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The Struma & The unmitigated policy of the British against Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's war against them

The events of the Struma indicated the unmitigated lengths to which the British would extend their influence to enforce their policy against the "illegal" Jewish immigrants fleeing from Hitler's war against them. The government had been ever more rigid in its watch against the little refugee ships, lest

it will be spread all over Arab world that Jews have again successfully challenged decision of British Government and that policy of White Paper is being reversed.
This undoubtedly would be followed, according to the "most immediate" cable from the British Commander in Chief in the Middle East, by "widespread disorders in Palestine," which could "greatly enhance influence of Mufti" and create general distrust among other Arab countries such as Egypt, which was already heavily engaged in "anti-British propaganda and fifth column activities."[31]

The Struma incident occurred against the background of 1) ever-tightening Nazi maneuvers to prevent the Jews' escape in Europe; 2) the readmission into Western Palestine of the Mufti's collaborators; 3) the continuous Arab in-migration to the Jewish-settled areas; and 4) the wholesale immigration to Western Palestine of Arabs from surrounding Arab states, which will be detailed in following pages.

According to the official Anglo-American chronology in its evasive, compressed logging of events,[32] the Struma was a "motor vessel" that "arrived at Istanbul [Turkey] with some 750 Jewish refugees from Roumania on board," on December 20, 1941. The Turkish government, according to the terse paragraph in the Report describing the incident, "was unwilling to permit these people to land in Turkey and enquired whether they would be admitted into Palestine." "For security reasons," the Report stressed, ". . . a ban on the admission of persons from Axis and Axis-controlled territory" was in force, hence "the Turkish Government was informed that the 'Struma' passengers would not be admitted to Palestine." However,

the Palestine Administration ascertained that, given reasonable weather, the vessel should be fit to undertake a Mediterranean voyage.
The Anglo-American chronology continued: when "the Jewish Agency ... asked that [the security ban] be raised generally and in respect of the 'Struma' passengers," they were "notified that the security ban could not be removed, but that children between the ages of 11 and 16 from the Struma would be admitted to Palestine."

The Report informed its readers of the Struma's tragic end, two months after its arrival at Istanbul, by the following:

It was later learnt that, before the relevant arrangements had been completed, the Turkish authorities returned the vessel to the Black Sea. It sank on the 24th February as the result of an explosion, with a loss of 760 Jewish passengers.
The Report's bloodless, banal recitation of its version of events up to that point became noticeably less detached thereafter, as this heated description of the aftermath of the Struma's sinking illustrates:
As soon as the news reached Palestine a violent campaign was launched by the Jews against Government; violently abusive pamphlets and manifestos condemning the 'murder" of the passengers by the Palestine Government, demanded the removal of the restrictions on immigration.
Throughout, the abbreviated official account seems to reflect a helpless but blameless British role. Other documents provide another version.

Regarding the Turkish government's reactions, for example: more fully documented accounts of the Struma catastrophe show that the Turks were willing to allow "and even assist" the ship to Palestine, but the British Ambassador in Ankara said that his government "did not want these people in Palestine." On December 20, he suggested an alternative:

If the Turkish Government must interfere with the ship ... let her rather go toward the Dardanelles.... if they reached Palestine, they might despite their illegality receive humane treatment."
London was "dismayed" by the Ambassador's advice -- not because it was brutal to send the worn old ship away, but because he had indicated that the refugees on board the Strurna would perhaps "receive humane treatment." As one Colonial officer complained,
... the first occasion on which ... the Turkish Government ... help in frustrating these illegal immigrant ships, and the Ambassador then goes and spoils the whole effect on absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds.[34]
Others, including High Commissioner MacMichael and Colonial Secretary Lord Moyne, were in ardent agreement. Moyne asserted his prime rationale for turning back every Jewish refugee, although not one instance was ever found -- "preventing the influx of Nazi agents under the cloak of refugees." Moyne felt it "difficult to write with moderation about this occurrence, which," he reminded, was
... in flat contradiction of established Government policy and ... urge that Turkish authorities should be asked to send the ship back to the Black Sea, as they originally proposed."[35]
Regarding the two months when the Jewish Agency begged the British to reconsider the "security" ban while the Strurna was docked near Istanbul: in that period the Rumanian Jews were attempting to escape from what the United States minister in Bucharest reported were wholesale slayings of Jews whose bodies were hung and displayed on "butcher's hooks."[36] At the same time, British intelligence had unearthed "not a single case" of "any Jewish refugee acting as an enemy agent in Palestine" that might justify Lord Moyne's anxiety.[37] Both Palestine and Home Office officials confirmed that none was ever known to exist, and that "the Jews themselves" would have turned on a Nazi agent.[38]

High Commissioner MacMichael added a further argument against this boatload: that most of the passengers were "professional people" and would be an "unproductive element in the population."[39] MacMichael had failed to fathom what the Nazis knew and utilized in the concentration camps on an insidiously temporary basis-that able-bodied persons, Jews or otherwise, whatever their former vocation, made productive laborers when their lives depended upon it.

Regarding the rescue of the children on board the Strurna.- the Report's cryptic comment implied that the Turks interfered with British "arrangements" for transferring the youngest refugees to safety. The facts were less unequivocal.

Documented accounts tracing the plight of the ill-fated, unequipped boat -- originally built in 1867 and designed to hold one hundred rather than the nearly eight hundred souls aboard -- indeed found that even the children, without their parents, would not be permitted by the Turkish government to be transported over Turkish land to Palestine.

The British, however, would be allowed to send a boat that was in the area to pick up the children from the Strurna. But no boat was found by the British to rescue them. The possibility of the British rerouting a nearby ship to rescue the Jewish refugee children apparently was never a serious consideration, since a British foreign officer, writing the day after the Turkish ultimatum, enumerated the choices of his government without ever mentioning that measure. Further, he "imagined" that "selecting the children and taking them from their parents off the Struma" -- even if the British "got the Turks to agree" to overland transfer "would be ... extremely distressing." The Foreign Office official continued, asking,

Who ... should undertake it, and has the possibility of the adults refusing to let the children go been considered?[40]
One survivor, David Stoliar,* made an official deposition three months later. Stoliar described the Turkish police boarding the ship "in force" and the Jews' impotent resistance to the orders to go back to Rumania:
... some of the passengers ... came to blows with the police, but the police overpowered them and there were some 100 to 200 policemen. They took the ship some ten kilometres from the coast and left us.... early in the morning ... an explosion occurred.
[* There was one other survivor-a pregnant woman who managed to escape from the ship to Istanbul, where herbaby died. Her husband drowned with the Struma.]

Stoliar and "the second Captain ... jumped into the sea" when "the ship started to sink." The explosion had been "caused by a torpedo which he [the second Captain] saw." Although the ship-only ten kilometers offshore-was visible from the Turkish coast, as the coast was visible to Stoliar,

Nobody came to our help from ashore. The second Captain who was with me in the sea disappeared about a quarter of an hour before the saving boat arrived.[42]
Turkish Naval Intelligence corroborated the report that the ship was sunk by torpedo. David Stoliar, after hospitalization and imprisonment,[43] eventually was allowed, along with the other survivor, Medea Salamovici, into Western Palestine through "an act of clemency." But not until High Commissioner MacMichael had been overruled in his objection to the two survivors' entry: MacMichael held the view, shared by so many of his British colleagues, that if these two immigrants were permitted into Palestine, the "floodgate" would "open" and "completely undermine our whole policy regarding illegal immigrants."[44] Who fired the torpedo has never been determined, but the Palestinian Jewish community indeed blamed the tragic drowning of more than 750 men, women, and children on the British letter of the law that killeth. On that point, the Anglo-American Report was deadly accurate.

The Jewish underground in Palestine accused Sir  Harold MacMichael, the British High Commissioner, of murdering the passengers of the "Struma" by refusing to grant them entry visas to Palestine.

The drowning of the people on board the Struma killed the last remnant of hope among Palestinian Jews that the British might yet honor the Balfour Declaration and observe their legal obligations under the Mandate, the Mandate that had gained for England the right to Palestinian rule.

By 1942 London had publicly received (over a BBC broadcast) the word that the Jews of Eastern Europe were being "physically exterminated on Polish soil, using the Ukrainian and the Lithuanian Fascists for this job."[45] Walter Laqueur writes that the report

mentioned a great many facts and figures about the number of Jews killed in various places.... It gives a figure of 700,000 victims and says that ... the German Government has begun to carry out Hitler's prophecy that in the last five minutes of the war, whatever its outcome, all the Jews of Europe would be killed.[46]
That news had been published in America in August 1942. Ironically, the Americans' unaltered, minimal prewar-prescribed annual quota-27,370 "German and Austrian" immigrants allotted for 1942-was only 17.8 percent filled .[47] In Palestine, Government hoped to avoid the embarrassment of another Struma, by sending whatever straggler shiploads of Jewish refugees might still slip somehow through the tightened Nazi bonds on to the island of Mauritius. But, to appease Arab protests, Britain declared that after the war the Jews must return to Europe and not enter Palestine.

The awkward alteration of policy -- to allay what some British feared would be a Jewish "insurrection" if no concession was offered -- was given full if inadvertent cooperation by the Nazis. In 1942, Jews found it "virtually impossible" to escape. "The total number of immigrants to Palestine (both legal and illegal) in 1942 was 3,038, the lowest figure for any year of the war. "[48] The Jewish immigrants who made it to the Jewish-settled area of Western Palestine under the status of "illegal" were in fact "placed in a detention camp on arrival." Only if they passed the "careful security check" and were adjudged not to threaten the "overriding principle of economic absorptive capacity" would they be "released." And then they would be "set off"--deducted-from the "quota."[49] This meant that they were in fact not "illegal" at all, since they had merely taken some of the inconceivably few Jewish places that the Arabs had agreed to, those allotted in the White Paper.


31. Wavell to Eden, November 30, 1940. PRO PREM 4/51/2/116. Ibid., p. 71. For Mufti's probable first official contact with the Third Reich, July 16, 1937, see L.Hirszowicz, Third Reich and the Arab East (London, 1966), p. 34.

32. Anglo-American Committee, Survey, vol. 1, pp. 63-64.

33.Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, in reply to Assistant Secretary to Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 20,1941: Angora to Foreign Office, PRO CO 733/449 (P3/4/30). Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 145.

34.S.E.V. Luke minute, December 23, 1941, PRO CO 733/449/P3/4/30. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 145; also see Bethell, Palestine Triangle, p. 133ff. 

35.Moyne to Law, December 24, 1941. PRO CO 733/449/P3/4/30. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, pp. 145-146; also see High Commissioner, Jerusalem, to Colonial Office, December 22, 1941.

36. Foreign Relations of the US., 1941, vol. 11, p. 860. Cited in Bethell, Palestine Triangle, p. 112.

37. Shertok to Macpherson, February 13, 1942. PRO CO 733/446/76021/42/55. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 147.

38.CO 722 455,1941; from Thomas Snow; Richard Catling, "senior Palestine policemen specializing in Jewish Affairs," in Bethell, Palestine Diangle, p. 114.

39.To Colonial Office, telegram, February 17, 1942. PRO FO 371/32661/56 W2483/652/48. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 151.

40.Randall to Boyd, February 19,1942. PRO FO 371/32661/57 W 2483/652/48. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 151; also see Bethell, Palestine Triangle, pp. 116-117; also see account of Menachern Begin, The Revolt (New York: Nash Publishing, 1951, 1952, 1977), p. 35, in which the Struma.was reported to have "arrived off the coast of Eretz Israel," when it was ordered back to Rumania and "sank" when it was "half-way there."

41. Wasserstein, Brit#n, p. 156.

42.David Stoliar to Jaffa C.I.D., May 3, 1942. PRO CO 733/446 76021/42/26-7. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, pp. 152-153. 

43. Wasserstein, Britah% pp. 152-153. 

44.Ibid., p. 156; High Commissioner Jerusalem to Colonial Office, March 19,1942. PRO CO 733/466/76021/42 (1942)/62; Beyoglu to Admiralty, February 27, 1942. PRO CO 733/466 76021/42/105. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain, p. 153.

45.SSP file 15, 26. "Translation of report from the Polish 'working-class party,' " the Bund, based on Yehuda Bauer, "When Did They Know?" in Midstream, April 1968, p. 57. Cited in Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret, Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution, " (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), pp. 136-137. The "mass killings" of Jews "began in June 1941 and continued with mounting ferocity for the next three years," according to an exhaustive study by Nora Levin, The Holocaust. The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 287-289.

46. Laqueur, Terrible Secret, p. 137. 

47.In 1941 only 47.7 percent of the refugee quota had been filled. David S. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941 (Amherst, 1968), pp. 220-222; also see Arthur Morse, While Six Million Died,- Henry Feingold, The Politics of Rescue.

50. Source of pictures: Simon Wiesenthal Center

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
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