The day before Purim is traditionally a fast day in remembrance of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. Purim itself is supposed to be a happy occasion, celebrating the subsequent deliverance of the Jewish people from genocide during the days of King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther.
It was different for some Jews in March of 1942.
“March 4 was a day of fasting in honor of Purim, a holiday, beginning the following day, to commemorate the deliverance of the Persian Jews from a massacre. Two large public banquets to end the fast were held in Jerusalem when the sun went down, both broadcast over the radio. Normally Purim is a joyous holiday. That night the mood was darkened by the fury over the loss of lives on the Struma, and the two banquets were interrupted by calls for revenge. The threats were directed at the British high commissioner for Palestine, Harold MacMichael.”
This comes from Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea (by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins -HarperCollins, 2003). The book tells the little-known saga of the sinking of the ship Struma, the death of almost 800 Romanian Jewish refugees, and the sole survivor, David Stoliar. Parallel with this story is the tale of the recent (unsuccessful) search for the remains of the Struma by Greg Buxton, the grandson of two of those who perished on the ship.
Purim celebrates the preservation of the Jewish people from an ancient version of the “Final Solution.” Yet deliverance for the people as a whole down through history does not mean deliverance in each individual situation.
The refugees on board the Struma were not delivered. Hopeful of eventually arriving in Palestine (as it was called before 1948), the people on board had to contend with an unseaworthy vessel, inhuman cramped living conditions, little food, and the reality of geopolitics: Great Britain was adamant about refusing admittance to “illegal immigrants”; Turkey through whose waters the Struma had to pass was under pressure from Nazi Germany. Cold calculation led in the end to the Struma being set adrift in the Black Sea after two months of waiting in Turkish territory, the passengers unable to disembark and kept in the dark about many details playing out concerning their fate. Perhaps being set adrift was preferable to returning to Romania, where Hitler’s Final Solution would be implemented on the passengers. In the end, a secret order from Stalin to destroy all neutral ships in the Black Sea—which came to light only many years later, in 2001—led to a Soviet torpedo blowing up the entire vessel. One young man survived. Everyone else, including children (who if they were of a certain age were supposed to have been let off and allowed into Palestine), went down. Cover-ups ensued as governments sought to defend their actions in bland, noncommittal diplomatic language. One is tempted to say that the whiteness of Britain’s “White Paper” of 1939—severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine—was matched only by the blackness of the hearts of those who treated the Struma refugees as if they were pawns in a game of political chess.
The story is more complex than this simple retelling. But the takeaway, such as it is, may be that while we thank God for preserving his people—Israel rose from, among other factors, the ashes of the Holocaust—we need also to remember that the Jewish people have always been in danger from those who would destroy them. No wonder God spoke to Abraham of both blessings and curses: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). (See also Gen. 27:29, Numbers 22:6, 12; 24:9.)
This Purim, in the midst of celebrating God’s deliverance from the wicked Haman, let’s also pause to remember that there have been—and will be—other Hamans in other times and other places.