We turn to the eve and the beginning of World War II in order to study the fate of three ships. All three left from different ports at different times, but they were all heading in the same direction: away from the death trap of Europe.
The first, and the most famous – or rather, infamous – was the SS St. Louis, which set sail in May of 1939 from Hamburg to Cuba. The 937 Jewish passengers all had legitimate, legal certificates allowing them to dock in Cuba. The Cuban government cancelled the visas, hoping to acquire a huge bribe to enable the passengers to disembark. Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda ministry were not about to allow a shipload of Jews to merely escape, so they dispatched 14 agents to Cuba to convince the authorities that the Jewish passengers were criminals, fugitives, and liars – and should be considered, in every which way, personae non gratae.
Those who could afford to sail on the St. Louis were obviously the most affluent of German Jews, as by this point all German Jewry had been deprived of their livelihoods, their savings confiscated, and they had been taxed to their last penny. These individuals had still – somehow – maintained enough funds to afford to travel to the West and acquire the paperwork that was necessary to gain entrance to Cuba.
Alas, after traveling all the way, and actually docking in Havana, they discovered that their exiting the boat to freedom was contingent upon a bribe being paid to the Cuban officials. The amount of money the Cubans were looking for – in the neighborhood of half a million dollars – was way beyond their means. Jews leaving Germany were only allowed to take 10 Reichsmarks (less than four dollars) with them.
The captain of the ship, Gustav Schroeder, was a benevolent humanitarian concerned about the fate of his passengers. But for all of his good will, the neighboring countries, including the United States and Canada, refused to open their borders. In the end, there wasn’t a country on earth willing to offer haven, and the doomed ship was forced to return to Europe to let off its passengers.
The second ship set sail in November 1940 and reached Haifa Bay from Romania with some 730 refugees from Germany. The British Mandatory Authority refused to let them enter and ordered them onto a different ship, the Patria, that would take them to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Members of the Jewish military resistance placed explosives in the engine room of the Patria to sabotage its departure. The plan backfired, sinking the ship and killing 267 refugees. The British sent the remainder of the ship’s passengers to an internment camp in Atlit, south of Haifa.
The hardly seaworthy Struma set sail for Palestine from Romania on December 16, 1941. On board were 769 refugees bound for Palestine. This should have been a voyage of just a few days, but due to engine trouble, the boat headed to Istanbul for repair. The Turkish authorities refused to offer even temporary sanctuary – even to a land facility funded entirely by Jewish organizations – to the ill-fated boat’s passengers. The refugees were forced to subsist on the boat for four months with but one freshwater faucet, four sinks, and eight toilets. The ship was bereft of everything from toilet paper to life preservers.
The British refused to allow the boat to arrive in Palestine, even to have the passengers then transferred to Mauritius. On February 23, 1942, the Turks towed the boat, without food, fuel, or water into the Black Sea, abandoning it there, with no functioning engine.
Within hours a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Struma, drowning all the men, women and children on board, except one.
The St. Louis, the Patria, and the Struma, as author Daniel Gordis writes, underscored a message with bleak clarity: For Jews who had nowhere to escape, a Jewish state was a matter of life and death.
If anyone heeded this message, it was surely not the British, who rigidly upheld their appeasement policy toward the Arabs by forbidding Jewish immigration to Palestine. Despite British opposition, the Hagana pressed on with getting illegal immigrants into Israel. Ships were procured, crews were assembled, and arrangements were made to hide the refugees once they arrived. The plans achieved only minor success, but for those saved, it can only be described as major.
The immigrants who succeeded in slipping into Palestine were caught and placed in detention camps, the largest one being in Atlit, south of Haifa. The British had little patience for their rules being violated and no sympathy for the plight of the refugees. The “illegal immigrants” (according to the British perspective) were dumped into crowded internment camps whose conditions were appalling, in the hope that this would deter other Jews in Europe from attempting to come to Palestine. (Of course, this was a cynical justification of the cruelty which became a trademark for the way that the British treated the Jews in Palestine as well as those trying to enter it.)
But they did not just stop there. In order to curtail all immigration, the British exerted diplomatic pressure upon the countries from which the boats sailed. They also exacted, as a punitive measure, drastic reductions upon the already measly quotas of Jews who were allowed to enter.
The British excused their heartless behavior by claiming – an excuse which no one believed –that Axis spies might have infiltrated among the refugees, who would then commit espionage against His Majesty’s government. The anti-Semites in the U.S. State Department employed similar ruses to keep their doors closed to Jewish refugees.
Accordingly, for 19 of the first 39 months of the war, the British did not allow any Jewish immigration at all into Palestine. Their policy was not fully successful, as trickles continued to clandestinely arrive. The British concluded that force was indicated, and ships from the Royal Navy unceremoniously attacked the unarmed, barely seaworthy immigrant boats. Commandeering the ships, the British compelled the Palestinian-bound boats to change course, forcing them to either far away Mauritius, or to Cyprus, which was heartbreakingly close to Palestine.
In a tragic coincidence, as Daniel Gordis points out, both the British and the Germans were placing Jews into camps behind barbed wire. This would only come to an end with the creation of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948.