This Day in Jewish History

1940: Bulgarian Jews Fleeing the Nazis Drown in Sea of Marmara

The Salvador didn’t have an engine, let alone life jackets, yet set sail for Palestine. Then a storm hit.

Israel Almog

On December 12, 1940, the Salvador, a wood-hulled schooner loaded down with more than 350 Jewish refugees hoping to reach Palestine, sank in a storm in the Sea of Marmara. More than 220 of its passengers perished.

The final voyage of the Salvador took part in the context of “Aliyah Bet,” a program to bypass the British disinclination to let Jews fleeing the Nazis (or later, who survived them) into Mandatory Palestine, both during and in the years after the Holocaust.

In the case of the Salvador, the initiative was a private one undertaken by Baruch Konfino, a Bulgarian-Jewish ophthalmologist and an active member of the Jewish community’s leadership, who tried to help get Jews out of Europe ahead of the approaching Nazi threat.

Krum the Terrible

The Salvador had started life in 1912 as the Czar Krum, a 65-ton wooden boat named for Krum the Terrible, a 9th-century Bulgarian king. In 1940, Konfino and his partner Max Davidov purchased it for 320,000 Bulgarian levas (roughly $30,000), and renamed it the Salvador (“Savior” in Ladino).

According to histories of the event, the boat had a capacity of 30 to 40 passengers and lacked cabins, life jackets or any navigational equipment. It also lacked an engine, and was dependent on wind for propulsion. Both the Bulgarian authorities and the country’s organized Jewish community opposed using the vessel to transport refugees.

At the same time, however, Bulgaria was actively attempting to rid itself of its foreign residents, particularly the Jews among them, even as Jews were streaming into the country in the hope of escaping Europe by way of its ports. The country’s police chief was one of the officials most energetically involved in forcing Jews to depart.

It was in this context that Konfino went ahead and sold tickets for the voyage for a price of $500-600 each, according to a detailed report on the disaster prepared by Israel Almog that appears on the website thebulgarianjews.org.il. And when it departed the Black Sea port of Varna on December 3, 1940, under the orders of the Bulgarian police and in spite of a ruling from the harbor master prohibiting it from sailing, it had on board 352 desperate Jewish passengers.

A storm hits

On December 6, the Salvador was towed into Istanbul, where it remained for almost a week. But then on the night of December 11, it was towed by a tugboat some five kilometers into the Sea of Marmara, where it encountered the winds and rains of a severe winter storm.

With no power, the captain was unable to head back to port. Early on the morning of December 12, the boat ran aground 100 meters off the coast of the town of Silivri, west of Istanbul; its wooden hull broke apart, and it sank.

Two hundred and twenty-three of its passengers, 66 of them children, either drowned or died of exposure in the frigid waters of the sea.

After being given shelter by locals on shore, the 123 survivors were taken to Istanbul, of whom half were then sent back to Bulgaria. The remainder were permitted to board another Aliyah Bet vessel already en route to Palestine, the Darien II.

On March 19, 1941, the Darien II entered Haifa harbor, where the British authorities arrested its 792 passengers, interning them in the Atlit prison camp until May 1942, when they were released.

In 1964, the bones of the victims of the Salvador disaster were brought to Israel for burial at the national cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. Because the bones could not be identified, the bodies were buried in 230 individual but unmarked graves, with the names of the victims engraved on an adjacent memorial wall.