On the morning of February 24, 1942, on the Black Sea near Istanbul, an explosion ripped through a decrepit former cattle barge filled with Jewish refugees. One man clung fiercely to a piece of deck, fighting to survive. Nearly eight hundred others among them, more than one hundred children perished.
In Death on the Black Sea, the story of the Struma, its passengers, and the events that led to its destruction are investigated and fully revealed in two vivid, parallel accounts, set six decades apart. One chronicles the international diplomatic maneuvers and callousness that resulted in the largest maritime loss of civilian life during World War II. The other recounts a recent attempt to locate the Struma at the bottom of the Black Sea, an effort initiated and pursued by the grandson of two of the victims. A vivid reconstruction of a grim exodus aboard a doomed ship, Death on the Black Sea illuminates a forgotten episode of World War II and pays tribute to the heroes, past and present, who keep its memory alive.
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About the Author
Douglas Frantz, the investigations editor at the New York Times, is the newspaper's former Istanbul bureau chief and a former investigative reporter the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
Catherine Collins covers Turkey for the Chicago Tribune and has written for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Frantz and Collins have written several nonfiction books, most recently Celebration, U.S.A.
Read an Excerpt
Death on the Black Sea
The Untold Story of the 'Struma' and World War II's Holocaust at Sea
When Greg Buxton walked up to the door, his manner was one of subdued excitement. Buxton was broad shouldered and just over six feet tall, with an easy smile and a pleasant, open face. He was twenty-one years old, a few months out of university in his native Britain. He glanced at the slip of paper in his hand, reading the address again, drawing a long breath as he did so.
He had come to Tel Aviv on a whim. Shy by nature, he was suddenly reluctant to follow through on what he had thought would be just a pleasant adventure. But he could not deny the excitement that now flooded over him as he raised his right hand to rap on the door.
Two weeks earlier Buxton had flown from London to Israel with a group of friends on holiday. They had taken a bus south to Egypt and crossed over to the Sinai Peninsula to scuba dive in the Red Sea, one of the most splendid undersea locations in the world. Buxton, an avid diver, had cut short his holiday and gone to Tel Aviv three days ahead of his mates. He hated to abandon the diving and drinking with his buddies, but a chance conversation with his father before he left Britain had changed Buxton's itinerary. He had no idea that it would alter his life, too.
Back in London, Buxton had been rummaging around in his closet at home for a bit of dive gear when his father walked into the room.
"What are you up to?" asked Michael Buxton.
"Getting ready for that dive trip to the Red Sea next month," his son replied.
Buxton told his father that he would be flying to Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv and then heading to the Sinai. The mention of Tel Aviv sparked the older man's memory.
"My parents bought a piece of property in Tel Aviv," the elder man said. "It was before the war. They never got there. I tried to find it once, but didn't have any luck."
Buxton knew the outline of what had happened to his paternal grandparents. In 1941, Grigore and Zlata Bucspan were living in Bucharest, Romania. They had sent their only son, Michael, to study engineering in Britain. Like many wealthy Jews, they had bought land in Palestine and dreamed of living there one day. As the Nazi persecution descended upon Romania, the Bucspans bought passage to Palestine on a ship called the Struma and set sail for the Promised Land. The ship never reached its destination. It exploded and sank on the Black Sea, not far from Istanbul, Turkey.
After the war, Michael changed his name to Buxton, married a Christian woman, and settled down in Britain. As the years went by, he came to think of himself as British and lost touch with his roots as a Romanian and a Jew. Yet he had thought occasionally about the land his parents had purchased. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he had made halfhearted attempts to locate the property. He figured it might be worth some money.
Now, as he sat on the bed in his son's room, he described how he had written to lawyers in London and Tel Aviv. Eventually an Israeli lawyer located the property through old records dating to the period when the British still controlled what was then Palestine. The lawyer said it appeared to be a small parcel, not far from the Mediterranean coast north of Tel Aviv. The lawyer said the land was not worth much, so Buxton had pretty much forgotten about it.
"Wait a minute," the elder man said to his son. "I'll be right back."
He went to his own room and dug out the few papers he could find about the land. There was his correspondence with the London lawyers, but nothing from the lawyer in Tel Aviv. He must have tossed the papers when he decided the land was not worth the trouble. He could not even remember the lawyer's name.
As he ruffled through the documents, Michael Buxton found something else. They were two postcards written to him by his father from the ship as it had sat in the Istanbul harbor. Both were written in February 1942, when the ship and its cargo of nearly eight hundred refugees were trapped in the harbor, caught up in a bitter, international diplomatic struggle.
"This is fascinating," Greg said as he read. He concentrated on the letters to and from the London lawyers, giving the postcards little more than a cursory glance. "Maybe I'll have a look at this property when I'm down there."
Greg's imagination was captured by the prospect of the possibly valuable land in Israel. He scarcely gave a thought to the grandparents he had never met and who had rarely been discussed in the Buxton household. As Greg set the postcards aside without reading them, he had no idea of the history that lay behind those final handwritten pleas.
The father had closed that chapter of his life. The son had never opened the book. Curious about the land after the discussion with his father, Greg wrote to the London lawyers who handled that end of the search, before leaving for the dive trip. The file had long since disappeared, he learned. They did, however, come up with the name and address of the lawyer in Tel Aviv who had handled the case: the last correspondence was in 1952.
Before leaving on the diving trip, Buxton had gone to the local library to look up the Struma. There was little information apart from what he found in a history of Britain and the Jews by Bernard Wasserstein, a British historian. There, he discovered that the ship's journey had been tragic from start to finish. Nearly eight hundred Jews fleeing Romania had been crowded onto a small vessel of dubious seaworthiness. The engine had failed and they had sat for weeks in the harbor at Istanbul. For some reason they had then been towed back to the Black Sea, where the ship had gone down after an explosion. The sole survivor was a man named David Stoliar, who had told police the ship had been sunk by a torpedo.Death on the Black Sea
The Untold Story of the 'Struma' and World War II's Holocaust at Sea. Copyright © by Douglas Frantz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|Part I||The Coming Cataclysm||3|
|Part II||Holocaust at Sea||39|
|Part III||Istanbul Intrigues||109|
|Part IV||After the Sinking||203|
|"Who Perished on the Struma and How Many?"||295|