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."
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, the Struma
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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." 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. 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.
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." 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
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
-- 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
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.
Turkish Naval Intelligence corroborated the
report that the ship was sunk by torpedo. David Stoliar, after hospitalization
and imprisonment, 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." 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.
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
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
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." 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.
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 . 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. " 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."
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,
36. Foreign Relations of
the US., 1941, vol. 11, p. 860. Cited in Bethell, Palestine Triangle, p.
37. Shertok to Macpherson,
February 13, 1942. PRO CO 733/446/76021/42/55. Cited in Wasserstein, Britain,
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,
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%
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,
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
50. Source of pictures: Simon
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