768 Jewish migrants who died aboard a torpedoed ship off the Istanbul coast in 1942 were remembered in the city yesterday. The incident was a dark chapter in the history of World War II for Turkey, Britain and Russia.
Turkish officials from the governorate and Foreign Ministry joined the Jewish community and foreign diplomats at a spot where the ship Struma, carrying the migrants, was anchored 76 years ago and left flowers at sea in memory of the victims. A rabbi and a chazzan recited kadish, a prayer for the deceased before speeches to remember the disaster.
At the height of the war in which Turkey tried to pursue a neutral policy, the ship had left Constanta, Romania, in December 1941 with its Jewish passengers fleeing Nazis. The ultimate destination of the journey, which was organized by Jewish organizations across the globe, was British-ruled Palestine. Passengers hoped that Turkey would grant them access to the Bosporus for travel to Palestine, but Ankara refused, allegedly upon pressure by Britain, which sought to restrict the number of migrants to Palestine. For days, the ship remained anchored off the Istanbul coast, and after diseases broke out it was held in quarantine. On Feb. 23, 1942, it was towed out to sea by Turkish security forces, and the next day, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, allegedly by mistake. Only a 20-year-old man among the migrants survived the attack, and in a twist of fate, he would be the only one to be granted a visa for Palestine by the British a few months later.
Speaking at the remembrance event, Istanbul Governor Vasip Şahin said Turkey gave humanitarian aid to migrants stranded aboard the ship, while waiting for access to Palestine and exerted efforts for their passage. "However, under the circumstances of the war, diplomatic efforts failed," he said. He pointed out that Turkey was pressed by the international community to join the war and allowing such ships could have been a pretext to force it to join, it still allowed 21 other ships carrying migrants to cross the Bosporus. "Turkey helped 1,084 Jews to reach Palestine and granted 159 others asylum. It also gave transit visas to thousands of Jews traveling to Palestine during World War II," he said. "The Struma disaster is an unforgettable incident in the history of Turkey, which has been viewed as a safe haven by Jews for centuries."