LOS ANGELES, Feb. 3 (JTA) — On Dec. 12, 1941, some 769 desperate Romanian Jews crammed into a rusty bucket of a ship at the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. They had sold their last possessions to escape war-torn Europe on the ship, called the Struma, in hopes of making it to Palestine. Just after leaving port, however, the Struma´s engines broke down, and the passengers turned over their wedding rings to pay for repairs. As the ship moved toward the Turkish coast, the engines failed again and it was towed to Istanbul. Thus began the war´s lesser known voyage of the damned, which ended in the death of all but one of the passengers and crew. The story of the ill-fated ship, and the machinations of half a dozen nations that bore responsibility for the tragedy, has been captured in a gripping documentary, "The Struma." The film will begin a limited release later this month. The ship was held for 70 days in Istanbul´s harbor, with the passengers confined aboard under rapidly deteriorating conditions. The Turkish government didn´t want to antagonize the Germans by providing passage for the Jews through the Straits of Bosporus to the Mediterranean. The British, who may have sabotaged the ship´s engines, were eager to keep the refugees from reaching Palestine. While the passengers posted "Help Us" banners, the disabled ship was towed back to the Black Sea by the Turks and set adrift. On Feb. 24, 1942, a single torpedo sunk the Struma. All but one man were killed or drowned in the icy water. It was initially thought that a German submarine had fired the torpedo, but as documented in the film, it was a Soviet submarine under orders to sink all neutral ships on sight to prevent supplies of chromium from reaching the Nazis. Though the sinking represented the largest loss of life in the wartime immigration into Palestine, it might have been relegated to a historical footnote but for the persistence of three men. One is British computer programmer Greg Buxton, whose grandparents perished on the Struma. Determined to find their last resting place on the bottom of the Black Sea, he spent two years and all his money mounting a diving expedition. The second is David Stoliar, the sole survivor, who was determined to tell the story. The third man is Simcha Jacobovici, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker and the son of Romanian Holocaust survivors, who decided to film the search for the Struma. The result of the joint efforts is a 92-minute documentary that combines the adventures of the diving expedition, eyewitness testimony, the discovery of secret British and Soviet intelligence files, and constant harassment by Turkish authorities and con men. At the end, there is a moving ceremony, as relatives and friends of the Struma victims gather aboard Buxton´s ship. A shofar blows, the Israeli flag is hoisted, the El Ma´aleh Rachamim prayer for the dead is sung and an Israeli warship fires an honor volley.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.