By Adina Babeş and Alexandru Florian

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats, the many victims that do not survive their journey and the diverse interests of people organizing these transportations – more interested in the money they receive from their passengers than their safety. We are confronted with these topics and images daily. When we read the below story of the emigration of Romanian Jews during the Holocaust years, we recognize many of these elements.

It is no surprise that the authors were inspired by current events to engage in their research about this emigration story. (You can find the link to the authors’ research at the end of this post.)

The emigration of Jews from Romania in the early 1940s was considered by the Romanian authorities as a way of ethnic cleansing, the same as deportation. Therefore, in the 1940s the Romanian leadership was in favor of Jewish emigration.

Group portrait of Romanian Jews sailing from Constanta to Israel on board the Galila, 1949. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Zev Siegel

“At the risk of not being understood by some traditionalist persons who can still be among you, I am for the forced migration of the entire Jewish element from Bessarabia and Bukovina. They must be thrown over the border. […] I could not care less if we enter history as barbarians. The Roman Empire made several barbarian acts judged from the perspective of present times and it was still the vastest and greatest political organization ever.”
– Mihai Antonescu, vice-president and president ad-interim in 1941 [1]

But there were other elements the Romanian authorities had to take into account concerning the emigration of Romanian Jews to Palestine: the international context (the German authorities were against emigration for it could have jeopardized their relations with the countries in the Middle East) and the geopolitical conditions (being supported by different Jewish associations, international organizations and organized by private companies).

Romania adapted its own position towards Jewish emigration to the international context. The state would show interest in solving the Jews’ fate but only in discussions with representatives of foreign countries and international organizations. They were also sensitive to the insecurity of the travels for it could have led to a negative image of Romania in the international arena. The boats used for emigration were in bad condition, often overcrowded and with no guarantee of accurate navigation.

However, the Romanian authorities were also sensitive to the high amounts of money that could be collected if the emigration was to take place under its responsibility and not that of private companies. Therefore, they would do their best to bring those transportations under their approval, which implied that they would receive the money the Jews were paying for the trip.

“During the entire World War II, the emigration of Jews to Palestine was a risky solution. More, it was a costly operation and it took place only due to the efforts of the Jewish organizations. The Romanian authorities considered it an important way of acquiring financial resources and did not consider emigration as an alternative to the “final solution”.” [2]

Through these trips, 3000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust. Unfortunately, almost 1000 of them did not survive their journey.

View of the Struma in the Istanbul harbor, February 1942. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Stoliar.

The Struma was a vessel bound for Palestine from Constanza, Romania in December 1941, which was torpedoed off the shores of Istanbul. 769 Jewish refugees were crammed aboard the cattle boat, which had to be towed all the way to Istanbul because of a dysfunctional engine. The ship was placed in quarantine and the refugees remained confined to the boat in Istanbul’s harbor for ten weeks while attempts were made in vain to secure immigration certificates for Palestine from the British government. On February 23, 1942, the Turks, knowing that the vessel lacked an engine and basic supplies to sustain its passengers, towed the Struma out to sea. Within hours the boat was struck by a torpedo from a Soviet submarine and all but one of its passengers drowned.

  • How do you discuss the topic of refugees with your students?
  • Is this historical case one you would use to explore if we can compare past with present? 

We are always looking for new educational materials to share on this blog. If you have used materials – about the topics we discuss on this blog – that you believe could be useful for other educators, do not hesitate to contact us or to leave a reply.

You can find more information about the emigration of Romanian Jews during and after the Second World War in these articles:


About the guest authors:

Adina Babeş is a middle researcher at the “Elie Wiesel” National Institute for the Study of Holocaust in Romania. She holds a PhD in Political Sciences and has held several scholarships for MA programs in Social Sciences (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel), Hebrew Culture and Civilization (University of Bucharest, Romania), and Nationalism Studies (Central European University, Hungary). She is currently working on two research projects, ‘European Holocaust Research Infrastructure’ with Horizon 2020– EU funds, and ‘The Reconstruction of Holocaust Public Memory in Post-Communism’ with Romanian Ministry of National Education, CNCS-UEFISCDI, funds. Adina Babeş has authored several articles and research studies published in volumes and academic journals and presented scientific papers during conferences, seminars and round tables. Previously, she held the position of associate lecturer at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration of Bucharest.

Alexandru Florian is the manager of the “Elie Wiesel” National Institute for the Study of Holocaust in Romania. He holds a PhD in Philosophy and Political Sciences. He has authored five books and co-authored another three, over forty articles and studies on political transition, modernization, and Holocaust history and memory.

[1] International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, Documents, edited by Lya Benjamin, Polirom Publishing House, Iaşi, 2005, p. 206.

[2] Adina Babeș. “Alyiah of Romanian Jews – socio-statistical facts (historical approach) “. Sfera Politicii 180-181, p. 249