Thursday, January 28, 2016

Remembering the Struma

It’s a truism, I suppose, that sensory perception—the general rubric for the various ways we experience the world through our senses—functions in the world outside ourselves more like a straw convention that makes us feel linked to each other without there being any actual proof for real commonality of experience.  So you and I agree that roses are red because “red” is the word we English-speakers use to denote things that appear to us to be of that specific color. But knowing—not just asserting, but actually knowing—what you see when you look at a red rose and being certain that it’s exactly, or even inexactly, what I myself see—that is an entirely different proposition. We could probably also agree that potato chips taste salty, but what that means is that our taste buds, when they come into contact with salt, somehow encode that experience in the kind of electronic impulses that our brains can decipher and prompt us to label with that specific word, a word that bears meaning only because the toddler-versions of ourselves were told by our parents to use that word to describe that thing. But to know with any actual certainty that your brain interprets that signal exactly as mine does and that we actually are sharing not only the word but the actual experience of having exactly the same taste experience—who could ever say that with any certainty?

As a result, we live in a world that feels linked by common experiences expressed in common language…but it’s only the language that can truly be verified as shared: the experience just feels that way but without any empirical data proving that we actually are seeing or tasting (or hearing, etc.) the same thing. And what’s true for people is also true for nations, I believe. Or perhaps I should speak only of what I truly do know: that there is a certain false commonality of experience that makes the world able to contextualize specific events in Jewish history so as to make them feel like the Jewish equivalents of other events in other people’s histories…but which, from the inner vantage point of the actual members of the House of Israel, feel totally unrelated to those events in any but the least profound way possible. We use the same words to describe these things because words are all we have to describe anything. But that hardly means that we experience them in the same way.

These thoughts came to mind as I read the other day of the death of David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma. His name was unfamiliar to me. But the back story that makes his story simultaneously miraculous and horrific was well known to me…and serves in my own mind as one of those examples of experiences that feel shared because we use the same words to tell other people’s vaguely similar stories but that also feel entirely unique and unrelated to those other stories. 

The Struma itself has mostly been forgotten. Once it was a luxury yacht, a 150-foot steamer built in the mid-nineteenth century, but by the 1930’s it had been relegated to carrying cattle up and down the Danube under the Panamanian flag. And that what it was doing when several Zionist organizations, desperate to find a way to help Jews escape the Nazis, hired it with the idea of using it to bring hundreds of Jewish refugees from fascist Rumania to British Palestine, all of them men, women, and children who were almost surely going to be killed if they found no way to flee. Eventually, there were 781 passengers aboard along with ten crew members. The ship left the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanza, but the engines failed repeatedly. At one point, the passengers—who were mostly robbed of their cash and valuables when attempting to board the ship—were obliged to give up their wedding bands to pay the captain of a passing tugboat to repair their engines. Sanitary conditions were abysmal: there were eight toilets for almost eight hundred people. Eventually, the engines failed decisively. For a while, the ship just sat there…and then, eventually, the Struma was towed to Istanbul. And that is where the tragedy began in earnest.

The British refused to grant the passengers visas to enter British Palestine. The Turks refused to allow the passengers to disembark at all. When the British—under enormous pressure—finally agreed that children between the ages of eleven and sixteen—a tiny percentage of the people on board—would be given visas for Palestine, it meant nothing because they refused to provide a ship to transport them further and the Turks refused to allow them to leave the ship to find land transportation. Finally, the Turks, eager to be rid of the whole messy incident, forcibly towed the boat through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea. Since the engines were completely dead, the Turks simply abandoned the ship in the middle of the sea and returned home. There were two lifeboats on board and no life preservers at all. What the Turks thought would happen next is not recorded, but doesn’t seem that hard to guess.

That guess would have been wrong, however, because there was a huge explosion aboard the ship on the morning of February 24, 1942, that caused it almost immediately to sink. Most passengers and crew went down with the ship. Some clung to pieces of wreckage only to die in the sea when no rescue vessels of any sort came to help. Of the 791 aboard (including about 100 children) in fact, only two survived in the water for more than a day: Lazar Dikof, the ship’s First Officer, and a teenaged boy. By morning, Dikof was dead. The boy, now the sole survivor of the Struma, was eventually rescued by some civilian Turks who passed by in a rowboat. And that boy was David Stoliar, the man who died twenty months ago at age ninety-one in the little town of Bend, Oregon, where he had lived for many years. His death went unnoticed, reported only in local Oregonian newspapers and in Haaretz. 

Who sank the Struma? For many years, it was an open question. But eventually it was determined unequivocally that the ship was attacked by a Soviet submarine acting in accordance with standing instructions to sink any neutral ships that entered the Black Sea to prevent them from bringing supplies that could eventually have reached Germany. Whether the commander of the sub, D. M. Denezhko, knew he was essentially murdering almost eight hundred civilians is unknown. And so the Struma began its final journey, the one from the front pages of the world’s newspapers into oblivion, its very name unfamiliar to all but scholars of the Shoah. 

For almost sixty years, Stoliar said nothing, preferring to live his life out in peace without reference to the horror he experienced as a young man. But then, in 2001, the Canadian film director Simcha Jacobovici (who in a different lifetime was once one of my younger brother-in-law’s Hebrew School teachers at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto) found him and coaxed him into appearing in his documentary about the disaster called The Struma. There was, briefly, an awakening of interest in the story…and then it too disappeared beneath the waves of history forgotten and that, until the other week when David Stoliar’s death was reported on at length in the New York Times, was that. (To see Robert D. McFadden’s lengthy story about Stoliar’s life and death, click here.)

I write today not merely to recall the Struma, however, lamentable though it may be that it’s been so largely forgotten. Nor do I write publicly to regret the fact that the Struma somehow never got the Hollywood-style treatment that the S.S. St. Louis and its doomed passengers got in the 1976 movie The Voyage of the Damned with its all-star cast and huge P.R. budget. But more than taking note, yet again, that Emily Dickinson was entirely right about fame being “a fickle food upon a shifting plate,” I think of the Struma as one of those examples of events that sound similar to others because we use the same language to describe them but which feel entirely different to the people whose legacy those events actually constitute.

There have been other terrible disasters at sea, obviously. Everybody knows about the Titanic and the Lusitania. (There’s a shifting plate here too, however: how many New Yorkers have heard of the General Slocam, the passenger steamboat that caught on fire and sank in the East River on June 15, 1904? 1,021 of the ship’s passengers died that day, more than in any New York disaster other than 9/11. But I can’t recall ever hearing anything about it until I started my research for this letter.) The vocabulary used to describe these events—including the sinking of the Struma—is all more or less the same. But the feelings the story of the Struma awaken in me are wholly unrelated to the other famous shipwrecks of our time. The Titanic was a true disaster, one that could and should have been averted. But the Struma is about something else entirely:  the utter, absolute powerlessness of Jewish people in the face of an uncaring world that considers their very existence a problem and their annihilation the solution to that problem. The British could easily have saved every single one of those people, but they chose to do nothing. (And that, despite the fact that they were at war with those people’s would-be murderers.) The Turks certainly could have saved them too, and even more easily—merely by allowing them to leave their barely sea-worthy boat and find shelter in Turkey from their would-be murderers—but that too was not something the Turks saw as being contrary to their own best interests. The Soviets, possessed of a mighty army and world-class intelligence services, could surely have ascertained that the cargo aboard the Struma was constituted solely of doomed souls facing death in Rumania or life anywhere at all not under Nazi domination (including the unoccupied part of the Soviet Union itself), but they chose instead to sink the boat and let all aboard drown. Problem solved!

So when people talk about the Struma using the language of shipwrecks and at-sea disasters, it sounds vaguely right. But that is not at all how it feels, at least not to me personally.

The Struma is resting at the bottom of the Black Sea, its passengers long since gone to their eternal reward and its sole survivor now too gone from the world. So is the wreckage of the MV Mefküre, a Turkish ship carrying more than 300 Jewish refugees from Romania to Istanbul that the Soviet Navy also sank in the Black Sea on August 5, 1944, murdering in the process all but five of its passengers. The same world that forgot about the Struma has also forgotten—even more entirely, if that were only possible—about the Mefküre. But I remember them both. And when I say, as I so often do, that there is no possibility of the IDF being too powerful or well-armed, that there is no rational argument in favor of Israel seeking peace by making itself less strong or less able to defend itself successfully, or that the nations of the world are being untrue to their own history by pretending not to have any idea what they can ever have done to make Israel mistrustful of their real intentions, I am remembering the Struma in my heart and responding to the image thus conjured up of military powerlessness, diplomatic impotence, and utter and absolute helplessness. It is not a picture I wish to see replicated in the future…which is why I feel so unambiguously in favor of a strong Israel possessed of a mighty army, navy, and air force. And why I feel so little inclined to join the hand-wringers and nay-sayers for whom the Struma was just a boat and its passengers just victims of a world gone mad. Surely, the sinking of the Struma and the Mefküre were tragedies, but they are also potent symbols, their stories not only worth remembering as examples of terrible things that once occurred, but also worth taking to heart as a lesson about the world and the place of Israel among the nations. It is a sobering lesson, the one inspired by those sunken symbols. But that only makes the lesson unnerving and anxiety-provoking, not untrue. And that is what the Times’ belated obituary of David Stoliar inspired in me and moved me to want to write to you all about this week.

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