ISTANBUL -- A recent visitor to the Jewish neighborhoods of Istanbul, home to the majority of Turkey's 24,000 Jews and 16 Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues, is reminded of a tragic but little-known event that occurred near here 58 years ago. It has become a focus of attention again.
On the night of Feb. 23, 1942, 768 Jewish refugees from Romania died as their ship -- the Struma -- was sunk by a Soviet torpedo just outside Istanbul harbor after Britain denied visas to those aboard and Turkey refused to allow the ship to continue to Palestine. At the time, Palestine was under British mandatory rule.
The fate of the Struma was a landmark because it lessened hope among Jews that the British might still honor the Balfour Declaration, the British statement of policy published in 1917 to "view with favor" and "facilitate" a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. In 1939, publication of the infamous British White Paper contradicted the Balfour Declaration because it set a quota of 75,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine during the next five years.
Seventy-five descendants of the Struma's passengers recently traveled by boat to the site where the ship is believed to have sunk, in the Black Sea about five miles from Istanbul. There, the deputy chief rabbi of Istanbul led a memorial service, which included the sounding of a shofar, which is a ram's horn used in Jewish religious services. The relatives had come to Istanbul from Israel, England and the United States for the special Remembrance Day ceremony.
For the past several weeks, an international group of recovery experts has been searching for the wreck of the Struma, carrying out sonar surveys and bringing in divers to identify and film the ship's final resting place.
Sponsors of the Struma expedition include the Turkish government and the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which plans to develop an exhibit about the Struma. A Canadian video company, whose Jewish director is of Romanian origin, will produce a documentary about the Struma and its relationship to the Holocaust. Plans are for the film to be shown in the United States, Britain, Canada and Europe.
The Struma project is being organized by Greg Buxton, a computer analyst and diver, who lives in Britain. Although his father left Romania to settle in England, Mr. Buxton's grandparents stayed in Romania and were among the more than 700 Jews who paid $1,000 each to gain passage on the Struma, hoping to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. There also were 30 physicians, 30 lawyers, 10 engineers as well as business owners, craftsmen and students aboard.
Dec. 7, 1941, marked the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan and the escalation of the war into a global conflict.
The ill-fated Struma, a 74-year-old vessel with an under-powered engine and overloaded with passengers, set out for Istanbul Dec. 12, 1941. En route, its engine failed. Following makeshift repairs, the Struma limped into Istanbul, eliciting cheers from its passengers. Its engine was taken out for additional maintenance.
But Turkish authorities, facing limited resources for their own people, refused to let the refugees come ashore. Instead, they were forced to remain in the harbor for 70 days while negotiations ensued between the Turkish and British authorities over the fate of the ship's passengers. Food, water and other supplies were brought to them by the local Jewish community.
Following the collapse of negotiations, and over vehement protests from those aboard, Turkish authorities towed the Struma back to the Black Sea. With no functioning engine, anchor or sail, the Struma drifted.
A Soviet submarine in the area fired a single torpedo at the defenseless vessel, sinking it instantly. Four hundred and six men, 269 women and 103 children died. Among them, I recently learned, was my distant cousin, a 33-year-old Romanian attorney.
Lawrence M. Lesser teaches business-government relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.