One group of refugees was fleeing to Europe
while the other was seeking escape from Europe.
Two ships filled with hundreds of desperate refugees. Both stranded at sea. Both groups of refugees are refused entry to their initial destination.
For one ship, the European country of the intended destination refuses to admit the passengers, but charity agencies deliver food and medical aid. A few days later, other European countries offer asylum to the ship’s passengers. The refugees are saved.
The other ship suffers a less fortunate fate. The ship’s refugees are denied entry to their desired destination. They find themselves docked in the harbor of an unsympathetic country that prevents the refugees’ disembarkation. The passengers wait 70 days under horrific conditions. Finally, the unsympathetic country tows the now-disabled ship to sea. In the end, the ship’s refugees perish.
These two incidents take place years apart—-2018 and 1942.
By the year 2018 many thousands of refugees had migrated from North Africa to Italy and Spain through the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the refugees were from North and Central Africa. Others had fled Syria, Turkey and other impoverished or war-torn countries.
The non-profit rescue ship Aquarius retrieves refugees from inflatable boats stranded in the Mediterranean. Six hundred twenty-nine refugees, including 123 unaccompanied minors, board the Aquarius. The ship’s passengers are in a sorry state. They are exhausted and stressed. Many have spent time in the Mediterranean’s frigid waters. Refugees who swallowed sea water and had been resuscitated now face serious pulmonary disease. Twenty-one refugees, exposed to sea water mixed with fuel, now suffer from severe chemical burns. Others have orthopedic injuries.
The refugees seek asylum in Italy. But Italy has had enough of migrants and closes its doors to this group. The country’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is opposed to further migration. He points out that Italy has already absorbed 650,000 new migrants in recent years. Salvini is part of a new coalition government that wants other European countries to take their share of migrants. Thus, Salvini makes good on a campaign promise to close Italian ports to boats like the Aquarius that recover migrants at sea. The nearby island nation of Malta is a likely choice for these refugees. But the Malta government also refuses entry.
There is a stalemate for a few days. Charity workers deliver water, food, blankets and other provisions to relieve the human suffering. In the end, the Spanish and French governments agree to take all the refugees.
In December 1941 a rickety and unseaworthy ship, the Struma, sets sail from Romania. The ship is commissioned by Jewish organizations to help a group of Jews to survive. They are fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe, where Jews have been physically attacked, deprived of basic rights, their wealth, homes and businesses, and herded into ghettos and concentration camps.
The Struma docks in Istanbul, Turkey, where the plan is to await official permission to disembark in British Palestine. But the British authorities have imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, at the same time that millions of Jews face persecution and mass killings in Europe. The situation is desperate.
The ship remains docked in Istanbul for 70 days while Jewish officials try desperately to obtain certificates from the British government to allow the passengers to disembark in Palestine. Turkish officials do not allow the refugees to disembark in Turkey, fearing that the Jews might remain.
The Struma is an old cargo barge, used previously to transport cattle. It can accommodate 150 passengers, but now 769 refugees are packed on board. With so many souls crammed onto the Struma, conditions on the ship are horrific. The local Jewish community provides some help but it is not enough. The ship is cold and filthy. There is a shortage of food and water.
Finally the Turkish authorities grow impatient. Despite the captain’s desperate pleas that the ship is not seaworthy, they tow the Struma out into the Black Sea. The next day a torpedo launched from a Russian vessel strikes the ship, causing a massive explosion. All the people on board perish, except for one poor soul.1
What Accounts for the Different Fates of the Aquarius and the Struma?
One group of refugees was fleeing to Europe while the other was seeking escape from Europe. This hardly seems to account for the difference in the fate of the two groups of refugees.
In both cases, many segments of Europe looked with disfavor on the refugees. Thus, Europeans should have been more, rather than less, inclined to provide assistance to the Struma refugees whose departure would free Europe of at least a small number of Jews. But the British restriction on Jewish immigration to Palestine got in the way.
The most obvious difference between these two refugee strandings is that they occurred at different historical periods. The Struma incident occurred during wartime. European countries were concerned about their self-defense and were perhaps less willing to expend resources on humanitarian efforts. The international news media were filled with reports of wartime battles, so the fate of a few hundred civilians grabbed less attention than it might have in peacetime. In the case of the Aquarius, Italian authorities were reluctant to admit refugees. They were mindful of the impact of hundreds of thousands of refugees who had already entered Italy in the years prior to the incident, as well as the election of a new anti-migrant government. On the other hand, Italy was a stable and affluent country that could certainly absorb a small handful of additional refugees. And, when Italy refused, Spain and France quickly stepped up to save the day (as of this writing).
It is understandable that Europeans might feel that refugees coming from a different culture and religion would pose a threat to Europe, or that they would present problems of integration. But despite that, in the case of the Aquarius, Europe opened its arms to a group of people from a foreign culture, one whose refugees had already presented security and integration challenges. None of these factors could have operated in the case of the Struma. The passengers were from the heart of Europe and in any case, they sought to leave the continent. The Struma passengers were also educated and likely to contribute to the economy of any country to which they fled, unlike the Aquarius passengers who arrived to Europe with little education or special skills.
Did the North Africans of the Aquarius arouse greater sympathy because they were under greater threat than the Jews of the Struma? Hardly. Although some of the Aquarius refugees were fleeing persecution, many if not most, were economic migrants. They had fled their home countries, not to save their lives, but to improve them.
By contrast, the Jews of the Struma had fled to save their lives. By the time the Struma set sail with its desperate human cargo, the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht attacks had happened. The Jews of Germany and other European countries had already lost their homes, wealth and jobs by government edict and violence. Many had been herded into ghettos where they were imprisoned and starved, and many others had been transported to labor camps where their fate was unknown. News of the mass killings of the Jews had begun to spill out.
The Aquarius tugged at the heartstrings of Europe because the incident took place during an era of instant communication, social media and ever-present cell phone cameras. These brought the refugee horrors up close to millions around the world. No one can forget the image of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose his lifeless body washed up on shore after his refugee boat capsized in the Mediterranean. Many other images of starved and frightened people piqued the conscience of the world.
By contrast, the Struma incident occurred before television and social media. The European and world public got the news from newsreels at the neighborhood cinema, radio broadcasts, or dry newspaper reports, often accompanied by a grainy newsprint image. None of these had the emotional impact of a cell phone video of a starving migrant, his eyes wide with fear. It was easier to look away from the plight of the Jewish refugees.
The World Turns Its Back on the Jews
There is another possibility. Did the passengers of the Struma die because of the world’s antipathy to Jews?
Perhaps the greatest culprit was the British government. It was the British government that denied the request of the ship’s passengers to disembark in British-ruled Palestine. It was wartime, and the British felt the need to favor the Arabs for their support of British war efforts in North Africa and the Middle East. The Arabs were vehemently opposed to Jewish immigration into Palestine. But did the British really believe that allowing a mere 769 Jews into Palestine would disadvantage their war effort? And after all, the Jews were helping the British war effort by serving in Jewish Infantry Companies in Palestine.
I don’t know if the Jews on the Struma considered seeking asylum outside of Palestine. But if they did they need not have bothered. The countries of the world had put up onerous visa requirements that effectively trapped Jews in Europe. In contrast to today’s North America, Europe and Australia, which have taken in millions of legal and illegal refugees, in 1941, Jewish emigration out of Europe’s graveyard was shut tight.
Although the Turks allowed the Struma to dock in Istanbul for 70 days, in the end, their disdain for Jews won out. Impatient with the inability of the Jewish agencies to gain permission for the Struma to set sail for Palestine, Turkish authorities forcibly towed the Struma into the middle of the Black Sea, which led to the death of all but one of the passengers.
The recounting of history always has an element of speculation. It is never possible to know every detail of historical events, much less all the actions and motivations of relevant actors. It is also not possible to know with assurance how the beliefs and sentiments of various actors contributed to human tragedies.
But in comparing the events of 1942 with those of 2018, I cannot help but feel that the 768 Jews who perished on the Struma were victims of the world’s antipathy to Jews.
This was one of many bitter lessons for world Jewry. Jews died because they had no country to call their own. That deficit was remedied on May 14, 1948 when Israel became the world’s first modern Jewish state.
- It was not until 1964 that a German historian discovered that the Struma had been sunk by a torpedo launched from a Soviet submarine. The submarine had been under orders to sink all enemy and neutral ships entering the Black Sea as a way to stop shipment of materials to Nazi Germany.
The only survivor was a 19 year old refugee who was rescued by a group of Turks in a passing rowboat. Many passengers died from drowning when they were trapped below decks. Many others survived the initial sinking by clinging to pieces of wreckage but later died of drowning or hypothermia after hours passed and no rescuers came on the scene.