March 13, 2012

Remembering the Struma, at 30 and 70 years

Seventy years ago, on February 24, the Struma sank with some 800 starving passengers and crew, deliberately cast adrift and probably torpedoed by a Russian or German submarine. Adding to the tragedy were the circumstances: The Struma had sailed from Constanta, with Jews escaping the Holocaust; Turkey refused them entry at Istanbul unless the British guaranteed their visas to continue on to Palestine; the ship lingered for days, then weeks, and was eventually towed out back out into the Black Sea. Horrible. Unnecessary.

Thirty years after the Struma sank, we spent a long summer in Bucharest, getting to know the brutality of Communism -- and the daily luxuries of the Diplomatic Club -- firsthand. We also spent some wonderful days along the Black Sea resorts, including Constanta -- not yet aware of the dark association with the Struma. The closest friends we made there were Millie and Otto, who were spared the concentration camps of World War II, though Otto had endured the Russian Front and together they faced the darkest of Ceausescu's Marxist fantasies. As a young woman, before the war, Millie had managed to spend a year in the States, so her English was excellent and her regrets consuming.

I gradually absorbed
Millie's story, over successive visits to Romania, as I grew old enough to comprehend. Back in Romania, she was working for the telephone exchange and had saved enough money so that -- when one of her sisters booked passage aboard the Struma with her husband -- Millie was able to pay the fare for a younger sister to join them, presumably heading to safety. Later, as the ship sat in quarantine off of Istanbul, the husband's international firm was able to pull some strings and get landing cards for the married couple -- but not for Millie's second sister. All three stayed together aboard the Struma, and all three perished.

Millie blamed herself for all three deaths, since it was her savings that allowed the younger sister to travel -- dooming both her sisters and her brother-in-law.

There were no silver linings to Millie's story, nor in many of her other stories. She and Otto never had children, it never seeming like a good time to bring new people into their hopeless existence. We were able to smuggle in a double stainless steel sink on a subsequent visit, upon request from Millie, and at 17 I sneaked in an electric mixer all on my own. By that time, I was able to speak with Otto directly, having learned some French in high school -- he really enjoyed being able to express himself and listen without needing Millie's interpretations.

The one TV show I remember seeing regularly from our first stay was the old "Land of the Giants," about a rocketload of travelers stranded on a planet of giants, with cars and homes and tall blades of grass -- and a ruthless police force. Could they ever leave?

Even today, a few billion people remain trapped in dire economic and political circumstances, unable to get away and forced to choose between unpredictable, unbearable, regrettable options. The best they can hope for, if they're really lucky, is to live -- with the consequences.

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