Surplus Jews

We Jews permit ourselves degrees of intolerance towards each other that we would never exhibit toward others outside our community. The settings are numerous – theology, Halacha, denominations, politics and more.

But nowhere are the vehemence and the inability to actually listen to those with whom we disagree more pronounced than with regard to the State of Israel.

The great irony of our age is that arguments about how to safeguard the Jewish state are a significant part of what now threatens to destroy any semblance of unity among the Jewish people. It is therefore helpful to have periodic reminders of just how much is at stake in the survival and flourishing of this state.

This week affords just that opportunity, for we are just days shy of the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Struma. Few people today remember the Struma or its story; the young among us cannot even imagine the Jewish existential condition that it reflected, a condition that the state has, thankfully, completely eradicated.

The story begins in 1941, when it was clear to many Eastern European Jews that they were destined for a horrific end. In Romania, several Zionist organizations, Betar among them, commissioned a Bulgarian ship to transport almost 800 Jewish passengers to Palestine – the Struma.

Like Europe, however, the Struma was a disaster waiting to happen. The ship was barely more than a floating tub, 61 meters in length and six meters wide, which had been built in 1830 for shipping cargo; it had subsequently been used to transport cattle. It was powered by a motor that had apparently been salvaged from the bottom of the Danube River. The immigrants aboard had, according to some accounts, but a single bathroom.

Their only sources of comfort were the knowledge that they were finally succeeding in fleeing a burning Europe, and that the whole trip to Istanbul, the first leg of their journey, would take merely 14 hours.

The Struma set sail on December 12, 1941, but the engine gave out almost immediately. The tugboat that had towed them out of the harbor eventually sent its navigator and engineer on board, but they would only fix the engine for a large sum of money. The passengers, however, had given all their money to the Romanian customs officials. So they parted with their gold wedding bands in return for the repairs.

Four interminable days later, the boat limped into the Istanbul harbor, where it would remain for months.

Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark – what country would want a boatload of homeless Jews? Nor did Britain want them to make their way to Palestine; the British were anxious to assure an increasingly restless and sometimes violent Arab resistance that limits on Jewish immigration would be enforced.

On February 12, almost two months after the boat had left Romania, the British finally acquiesced and granted Palestinian visas to the children on board. But His Majesty’s government refused to send a ship to collect them, and Turkey refused to grant them overland passage. The children thus remained on board. With negotiations between Turkey and Britain at a standstill, Turkish officials towed the disabled boat up the Bosporus Strait toward the Black Sea.

Passengers hung signs over the side that said “Save Us” in both English and Hebrew. The signs were plainly visible to people on the shores of the Bosporus, but no one, of course, did anything to help them.

When the hapless Struma reached the Black Sea, the Turks abandoned the ship, leaving it to drift. The next morning, on February 24, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Struma, which exploded and sank. Of the 769 people on board, only one survived, by holding on to wreckage for more than 24 hours. His name was David Stoliar, and he was imprisoned in Turkey for several weeks, then admitted to Palestine. Stoliar served in the British Army during the war, and then in the IDF during the War of Independence; he later moved to Oregon.

There is much we do not know about the Struma catastrophe. Why did the Soviets sink the boat? Did they mistake it for something else? Did the British actually encourage their Soviet allies to sink the ship in order to “solve” the problem without putting pressure on Palestinian immigration? Some people believe so, but we will probably never know with certainty.

The incident, now mostly forgotten, had all the iconic elements of the Shoah. Human beings transported with equipment once used for cattle. Subhuman and unlivable conditions. Helpless Jews, whom no one wanted, with nowhere in the world to go. And finally, of course, mass death, with no graves to mark the fact that these innocent people had even existed, and had died for the simple reason that they were Jews.

Perhaps the most important element of the story to remember is to be found in a British governmental communication from 1941, referring to the Jews who were desperate to escape Europe and who, the British rightly understood, would try to make their way to Palestine despite British objections. “We should have some alternative scheme in hand for disposing of these surplus Jews, who having escaped from persecution in Europe, are going to be kept in detention camps in British colonies,” the communication stated matter-of-factly.

“Surplus Jews”: The phrase is used with no hint of embarrassment, no expression of responsibility. “Surplus Jews,” as in human beings that are, for now, a commodity – until they become literally worthless. “Surplus,” as in not needed, as in a problem that needs to be disposed of.

No one uses this phrase anymore. Not the British, nor the Turks. Not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nor Mahmoud Abbas. People across the globe still have their beef with us; some are justified, most are not. But whatever one might say about the State of Israel, one thing is clear – the Struma incident simply could not happen today.

It is simply impossible for today’s Jews to find themselves in a world in which no one wants them or will have them. That, perhaps most fundamentally, is the dimension of Jewish life that Israel has changed, hopefully forever. Jews may be all sorts of things, but we are no longer “surplus.”

It is worth remembering now just how much has changed in the past 70 years. And as we battle over how Judaism should be manifested in this state, what its borders should be and how we can best protect it, the memory of the Struma ought to serve as a chilling reminder of what we will lose if the stridency of our debate rips our people – and then our state – asunder.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

23 Comments on "Surplus Jews"

  • Josey Anstey says

    Thank you, Daniel, for once again cutting through the Fog of our internal debate to the essence of why all Jews, particularly American Jews need to support the state of Israel as the state for Jews throughout the world.

  • Eugene Kay says

    A very well-made point.

    My recollection of the holding of the Struma off the Istanbul coast is that a pregnant woman was allowed off the ship.

  • Joe Adler says

    Thank you so very much for re-telling the story of the Struma. As a long time reader of your wonderful writing, and as the son of ma’apilim that traveled a similar route, and only a few months apart, on the Darien II (another story!), I am grateful that they did not meet the same fate as the Struma. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom

  • Robin Weisel-Capsouto says

    I fail to see what makes you so sure that an incident like the Struma could not happen today. Why would it be “impossible” for today’s Jews to find themselves in a world where no one would have them?

  • Charles Iseman says

    Thanks, Daniel. I feel very moved by the story of the Struma and even more determined that Israel survive with defensible borders.

  • Jacqueline says

    Yes thank you , if we are unwanted our vote counts and we should remember it. I have always heard that a jew should always have a passport ready. Hope we never need it

  • Adam Karns says

    As long as the President of the U.S. and the Prime Minister of Israel don’t get along; the peace process won’t go anywhere, which is the best thing for the state of Israel. The status quo is fine. As long as the peace process does not move forward, things stay relatively quiet.

  • Yaakov Simcha says

    There are two issues which come to mind after reading your article: BDS and global Jewish unity.
    While the existence of a Jewish state is integral to the immediate continuity of the Jewish people, can we ensure that Israel will survive until 2048? At this rate, the world’s public opinion is that Israel is an apartheid state who deserves to be boycotted, divested from, and sanctioned. If BDS continues to succeed, golbal Jewry will be met with disaster. When the world decides that Israel is invalid, Israel runs the risk of floating belly-up.

    Beyond the BDS movement, there is a different issue which needs to be seriously addressed: should American/Global Jewry have a say about Israel’s policies? It is bothersome to American Conservative and Reform Jews that they cannot daven by the kotel in a mixed seating area. Should Israel hear those complaints if they are not citizens?
    I cant say if Jewish unity is more important than attacking the BDS movement, though remembering our history is a good first step.

  • irwin Kerber says

    Another good example of why we diaspora Jews must support Israel at all costs, regardless of our sometime disagreements with her policies. Jewish Americans understand – we must make sure American Jews understand.

  • Sheila Novitz says

    Thank you, Rabbi Gordis. I thought my knowledge of 20th century Jewish history was pretty thorough, but I did not know about the Struma.

    I cannot agree that Jews today could never be thought of as “surplus.” Nor do I believe it impossible that we could once again find ourselves in a world where no-one wants us. Anti-Jewish sentiment is as strong as ever, in fact stronger than it has been at any time since 1950, and scarcely a week goes by that I do not hear deeply offensive remarks about and against us.

    If Israel does not survive, I cannot even begin to imagine a non-Jewish world willing to add 6 million Jews to its various populations. We also need to keep in mind that Islam is growing in every country – and Muslims really do NOT want us. Islamic teachings based on the Quran make it quite clear that “Muslims will not know peace until every Jew is dead.” Nothing will persuade fanatics that our small numbers prevent us doing Islam any harm even if we wanted to – which we don’t.

    There are still countries in Europe that conduct election campaigns on an anti-Semitic platform – with scarcely any Jews living there. Lithuania has dug up its anti-Jewish posters from the 1930s and is now exhibiting them; Poland retains an anti-Jewish radio station; the list goes on. In Australia, signs reading “Kill the Jews” and “Another Six Million Please” are not uncommon.

    Very depressing, intensely frightening, but it is immensely important that we keep this in mind and that all of us help in every possible way to keep Israel intact. Even if we can only do it with money, from a distance.

  • Howard Stevens says

    Yes indeed, the stridency Dan Gordis criticizes is a threat to Israel.

    Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the West Bank Settlement of Hebron, approves of the killing of Arab civilians in time of war and killing Arab children to prevent them from growing up to be “evil adults.”

    Shas spritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel…”

    Shas attacks attacks human rights and civil society organizations, repeatedly labeling them as “anti-Israeli” and “aiding terrorists.”

    Likud MK Danny Danon: “Barack Hussein Obama adopted the staged plan for Israel’s destruction of Yasser Arafat…”

    Other examples of such wild, unprincipled, abusive, unsupportable, destructive and unproductive rhetoric abound.

    Hopefully, Dan Gordis will direct his concern internally, and in Hebrew, where his message needs to be heard loud and clear!

  • Michal says

    Thank you for this beautiful article. I learn a lot from everything you write and thoroughly enjoy reading your work.

    With gratitude,


  • Janet Clifford says

    I wrote this article in 2010 for our Shul Magazine.

    Our friends Mike and Rochelle invited us to go with them to Istanbul, Turkey and meet up with their son Jonathan, who was part of a team of deep-sea divers searching for the Struma, we thought that it would make a nice holiday. Although I knew that there was going to be a commemoration ceremony, I had no idea of the impact that these few days would have on us all.

    The Struma set sail from Constanza, Romania with just under 800 Jews on board, including 103 children on 11th December 1941 their destination was Palestine. They had paid 1000 dollars a head to pack into a converted cattle boat which had been adapted to take 150 people, it had one freshwater outlet and one toilet. After just a few hours at sea the engine broke down and the crew of a passing ship agreed to fix it in return for all the unfortunate passenger’s jewellery and money. On 15th December the little boat limped into Istanbul and the passengers celebrated, they had arrived in neutral Turkey albeit after a four day journey which should have taken 12 hours. The Turkish authorities under the direction of the British refused to allow them to dock, they were kept on the boat for 71 days, obviously sanitary conditions deteriorated and dysentery and lice were rife. All appeals to the Turks and the British failed and on 23rd February 1942 a tug towed the Struma out to the Black sea, with its broken engine, if indeed it had an engine at all, and the Jews were abandoned to their fate. The following morning a Soviet submarine torpedoed the helpless vessel with its helpless human cargo, and with only one exception, everyone on board lost their lives.

    The organiser of the trip was a young man called Greg Buxton, who lost his paternal grandparents in the Struma, he is also a diver who volunteered with his fellow divers, at their own expense to try and locate the wreck. He announced his intentions on the Internet and was overwhelmed with the world-wide response from relatives of the passengers. Greg organised a documentary film crew under the Direction of Simcha Jacobici to make a documentary film of the search and the memorial events, for the bereaved relatives in honour of those who perished. Greg’s father told me that he had left Romania in 1935 to study engineering at London University, he had been in a fight with a member of the Iron Guard and could never again return to his native Romania. After the death of his parents he joined the British Army ‘to fight Nazis’ first as an engineer, then a glider pilot and finally when the war ended, as an interrogator, he apparently speaks many languages fluently and without accent. While interrogating a suspected German war criminal the man told him that he was not a German but that he was a harmless Romanian and produced documentation which showed that he was a member of the hated Iron Guard, needless to say that was a great mistake on his part.

    The group all got together before Shabbat on Friday night; some of the relatives had photographs of their loved ones. There was one very emotional meeting between a lady whose first cousin was a young bride who had married four days before embarking on the Struma, she did not know her cousins married name and was therefore unable to identify her from the list of passengers. The sister of the groom recognised the photo of the young couple, and these two people who both lived in Israel and should have met at a wedding in Rumania met each other for the first time 58 years later in Istanbul.

    Then there was the David family who had a four generation family photograph; thirteen of those smiling faces perished on the Struma. The Iron Guard had killed the grandfather and put his body, stamped ‘Kosher Meat’ on a hook in the slaughterhouse, the rest of the family understandably panicked and left Romania on the Struma.

    Simcha who spoke fluent Romanian, and Hebrew told me that the one survivor David Stoliar who was 19 at the time, clung to a piece of the deck for 24 hours before some Turkish men, probably searching for wreckage, found him and took him to a lighthouse. He had lost the use of his limbs in the icy water and was hospitalised; two weeks later he was arrested and thrown into a Turkish jail for six weeks as an illegal immigrant, until eventually the British authorities relented and gave him a visa to go to Palestine.

    Earlier in the week Simcha had decided to find a village near to the lighthouse where David Stoliar had been taken, because he had information that some of the bodies had been washed ashore there. He took 84 year old Elana who had lost her brother on the Struma with him. They met a man in this village who was 12 years old at the time of the sinking, he remembered that seven Jews and one crewman had been buried between the Moslem and Christian cemeteries under a fig tree and pointed out the exact place. Elana told me that she does not know how she managed to clamber down the steep incline to find the grave but she did, Simcha found a little plaque on the fig tree and having identified the right place said Kaddish. Elana refused to be manhandled up the incline and so Simcha and the rest of the film crew had to haul her up by her hands. Octogenarian she might be, but her dignity remains intact.

    After Shabbos we all got together and the bereaved relatives who had come from Israel, America, Canada and the UK told their stories. One lady asked if anybody in the group had known her father who had been the ships’ Doctor, she said that she had never known him, as she had not been born when the Struma went down. Nobody present had known him personally but she was told that her father had saved the life of a pregnant woman, by informing the British that he would hold them responsible for the welfare of the lady and her unborn baby. The authorities eventually allowed her to go to hospital to give birth, although due to the squalor and disease that she had endured for the two months on the boat the baby boy was born dead.

    The next morning at breakfast I asked the questioner how she had escaped from Romania, apparently after her father perished, his young, terrified widow gave her baby away to a Greek Christian couple immediately after the birth, and some time later, took a job with them as her child’s nanny. The little girl always wondered why her ‘parents’ had black eyes and she didn’t, she also excelled at school and they were not at all academic. When she was twelve years old her mother revealed her true identity but when asked if they were Jewish the mother denied it, saying that it was not safe to be Jewish. The young girl won a scholarship to Russia and studied medicine for three years, during this time her mother gradually told her that they were indeed Jewish and that the only safe place for them to live was in Israel. I asked her if she had become a Doctor and she said yes, she is and is now a Professor of Medicine in Tel Aviv.

    We all gathered for a memorial service aboard a Turkish boat, and sailed to where it is believed that the Struma sank. The British Ambassador Sir David Logan, Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s special envoy, were among the dignitaries who joined the relatives and friends. The deputy Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Yitzhak Haleva and Chasan David Sevi conducted a moving service, Kaddish was recited the Shofar was blown and the relatives threw flowers and wreaths into the water. Many of the relatives read beautiful words and poems and then Simcha with his voice cracking said “this was the place that the world abandoned these Jews, nobody wanted them, they just wanted them to just disappear and be forgotten”. We were moved to tears as in one voice all the friends and relatives present spontaneously sang Am Yisroel Chai.

  • y gordon says

    Why do you think that a gentile cannot/will
    not look at a state of Israel as surplus?, because the Jews can now attach a label to themselves that we have an officially recognized country means that in their eyes we
    now have a right to exist? I suggest you read the book ‘The Secret War Against The Jews’
    written by John Loftus.

  • ken Booth says

    This should be required reading in all schools that profess to teach history

  • Jacob Hertzberg says

    I, an Israeli/American citizen, do not subscribe to the dogma of “my country, right or wrong”. I’m very much concerned with the future of the State of Israel and I believe that the present policies of the Israeli Goverment and their appeasement of the religious right, both in the USA
    (see the note from Adam Karns) and the former Brooklinites and other members of the Jewish “Taliban” living now in Israel, are an existential threat to the survivability of the State of Israel. We have forgotten the lessons of history and some of us (Jews) treat the Palestinian people with the same contempt and disregard that we had experienced living in Eastern Europe. How long will the world accept taking of Arab land and subjecting the Palestinian population, under Israeli control, to a second class status? Therefore, I reserve the right to be critical, with the hope that someone will hear my (and many other’s) pleadings and convince the Israeli Gov. that peace with the Palestinians is the only path to the successful survival.

  • Ernest LEBLIN says

    As a survivor of the Nazi occupation of France, I can tell thazt the privileges of the occupation forces creatd hatred and resistance against them. When I learn about present IDF regulations in occupied territory (reserved roads, water allocations to settlers for example) I fear for the future of Israel, if someday the USA stops protecting Israel there will be a moeral danger if the present polics of arrogance remain I can only hope that someday a new governement will prevail and work for peace

  • SGeiger says

    At the time the Struma was sunk, the Soviet Union would have considered itself an ally of the Germans. The Non-Agression Pact was still in effect, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

  • George Epstein says

    Humans seem to need scapegoats to support the “it’s not my fault” mentality. Conveniently for them, Jews provide this “vehicle.”
    As for those (many Jews included)who claim Israel treats the Palestinians unfairly, recall that Arabs/Muslims refused to accept ther State of Israel in 1948, and waged a lop-sided war expecting to remove the Jews from the scene. They continue to pursue that goal. It has always been accepted that, in war, to the victors go the “spoils” — except in the case of Israel. Why so? Isreal is not an “occupier” but rather the “victor.”
    Why do the Arabs/Muslims refuse to pursue opportuies for peaceful coexistence with Israel? Their actions speak for them: Suicide bombers; rockets fired into Israeli villages (filled with nails so as to do maximum harm); honoring those who murder innocent people!
    Why are the Arab/Muslim children brainwashed to “HATE” the Jews and that the land where tiny Israel exists within almost endless lands of Arabs/Muslims — all of Isreal is “Arab land”???
    I suggest that those who complain about Israel and its governemnt read the Muslim Koran — and ask themselves: Why does the Koran teach hatred of the Jews?
    Those(such as members of J Street) should open their eyes and minds — and think clearly without preconceived ideas: What makes them wiser than brilliant Israelis such as Netanyahu who fully understand the issues and the realities? How dare they second-guess him and the other Israeli leaders — people whose families live (and die) in Israel..

  • hanock silver says

    in` 1947 the arabs turned down their state in palestine that the jews acepted so screw them remember they figured to destroy the reborn state of israel in 1948 and failed jordan lebanon and eygpt should take in allsocalled palestinians also the arab israels should be deported there are over 1.500.000 ARABS IN israel that are nothing but traitors to the jewish state that they take a secret oath to destroy let eygpt take back their sespool gaza strip which belonged to them for centurys by the way most palestinians are ethnic jordanian if some of you liberal falsely secure jews think this is cruel check recent jewish history of past 100 years and know it might happen again the cruelties to the jewish people not counting the germans &there alies &friends in europe during ww2 the arab states abused murdered raped and robbed its jewish SECOND class citizens for centurys finalized by the mass exportation and deportation of over 800,000 arab jews between 1948 and 1962 thank god for the modern state of israel!to quote prime minister netanyahu what has changed since the holocaust is the determination and our ability for the jewish people to defend ourselves APRIL 8 2013

  • Howard Stevens says

    Rabbi Gordis’s subjective, lachrymose and jingoistic implication that the state of Israel alone serves as the exclusive shield of world wide Jewry, ignoring evolving standards of equity and justice (eg, the US civil rights movement, the collapse of communism, South Africa’s changes, etc., etc., etc.) is sadly reactionary view, unhelpful to fostering the kind of creative and difficult solutions needed in 2013 to secure Israel’s future.


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