horrific conditions and with bleak prospects. My request: Do everything you can to save us… Our situation is utterly desperate, but we believe that we will soon reach our final destination.
(L. Kuperstein, Megillat Struma, published by the Association of Immigrants from Romania in Eretz Israel, 1942, p. 73)
The British would not admit the Ma'apilim (illegal immigrants) to Eretz Israel at the expense of the immigration quota. The Turkish government rejected the request to move the Ma'apilim to a temporary camp financed by Jewish organizations until their immigration could be organized. The Turks allowed just nine passengers to disembark. On 23 February 1942, the Turkish coastguard towed the ship out to sea without water, food or fuel, despite the passengers' opposition. A few hours later, on the morning of 24 February, the Struma was sunk by a Soviet submarine torpedo. All the individuals on board except for one drowned, including ten crew members, some of whom were Jewish. 19-year-old David Stoliar was the sole survivor.
Responses to the Struma Disaster in the Jewish World
Rumors of the Struma's sinking spread rapidly. It was the largest maritime disaster suffered by the Ha'apala (illegal immigration) operation. The Yishuv's National Committee cancelled all the Purim celebrations scheduled for the following week. Most synagogues held memorial services for victims of the Struma. After Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) was read on Purim, congregations read the Megillat Nedudai Yisrael (Scroll of Israel's Wanderings), composed by Chief Rabbis Uziel and Herzog. The Committee called to the Jews of Eretz Israel and the Diaspora to hold a day of mourning and national protest on the seventh day after the tragedy.
The victims of the Struma were commemorated by a monument established in Bucharest at the initiative of Max Ludovik, who lost his two sons, Edward and Immanuel in the tragedy. Ludovik prepared a list of victims, and submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem in their memory. Monuments commemorating the Struma were erected in Holon and Ashdod, while streets and synagogues throughout Israel are named after the ship, in recognition of its tragic fate.