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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

March 21, 2003

Fleeing the Holocaust, Only to Find It Waiting at Sea

A review of book that tells a story little known. From such incidents, a recogniton that Jews needed a homeland. Reg (free) req'd
On Feb. 24, 1942, a ship crowded with Jewish refugees fleeing Romania sank in the Black Sea. Of the nearly 800 men, women and children on board who had hoped to reach Palestine, only one man, a 19-year-old named David Stoliar, survived. The ship was the Struma and its tragic story is the subject of Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins's compelling book, "Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II's Holocaust at Sea."

Though largely forgotten today, the Struma was the worst civilian maritime disaster of the war. When the ship went down it became a rallying cry for Zionists who blamed Britain for refusing to allow the ship entry to Palestine or to grant it a temporary resting place in a British colony. But as Mr. Frantz, former investigations editor and correspondent for The New York Times, and Ms. Collins, a journalist based in Turkey, make clear, it was also the murderous indifference of Turkey, which set the ship adrift in the Black Sea without a working engine, and the brutality of the Soviet Union, which actually torpedoed the Struma, that share responsibility.

And of course the story unfolds against the black backdrop of the European war against the Jews. Tickets for the Struma went on sale on Sept. 3, 1941, the day the Nazis began experimenting with gas chambers at Auschwitz. In Romania the Iron Guard had begun slaughtering Jews even before the country entered the war on the German side.

Mr. Frantz and Ms. Collins offer a useful introduction to the peculiar character of the Holocaust in Romania — a country that had changed sides three times during World War I and that had been awarded large holdings from Russia and Hungary and Austria for finishing on the side of the Allies.

The new acquisitions greatly enlarged the Jewish population of a country that was the last European nation to grant citizenship — in 1923 — to its Jews. Remarkably, roughly half of Romania's 750,000 Jews survived the war, but the country's early, spasmodic acts of anti-Semitic violence stand out even in the general inhumanity of the Holocaust: during a pogrom in Bucharest in early 1941, Jews were forced to crawl through a slaughterhouse where they were butchered like cattle, beheaded and stamped "fit for human consumption."

The account of Romanian brutality helps explain the willingness of Jews to risk their lives on ill-equipped, overcrowded ships. The Struma, which had been a Danube cattle barge, was primarily carrying wealthy Jews who could afford the exorbitant ticket prices, along with young men from Betar, the right-wing Zionist youth group that helped organize illegal immigration