In a landmark event, the government commemorated 768 Jews who were killed when their ship, the Struma, sunk off Turkey's Black Sea coast in 1942 after it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. It is the first time that the government has hosted such an event commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy in an apparent move to reconnect with the Jewish community in the country that has long been neglected by past administrations.
Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik represented the government at the event, which was held off the coast of Istanbul's Sarayburnu district where the Struma was anchored for a few days before it was towed to the Şile coast in the north where it was torpedoed. Speaking at the event, Çelik said: "I extend condolences to Turkey's Jewish community on behalf of the government, but this does not mean that the Jewish community is an entity separate from Turkey. This is our shared pain. This event, organized by the state for the first time, is a way to remember this pain that is a part of our history. We will continue marking this day in the coming years as well so that the history will not repeat itself and no Jews, Muslims or Christians will suffer from such a tragedy," he said.
Recalling the instance of Muslims standing guard outside a synagogue in Norway, Çelik said: "Muslims and Christians should protect synagogues, Jews and Christians should protect mosques and Muslims and Jews should protect churches. We all pray to the same God and today Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia threaten humanity more than ever."
Struma had left Kosije, Romania in 1941 and was full of Jews fleeing to the Palestinian territories during World War II. It broke down near Istanbul and was anchored off the coast of Sarayburnu on December 15, 1941. Upon pressure from the U.K., which restricted Jewish access to the Palestinian territories, the Turkish government diverted the ship's route although it allowed some passengers to leave the vessel. Romania turned down a request to readmit the ship. It was then towed to the Şile coast after resting for 70 days off the coast of Sarayburnu, but a Soviet submarine blocking access to the Black Sea at the time torpedoed the vessel. A total of 768 people, including 103 children, were killed.
Çelik said that the Struma disaster should teach everyone a lesson. "The Jewish community is not Turkey's guest, but rather they are the host. We cannot tolerate their maltreatment."
Speaking at the event, Moris Levi, an acting leader of Turkey's Jewish community, said Struma was "an unwanted ship" for Turkey, Britain, Russia, Romania and "probably the whole of Europe." "Today, we commemorate the victims aboard that ship who were killed by hatred and isolation. There is no one to blame for the disaster because everyone held responsibility. Today, we should look forward to the future in the light of what happened in the past," Levi said, and thanked the Turkish authorities for "sharing their pain."
As Chief Rabbi İsak Haleva recited the kaddish at the commemoration ceremony, the call to prayer wafted through the sky. "This is not a coincidence. The call to prayer accompanies our prayers," Haleva said.