Afraid of becoming victims of the horrors being perpetrated in Eastern Europe, 769 Jews attempted to flee to Palestine on board the Struma. But, instead of finding freedom, they found a world that didn't want to take responsibility for them, a world that cast them out, defenseless, into the raging seas.
On December 12, 1941, a Greek boat with a Bulgarian captain (G. T. Gorbatenko) under a Panamanian flag left Constanta, Romania bound for Palestine. The 769 passengers on board the 180-ton Struma had paid an exorbitant price for passage on this boat. They had been told they were to sail on a renovated boat to Palestine, with a short scheduled stop at Istanbul, Turkey to pick up their Palestinian immigration certificates. (Ever since the British enacted the White Paper in 1939, legal entry into Palestine had been extremely limited - the exorbitant fees for passage were supposed to include a legal entry certificate.)
Yet when the 769 Jews arrived to board the ship, they found an old, dilapidated cattle boat. The boat was extremely ill-equipped for this journey - it had only one bathroom for all the passengers and no kitchen. Since the passengers had put everything into this trip to freedom, they had to hope that the journey would be short and count on the immigration certificates to get them into Palestine. Thus, they boarded and sailed on the Struma.
Waiting in Istanbul The trip to Istanbul was difficult because the boat's engine kept breaking down, but they did reach Istanbul safely in three days. Here, the Turks would not allow the passengers to land. Instead, the Struma was anchored offshore in a quarantine section of the port. While attempts were made to repair the engine, the passengers were forced to stay on board - week after week.
It was in Istanbul that the passengers discovered their most serious problem thus far on this trip - there were no immigration certificates awaiting them. It had all been part of a hoax to jack-up the price of the passage. These refugees were attempting (though they had not known it earlier) an illegal entry into Palestine.
The British, who were in control of Palestine, had heard of the Struma's voyage and had requested that the Turkish government prevent the Struma from passing through the Straits. The Turks were adamant that they did not want this group of people on their land.
An effort was made to return the ship to Romania, but the Romanian government would not allow it. While the countries debated, the passengers were living a miserable existence on board.
Though traveling on the dilapidated boat had perhaps seemed endurable for a few days, living on board for weeks upon weeks began to cause serious physical and mental health problems. There was no fresh water on board and the provisions had long ago been used up. The boat was so small that not all the passengers could stand above deck at once, thus the passengers were forced to take turns on the deck in order to get a respite from the stifling hold.*
The British did not want to allow the refugees into Palestine because they were afraid that many more such shiploads of refugees would follow. Also, some British government officials used the often cited excuse against refugees and emigrants, that there could be an enemy spy among the refugees.
The Turks were adamant that no refugees were to land in Turkey. The JDC had even offered to create an on land camp for the Struma refugees fully funded by the JDC, but the Turks would not agree.
Because the Struma was not allowed into Palestine, not allowed to stay in Turkey, and not allowed to return to Romania, the boat and its passengers remained anchored and isolated for ten weeks. Though many were sick, just one woman was allowed to disembark and that was because she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy.
The Turkish government then announced that if a decision was not made by February 16, they would send the Struma back into the Black Sea.