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W.E. Gutman: Voyage of the damned

Posted: February 26, 2010 5:16 p.m.
Updated: February 28, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Last Tuesday marked the 68th anniversary of a now-forgotten event, the first of two incomprehensible acts of mass murder. Both would be eclipsed by the convulsions of a world at war then trivialized by the passage of time.

On Dec. 12, 1941, fleeing the pogroms in Nazi-occupied Romania, 778 Romanian and Russian Jews embarked in the Black Sea port of Constansa on a small vessel of dubious sea-worthiness, bound for then-British-controlled Palestine.

Under the command of a Bulgarian captain and flying the Panamanian flag, the Romanian ship was known as the SS Struma.

The crossing had been approved by Romania's fascist dictator and convicted war criminal, Ion Antonescu. All too eager to rid his country of the jidans, as Jews are still pejoratively called in Romania, Antonescu understood the consequences of his benevolence.

Passengers, who had each paid $1,000 (about $15,000 in today's currency) to make the voyage, had been kept away from the wharf where the Struma was docked.

When they boarded they were shocked to discover a greasy, dilapidated rust bucket. Sleeping quarters were primitive, filthy and cramped. There were only two lifeboats. Worse, the engine did not work. It had been salvaged from a wreck dredged from the bottom of the Danube River and installed with cursory repairs in the Struma's bowels.

Adrift for three days, the ship was towed to Istanbul, where it remained at anchor while "secret negotiations" were held over the fate of its human cargo. With diminishing food and water reserves, lacking proper sanitation facilities, conditions on the intolerably crowded Struma worsened.

In the wake of violent unrest within Palestine, which had collaborated with the Third Reich, the British government was determined to halt Jewish immigration and urged the Turkish government to prevent the ship from reaching its intended destination. The Turks complied by preventing engine repairs and forbidding passengers from disembarking or remaining in Turkey.

On the evening of Feb. 23, 1942, after 70 days at sea, Turkish police seized control of the disabled ship and towed it through the Bosporus into open waters, where it continued to drift.

At dawn a single torpedo launched from a Russian submarine tore into it, splitting it in half. A jubilant cable from the "junior officers, unit commander and non-commissioned officers" reported that the "SC-213 submarine encountered an unprotected enemy vessel - the SS Struma. Our crew showed courage and the ship was successfully torpedoed from a distance of 1,118 meters and sunk."

That day 103 children, 269 women and 406 men died, among them two members of my family. Turkish authorities did not conduct rescue operations for more than 24 hours. A lone survivor, David Stoliar, 87, is reported to be living in Bend, Ore.

Before dawn, on Aug. 5, 1944, sailing under the Turkish and Red Cross flags, the Mefkura, a motor schooner chartered to carry Romanian refugees to Istanbul, was suddenly illuminated by flares from an unknown vessel.

The Mefkura failed to respond and sailed on. It was then fired upon and began to sink. Only five of the 350 passengers survived. Like the SS Struma, the Mefkura, it was later learned, had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine.

In-your-face, prime-time images of man's inhumanity to man don't lie. Our world, history and the evening news remind us, is a sewer in which we wade knee-deep in the blood of martyrs. Gathered around the dinner table, we watch them die or fade away like ghosts.

"Past is prelude," we declare with snooty condescension. We owe it to our fragile, overtaxed psyches to forget an endless stream of atrocities: The methodical massacre of native Americans, the Holocaust, Biafra, the intertribal Hutu-Tutsi carnage, the bloodbath in Chiapas and the Guatemalan highlands, Bosnia, the 60-year-old bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and the wanton assassination of Central American street children by agents of the state.

Natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, shock us to our core and remind us of our own mortality. The images we replay in our minds are reinforced by a steady diet of gruesome or heart-rending images compliments of our local TV networks.

Then fatigue sets in - emotional exhaustion - and we tire of the spectacle that had kept us spellbound and anguished for a day or two.
Distance, racial differences and cultural incongruities - all help intellectualize other people's agony. We endure it by perfunctorily purging our souls after each act of infamy.

"You can't change human nature," we pontificate, as we partake of dessert. In a pinch, a mind-numbing sitcom will help set our minds at ease. We survive the truth by looking the other way.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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