February 14, 2002
Struma Story Surfaces
On Dec. 12, 1941, 769 desperate Romanian Jews crammed into a rusty bucket of a ship, the Struma, at the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. They had sold their last possessions to escape war-torn Europe in hopes of making it to Palestine.
Thus began the war's lesser-known voyage of the damned, which ended in the death of all but one of the passengers and crew.
The story of the ill-fated ship, and the machinations of half a dozen nations that bore responsibility for the tragedy, has been captured in a gripping documentary, "The Struma." The film which will have a one-time screening on Feb. 24 at UCLA, thanks to the combined efforts of the UCLA-Ben Gurion University Program, the 1939 Club and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
The Struma's engines broke down as the ship was barely underway, and the passengers had to turn over their wedding rings to pay for the repairs. As the ship moved toward the Turkish coast, the engines failed again and it was towed to Istanbul.
There it was held for 70 days, the passengers confined to the ship under rapidly deteriorating conditions. The Turkish government didn't want to antagonize the Germans by providing passage for the Jews through the Straits of Bosporus to the Mediterranean, and the British, who may have sabotaged the ship's engines, were eager to keep the refugees from reaching Palestine.
While the passengers posted "Help Us" banners, the disabled ship was towed back to the Black Sea by the Turks and set adrift.
On Feb. 24, 1942, a single torpedo sank the Struma. All but one man were killed or drowned in the icy water. It was initially thought that a German submarine had fired the torpedo, but as documented in the film, it was a Soviet submarine, under orders to sink all neutral ships on sight to prevent supplies of chromium from reaching the Nazis.
Though the sinking represented the largest loss of life in the "illegal" immigration to Palestine, it might have been relegated to a historical footnote, but for the persistence of three men.
One is British computer programmer Greg Buxton, whose grandparents perished on the Struma. He was determined to find their last resting place on the bottom of the Black Sea and spent two years and all his money, mounting a diving expedition.
The second is David Stoliar, the sole survivor -- and whose experiences are worth a separate film -- who was determined to tell the story.
The third man is Simcha Jacobovici, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker and the son of Romanian Holocaust survivors, who decided to film the search for the Struma.
The result of the joint efforts is a 92-minute documentary that combines the adventures of the diving expedition, eyewitness testimony, the discovery of secret British and Soviet intelligence files and constant harassment by Turkish authorities and con men.
At the end, there is a moving ceremony, as relatives and friends of the Struma victims gather aboard Buxton's ship. A shofar blows, the Israeli flag is hoisted, "El Mahle Rachamim" is sung and an Israeli warship fires an honor volley.
Instrumental in bringing the film to UCLA is Professor Emeritus Samuel Aroni. He and his family had booked passage on the Struma, but two weeks before the sailing date, they were arrested by police in Bucharest.
"The Struma" will screen Sunday, Feb. 24 -- precisely the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the ship -- at 4 p.m. at the James Bridges Theatre, Melnitz Hall on the UCLA campus. Admission is free on a space-available basis. Parking in Lot 3, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue, is $6. Struma survivor Stoliar will be in attendance.