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February 26: Mourning the Sinking of the Struma

February 26, 2014
image-498852-breitwandaufmacher-okuvJews of Palestine stayed indoors for twelve hours between noon and midnight on this date in 1942 to mourn and protest the killing two days earlier of nearly 800 Jews, including some 100 children, aboard the Struma, a ship carrying refugees from fascist Romania to Palestine. The Struma had been built in 1867 as a luxury yacht, but had long since been a cattle transport ship with an engine that worked only sporadically and enough tiny wooden bunks to transport almost 800 people — “like sardines,” said David Stoliar, the lone survivor of the disaster. “We couldn’t even turn over. But we had no way of going back.” (For an interview with Stoliar, click here.) When the Struma’s engine died near the Bosphorus, the British refused the passengers admittance to Mandate Palestine, and the Turkish government refused to allow them to disembark after towing the ship to Istanbul. After ten weeks of diplomatic impasse, the Turks then towed it back to the Black Sea, without food or water, and cut it adrift. A Soviet submarine fired a torpedo and the Struma sank in freezing waters. Some historians believe the submarine mistook the Struma for a Romanian vessel; others believe that Stalin had ordered the Soviet navy to fire on neutral ships in the region. The disaster helped to mobilize the Irgun and Lehi paramilitaries to fight the British. unit17.struma-1“In pre-state Israel there was shock and grief. Demonstrations were mounted. For one day all work and commerce were halted and the population imposed a voluntary protest curfew on itself. Posters appeared on exterior walls everywhere bearing British High Commissioner Harold Mac Michael’s photo and announcing that he was ‘Wanted for Murder.’” -Sarah Honig