NEVER FORGET, NEVER LET IT BE FORGOTTEN! It’s a duty for all of us humans..Author Aaron Nommaz depicts the story of Struma disaster in his fourth book “The Tale that Probes the Conscience”. As always with his plain narration and editing, Nommaz in his own words makes the readers feel as if they are inside the floating coffin ‘Struma’. Unfortunately, today in Turkey there are still people who have no idea about the Struma disaster… The novel that tells the story of this disaster which is deemed as an affront to humanity for the whole world is based on true facts. We talked with Aaron Nommaz about his latest book which tells the true story of the disaster that ended in the death of 769 innocent people and leaving behind only one survivor.
After writing the story of two historic characters Dona Gracia and Josef Nasi how did you decide to write ‘Struma- The Tale that Probes the Conscience’?
As an individual who loves my country, I do not feel comfortable talking about incidents that may be construed as opposing for the country. When I was first proposed to write a book about Struma by Destek Publishing House CEO Yelda Cumalioglu, whose opinions I regard highly, I was not quite open to the idea. Like everyone else, regarding this disastrous incident, I was embarrassed by the actions or in this case inactions taken by the officials of that time, rather than feeling proud. Therefore, I was reluctant. As I researched about the issue further, I realized that our country’s shortcomings in this incident was way less than other countries involved; so, I decided to write about it. I wanted to ensure that this disaster shall never be forgotten. The only way to fight this social darkness is by organizing commemoration ceremony for the 769 people, all flesh and blood like us, who lost their lives. Istanbul Governor has set an example by organizing such an event every year on the day the Struma vessel was sank.
How long was the preparation process, which sources did you use?
During my thorough research, unfortunately I couldn’t find any information in Turkish archives. Especially the correspondence between British Embassy, British ministers and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs would have helped enlighten all the phases of the incident. However, all countries under the influence of Nazi ideologies prevented these types of incidents including Struma to be covered by press, therefore there was very little information in the newspapers, as well. Instead of showing empathy, these reporters, journalists, writers and their editors adopted racist approaches and used ugly remarks in their news to ingratiate themselves with Nazi Germany. The only uncensored news I could find was in American media and the media outlets owned by people who escaped from the Nazi monsters and immigrated to Palestine. Besides these resources, I used the articles written by Catherine Collins.
It took me two years to do the research. I read numerous books. When I felt that I had fully grasped the incident, I started writing. Even though I tried to stick to the facts as firmly as I could, I told the story through the life of David Stoliar, a character in my book. I told the story through his family life, family dramas, good days, passions and disappointments...
Could you tell us about your book?
The only survivor of this disaster was a young man by the name David Stoliar. I reviewed his life story. When I combined his story with the Romania of that time, an adventure story which seemed believable to me came out. David is the son of a wealthy family. He leads a colorful life in Bucharest. Her then girlfriend foresees all the imminent evil and calamities and plans to escape to USA. She wants to include David in her plans, however, David, believing his girlfriend is being paranoid, does not want to leave his sweet life and stays in Romania. As time passes, Romania gets infected with Pro-Nazi ideologies. The hostilities and unimaginable persecutions targeting Jews makes it impossible for Jews to exist there. In other words, Romania becomes a hell for Jews. Meanwhile David falls in love with another girl. They decide that they have to escape. Immigrating to USA through Portugal is out of question. All the roads are controlled by the Nazis. The only place to go is from Black Sea to Istanbul and from there to Palestine. Getting out of Romania is difficult since all ships are confiscated by the Romanian government. Even if they can escape, they cannot transfer their wealth. They are aware about the challenges people travelling in ships that are unfit to travel face, but since they can feel the cold breath of death, they settle for any vessel that can take them. Under these circumstances, David, his pregnant girlfriend and his family arrange to travel with the ‘floating coffin’, Struma. Before they depart, at the customs control, Romanian soldiers take whatever is left in their hands. And thus, begins the Struma journey. The vessel’s engine fails as soon as they leave Constanza. They hardly manage to arrange mechanics to fix the engine. The mechanics take advantage of the situation and take every valuable thing the passengers have in return to fix the engine. After a challenging journey, the vessel arrives at Istanbul. This time, the engine breaks down entirely. The local officials agree for Struma to be pulled by trailers and cast anchor off the shore of Sarayburnu. There are over 780 people on board and there are only three available toilets. The place is filthy. The vessel is put under quarantine in case of an epidemic and passengers are not allowed to leave the vessel. People on board live under these excruciating circumstances for 70 days. Of course, if you can call it living... Finally, law enforcement officials cut the rope of the anchor and the vessel is pulled offshore near Sile despite passengers appeals, protests and outcries. The vessel that is abandoned in the middle of the Black Sea is then torpedoed by a Soviet submarine as instructed by Stalin. Physically fit and robust David determined to stay alive survives this disaster. Unfortunately, he leaves behind his pregnant future wife, his family and his dreams…Fishermen save David from the cold waters, however as soon as he reaches the shore, he is taken into custody for illegally entering the country. As if he did it on his own volition…
Who must apologize for this disaster? Which countries are responsible?
That’s a very good question. The whole world is responsible, humanity is responsible. There are so many countries responsible but in my personal opinion mostly UK, Romania, Germany, USA and Turkey.
Even though it had the means to prevent this disaster, because of terrible diplomacy, UK procrastinated. Even though UK did not directly persecute the refugees, it is the most guilty and responsible party.
Romania persecuted Jews in unimaginable ways even astonishing the Germans with its antisemitic acts. One hundred percent guilty.
A lot has been written about the Germans. At that period, we know that they penetrated other countries with their sick ideologies and caused irreversible damage. However, later Germans knew how to distinguish the good-hearted Germans from the Nazis and they tried all the Nazis in court. One hundred percent guilty.
When USA refused to accept St. Louis vessel in its waters and surrendered the passengers of the vessel to the Nazis to be sent to death camps, it was no longer “the fairy godmother” of all people. However, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved thanks to the great efforts of Roosevelt and Ira Hirschman. It’s not always black or white. I think USA is ten percent guilty.
The most complicated one is Turkey. I tried to understand the circumstances of that time. To come to a conclusion, we must look at 1941’s Turkey. Turkey inadvertently found itself in the middle of Struma disaster. In 1941, there was food rationing in the country, economy was very bad. The country was trying to maintain its neutral position and trying to maintain its relationships with both Germany and UK. If people would hear that Turkey accepted Struma passengers as refugees, millions escaping the atrocities in Europe would follow. The country would not be able to manage this flow of refugees and it would be blamed no matter what. Turkey did not surrender Turkish Jews to the Germans like France, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Greece did, despite Von Papen’s continuous demands. But, was it right to abandon those 769 people in miserable conditions, or throw the only survivor of the disaster in jail, of course not… Absolutely, not. Turkey could be much more humane. However, at a time when Minister of Foreign Affairs was Sukru Saracoglu who is the architect of Property Tax, a tax indicative of a policy against minorities, we must be thankful even for this blessing. I personally think, Turkey is ten percent responsible.
Will you have other projects involving Struma?
If I am encouraged by the positive feedback and interest in Turkey, I will translate the book to English and ensure it is published and read in other countries. I will also inform my readers about the Struma Victims Commemoration Ceremony organized by the Governorship of Istanbul to raise awareness and interest. I will try to encourage them to participate in “Never Forget, Never Let it Be Forgotten” campaign. This is not only my duty, though, it’s everyone’s duty.