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The unsinkable David Stoliar
Oregon man lone survivor among 778 killed when a Soviet sub sank the refugee ship Struma in the Black Sea in 1942

The Jewish Review
September 12, 2000

PORTLAND, Ore.—When the chief mate of the steamship Struma saw the wake of a Soviet torpedo speeding toward his ship helplessly adrift in the Black Sea, he ran for the captain's cabin to alert him. It was a race he did not win.

The mate grabbed for the door of the captain's cabin just as the torpedo struck. He and the door were blown into the morning sky and came down together in the frigid waters where he would die of exposure the next morning. He was one of 10 Bulgarian sailors and 768 Jewish refugees who met their fate Feb. 24, 1942, aboard that ill-starred ship about seven miles north and east of the Bosporus.

One person survived the sinking of Struma. His name is David Stoliar and he lives today in Bend, Ore. He's 77 years old and was consulted recently by filmmakers who are producing a documentary about the Struma incident.

Stoliar is a survivor not only of Struma, but also of much more. He escaped the Holocaust, he survived as a soldier with the British Eighth Army in North Africa, and he survived Israel's War of Independence where he also was a soldier.

He was the last man to speak to Struma's chief mate. They drifted together on the lonely sea where Struma and her human cargo were murdered.

"I pulled him on the piece of wood that I was on, because the door was a little submerged, so he was constantly wet. So I put him next to me," said the Central Oregon retiree. "He spoke Russian and I speak Russian. So he told me what I am telling you now. He told me himself."

Stoliar was 19 at the time. His father had sent him from their home in Bucharest, Romania, to Constanza on Romania's Black Sea coast where Struma was boarding Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The intended destination was Palestine.

"My father wanted me to get out. He bought the ticket, he arranged everything," said Stoliar, who already had been sent as forced labor to dig trenches outside Bucharest.

While his father chose to send his son away alone, he was not entirely alone. His 19-year-old girlfriend Ilse Lothinger, her mother and stepfather also booked passage on Struma, as did some of Stoliar's young friends and classmates. Except for Stoliar, all of them were booked for eternity.

A Greek businessman who found the 150-foot ship lying derelict in Bulgaria purchased Struma and had it taken to Constanza for refitting as a refugee transport. The ship was one of many like her whose owners hoped to make a killing providing escape to those who feared for their lives in Hitler's Europe. The refugees were charged about $1,000 to board Struma.

Advertisements were published in the Bucharest papers announcing the sailing.

"The organizers arranged for a train specifically for taking all the passengers from the railroad station in Bucharest to the port of Constanza," said Stoliar. "This was arranged also with the Romanian authorities." The refugees were Romanians and Russians.

Stoliar believes the Greek owner paid off Romanian authorities to let the Jews go.

When the refugees arrived in Constanza and boarded the ship, they found accommodations little different from what would have been their fate had they stayed in Europe, according to Stoliar. He likened it to a concentration camp.

"Struma was like that, but much smaller," said Stoliar, "because the space was very limited, whereas in the concentration camps-Auschwitz, Buchenwald and all-they left enough room for a human to lie down. We had a very hard time lying down."

Bunks were stacked 10 high. There was just one fresh water tap available for the passengers. Other sanitary facilities were almost nonexistent, according to Stoliar and other accounts.

"It's just unexplainable. It was just unbelievably bad," he said, adding that many suffered very much aboard the ship. "Don't forget there were babies, children, women, old men."

Struma sailed from Constanza on Dec. 12, 1941, 75 days before it was sunk. The engine soon failed and the ship drifted until the master of a passing tug repaired it, reportedly in return for all the passengers' wedding rings.

The engine failed again, and on Dec. 15 Struma was towed into Istanbul. Turkish authorities refused to allow the passengers to disembark, fearing they would remain in the country. None of Struma's passengers had valid visas for Palestine. The British, who governed Palestine then, were approached through their Istanbul consulate on the refugees' behalf.

Break here: Link text for Page 2: Red tape threatened survival

But Britain enforced a policy against large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine. While Struma's dilemma was debated in Britain's Parliament, the passengers barely survived on the modest rations which Istanbul's Jewish community was able to provide.

"Not only were we totally incommunicado," said Stoliar, "we didn't have enough food, we didn't have enough water, we didn't have enough anything. We didn't have any medication, although there were 30 doctors on board ship."

Stoliar said that while no one died aboard ship in Istanbul, everyone suffered.
"It was very, very cold, so there were no epidemics, but people were sick for the lack of food. The only thing we had-that the Jewish community managed to send out to us-was biscuits, some powdered milk and oranges."

Getting food on board Struma was a process mired in red tape, according to Stoliar, who said that Turkey demanded export licenses for all supplies sent out to the ship.

"Turkish authorities required to be paid in foreign currency," for the export licenses, said Stoliar. "So where do you get foreign currency? The Jewish community had Turkish money."

The American government intervened, according to Stoliar. He said that the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul asked permission from the State Department to release foreign currency belonging to the Socony Vacuum Oil partnership in Istanbul. The funds previously had been ordered frozen by the U.S. government, which had just entered World War II.

"I don't have any document showing their reply, but the fact that we got food means that the reply from the State Department had been positive," said Stoliar.

Eight passengers were able to leave the ship in Istanbul. They included a pregnant woman who required hospitalization, a family of four with influential friends ashore, and three people who held expired visas for Palestine and which the British agreed to renew, permitting them to travel by land.

As bad as things were for those aboard Struma, they were not without hope. Stoliar explained that while everyone suffered, they felt they had saved themselves.
"Once we reached Istanbul, we thought we had been saved, that's it, we were out of the Nazis' reach. We were euphoric, once we were in Istanbul."

They did not know what awaited them.

"On the 23rd in the afternoon, when the authorities decided to pull the vessel back into the Black Sea, the police came on board and cut the anchor and they attached the ship to a big tugboat, a military tugboat, and the boat took us back into the Black Sea. The ship did not have an engine (that worked); it did not even have an anchor. You don't need to draw any conclusion to that," said Stoliar. The refugees' hope gave way to despair.

"It was very frightening. The people were completely broken down," said Stoliar. "It was the end. We knew, one way or the other, it was the end."

That evening, the frightened passengers watched as a Soviet submarine used its deck gun to sink the Turkish schooner Cancaya passing nearby.

"Then it waited all through the night," said Stoliar. "There was Struma floating there, right at the same spot. So they torpedoed the Struma. All this is documented in the Soviet navy archives today; they're available to anybody in Moscow."

The next morning, according to Stoliar, the submarine coldly fired one torpedo at the stricken ship. He said he always has believed that the torpedo came from the direction of the Turkish shore.

From whatever direction, that was the end of Struma and all aboard her, save Stoliar who, with the dead chief mate, was pulled from the water the day after the sinking by rescuers from a nearby lighthouse.

Moscow has never explained why its submarine sank Struma, which sailed under the neutral Panamanian flag. Stoliar speculates about international intrigue and talks about efforts to locate surviving crewmen from the sub, but nothing is really known yet, although Stoliar is researching the issue.

"I could not explain how could a submarine fire a torpedo from the shore, until yesterday," said Stoliar, referring to papers he had just received from Moscow. "A document from the Soviet navy (states) that they instructed the submarine to put itself in the position so that the torpedo should apparently be coming from the shore," he said. That's as much as he knows-for now.

This month a memorial service will be held in Istanbul for those who perished aboard Struma. Britisher Greg Buxton, whose grandparents were lost aboard the ship, is organizing the event.

Buxton sold his Birmingham, England, home two years ago to finance a deep-sea diving expedition to find and photograph the wreck. The Turkish government has threatened to withdraw its permission. Stoliar cites this as evidence that Struma is as much "a political football" today as it was in 1942.

Dive progress can be checked on the Web at The Toronto-based documentary filmmaker is on hand to record whatever happens.

David Stoliar would like to attend the memorial, but there's an illness in his family now and he feels his proper place is with the living. But he hasn't forgotten those who perished aboard Struma. He counted their number at 103 Jewish children, 269 Jewish women, 396 Jewish men and the 10 Bulgarian sailors.

© The Jewish Review, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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