Lone Survivor Bears Witness to a WWII Atrocity

From Associated Press

For 19-year-old David Stoliar and more than 700 Jewish refugees like him, their tickets on a ship called the Struma were a golden chance to trade persecution in Europe for new lives in Palestine.

Only Stoliar made it to the Holy Land. That's because the crowded transport, adrift with a faulty engine, was torpedoed to the bottom of the Black Sea in a World War II atrocity.

Of 769 refugees and 10 crew members who were on the Struma, including his girlfriend, her family and 103 children, Stoliar was the lone survivor. He was rescued after 24 hours afloat.

The 1942 disaster so haunted Stoliar, now 78, that he spoke of it only rarely over the decades. He never told his first wife about it, through 16 years of marriage.

"This event in my life has been one of the worst. So remembering it . . . "

Stoliar pauses, collects his emotions.

"I tried for so many years to forget it."

He tries to explain.

"You feel like you did something wrong by surviving. It comes back to the question, 'Why me?' And of course there is no answer to that."

Retired in central Oregon with his Oregon-born wife, Stoliar is now telling his story one more time, motivated in part by a diver's failed effort last summer to locate the Struma's wreckage on the floor of the Black Sea off Turkey.

But as the only survivor, Stoliar also considers this his obligation to those who died.

"I do feel now that keeping quiet is not the right way," he says. "People are entitled to know."

As Hitler consolidated his power, Romania became a willing Nazi satellite and mimicked the Germans' anti-Semitic temper. In 1940-41, the country was swept by indiscriminate mass killings of Jews, as well as widespread looting and arrests.

Stoliar's parents were divorced, and his mother lived in Paris. His father, fearful for his only child, "paid a lot of money left and right" to get the teenager released from a forced labor crew and, in late 1941, managed to buy him a spot on the Struma.

Nothing about the Struma would have recommended passage. Stoliar recalls it as a beat-up wooden vessel, about 150 feet long, with just one freshwater tap. Bunks were stacked eight or 10 high. Originally powered by sails, with a small auxiliary engine, the Struma had been fitted with a 240-horsepower engine salvaged from an old wreck in the Danube River.

Still, the ship offered hope to hundreds of mostly Russian and Romanian Jews. Dozens of hulks like it set sail from European ports, seeking sanctuary for their Jewish cargoes. Some sank. Some were intercepted, their passengers interned on British-held islands. A few were turned back to certain doom at the hands of the Nazis.

Fifty-one vessels carrying almost 27,000 passengers managed to reach Palestine, according to Severin Hochberg, a historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.

"We were just playing with dice. The key was to get out of Romania and then see what happened," Stoliar says. "Anything was better than to stay there."

The Struma set sail from the port of Constanza in December 1941, bound for British Palestine, now Israel--a journey expected to take one week.

Soon after the vessel left port, the engine failed. Mechanics arriving on a tugboat demanded payment, but the passengers had been stripped of all money and jewelry by Romanian port officials. Lacking currency, they gave up their wedding rings.

The engine continued to falter as the ship made its way south past the shores of Romania and Bulgaria and gave out completely just as the Struma reached the strait of Bosporus in Turkey.

The ship was towed into Istanbul harbor and quarantined. For 70 days, while politicians squabbled, no one was allowed off.

Conditions were miserable--the Struma was so crowded that not everyone had beds, and schedules were drawn up to control how many passengers at a time could go up on deck to prevent the ship from tilting. The meager supply of water and food--mostly biscuits, powdered milk and oranges, as Stoliar recalls--was rationed. Passengers washed their clothes when they could, in murky harbor water.

More ominously, Turkey, neutral in the war, refused to consider sheltering the refugees or even to help them replace the engine. And the British, who were then restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, refused permission to enter.

In more than two months, only nine passengers were allowed to leave, set free by medical problems, political connections or expired visas.

Stoliar, trained as an engineer before the Nazis halted his schooling, keeps his emotions reined in when he describes what happened next. He offers facts, numbers--and searing memory.

On Feb. 23, 1942, a Turkish tug pulled the Struma back out into the Black Sea and set it adrift, with a useless engine.

The next day, at first light, a Soviet submarine blew the ship out of the water.

The explosion threw Stoliar out of his bunk, just below the deck. He and about 100 others found themselves splashing in the icy Black Sea, surrounded by floating wreckage and bodies.

All he could think of was "just trying to stay afloat. The only thought in my head was how to stay alive."

Stoliar grabbed a thick piece of the deck. Other passengers floated nearby. It was daylight, and they could see the Turkish shore.

"We still believed that any minute there will be some salvage boats," he recalls. "We could see the shore all the time, so we presumed that if you could see the shore, the shore could see you."

The cold claimed his fellow survivors. One by one, they lost their grip and slipped below the surface.

Less than 12 hours after the sinking, Stoliar was alone.

He climbed atop the decking and from the debris hauled up a bench. That added a few vital inches to keep him above the life-sapping water.

That evening, Stoliar discovered another survivor--the chief mate of the Struma, a Bulgarian man in his 40s--floating on a slightly submerged wooden door.

Stoliar pulled the man onto his perch. They sat back-to-back and yelled through the night--to stay awake and to try to attract attention on the shore, so close they could hear industrial motors running.

But at sunrise, a full day after the torpedoing, the chief mate fell over dead.

"I thought it was the end. Until that point, I had hope. When I saw him dead, I lost my hope," Stoliar says. "The chief mate was a very big, strong man."

Several hours later, six sailors from a lighthouse appeared in a rowboat. Stoliar believes Turkish officials delayed rescue efforts to make sure the refugees all died; he remembers the sailors seemed surprised to find anyone alive.

Historians can only speculate why the Soviets would torpedo a ship packed with refugees. Hochberg says the Soviets may have mistaken the Struma for a Romanian troopship and thought they were firing on an enemy.

After time in a Turkish hospital and a Turkish prison, from which British intervention freed him, Stoliar continued on to Palestine. Other than some British authorities who questioned him about the Struma attack for 20 minutes, Stoliar told no one of his experience.

"It was a subject I very much wanted to forget," Stoliar says.

He joined the British 8th Army and fought the Germans in North Africa.

His father--so desperate to get his son to safety--survived the war. His mother died at Auschwitz.

Stoliar married in 1945 and fought for Israel's independence in 1948. They had a son, Ron, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. Stoliar worked around the world as an executive with oil and shoe companies.

Stoliar's wife, Adria, died of a heart attack in 1961 without ever knowing of her husband's ordeal.

In 1968 he married Marda Emslie, a shoe designer. He told her about the Struma two years later when Hollywood producers came to Tokyo to pitch a movie deal. He turned them down.

After time in Japan and France, the couple moved to Bend, where they opened a bakery, then a cooking school.

Stoliar understands why many people--even in Israel--had never heard of the refugee ship sunk by a torpedo. World War II was packed with tragedies. And in this one, only one man lived to tell.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°