Time passes and memories are overwhelmed by the weight of life’s trials. But for those who have lost family or friends in tragedy, those memories come back to haunt us.
February marked the 80th anniversary of a now forgotten but incomprehensible act of mass murder. On December 12, 1941, fleeing pogroms in Nazi-occupied Romania, 778 Romanian and Russian Jews embarked at the Black Sea port of Constanza on a small, unseaworthy ship, the SS Struma, bound for Palestine then under British control.
Too eager to rid his country of Jews, the crossing had been approved by the Romanian fascist dictator and convicted war criminal, Ion Antonescu. The passengers had each paid $1,000 (about $20,000 in today’s currency) to make the trip.
When they boarded, they were shocked to discover a greasy and dilapidated bucket of rust. The dorms were primitive, dirty and campy. There were only two lifeboats. Worse, the engine was not working. It had been salvaged from a wreck dredged from the bottom of the Danube and hastily installed in the bowels of the Struma.
Adrift for three days, the ship was towed to Istanbul, where it remained at anchor while “secret negotiations” between Hitler and his Turkish puppet took place over the fate of its human cargo. With dwindling food and water supplies, lack of basic sanitation, conditions on the Struma have worsened.
On the evening of February 23, 1942, after 70 days at sea, the disabled ship was seized by Turkish police and towed across the Bosphorus to open waters where it continued to drift.
At dawn, a single torpedo launched from a Russian submarine tore the Struma apart, splitting it in two. The cheering submarine crew sent out a cable of self-congratulations boasting that the “enemy ship was successfully torpedoed from a distance of 1,118 meters and sunk”.
That day, 103 children, 269 women and 406 men died, including two members of my family.
The primetime images of man’s inhumanity to man don’t lie. Our world, history and the evening news remind us, is a sewer in which we wade knee-deep in the blood of martyrs. Gathered around the dinner table, we watch them die or disappear like ghosts. We owe it to our fragile, overworked psyches to forget an endless stream of atrocities – the Crusades, the “Holy” Inquisition, the mass slaughter of Native Americans, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Biafra, Hutu intertribal carnage- Tutsi, the US-sponsored bloodbaths in Chiapas and the Guatemalan highlands, Bosnia, the 74-year-old Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and the ongoing assassination of street children in Central America by state agents.
These calamities shock us deeply and remind us of our own mortality. The images we replay in our minds are enhanced by a steady diet of ghoulish horror compliments from our television networks.
Then fatigue sets in – emotional exhaustion. We get tired of the shows that had briefly held us spellbound and anxious. Distance, racial differences and cultural incongruities contribute to the intellectualization of the agony of others. We suffer it by purging our souls after each infamy.
“You can’t change human nature,” we pontificate over dessert. In a pinch, a mind-numbing sitcom will help us reassure ourselves. We survive the truth by looking elsewhere.
WE Gutman, of Lake Worth, is a retired Franco-American journalist and published author. He reported on Central America from 1994 to 2006 and served as press secretary at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.