Holocaust at Sea: The Lone Survivor of the 'Struma'

By in Bend, Oregon

Photo Gallery: The Fate of the 'Struma' Photos
USHMM/ David Stoliar

In 1942, a Soviet submarine in the Black Sea torpedoed and sank the Struma, a ship filled with almost 800 Jewish refugees headed from Romania to the Holy Land. David Stoliar, the lone survivor, agreed to share his story with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

David Stoliar's neat house sits atop a hill on the edge of Bend, a small city in central Oregon. A few steps lead up to the front door. Stoliar's wife, Marda, opens, followed by a happy beagle. "Come in," she says cheerfully. "Come in."

Her husband is waiting in the living room, surrounded by souvenirs and family photos. Stoliar, his light-blue eyes twinkling, appears much younger than 90. He laughs, chats about the weather, mentions the road conditions up on nearby Mount Hood. He's making small talk, obviously, to avoid the actual topic of this visit.

David Stoliar needs time to bring his thoughts -- and himself -- all the way back to that night. He's actually never discussed it before with a German reporter. "Nobody has asked me," he says with a shrug, adding emphatically that, after this meeting, he won't ever speak of it again -- with no one, no matter what or where they're from.

"Not a good memory," Stoliar states matter-of-factly. "I just want to finish my life in peace."

But memories, of course, can't be dismissed so easily. Especially these memories. The explosion, catapulting him into the water. The screams of the others, fading slowly. The wait for his own certain death on that icy night at sea.

Stoliar's story has always been a taboo of sorts. His ordeal illuminates a forgotten, inconvenient chapter of the Holocaust, which the then-Allies would rather not be reminded of. For, if anything, they chose to look the other way -- before, during and after.

"Everybody had an excuse," Marda says.

That chapter found its horrifying conclusion in the Black Sea, near Istanbul, in the wee hours of February 24, 1942. That's when a Soviet submarine sank a Jewish refugee ship en route to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. All told, 786 people, among them 101 children, either died instantly or slowly froze and drowned in the wintry water.

Only one of them made it.

"There was no reason for me to survive," Stoliar says. "I feel like I survived by luck. Pure luck." To this day he struggles with guilt. Psychologists call this the Holocaust Syndrome.

So even today, after all these years, Stoliar approaches that memory warily, reluctantly and carefully coached by his wife. Born an American, almost 20 years younger than him and a gentile, Marda lacks David's trauma but knows his story almost better than he does.

"Talk about Romania," she goads him gently.

Setting Out for Freedom

David Stoliar grew up in Romania, home to nearly 800,000 Jews before World War II. By the summer of 1940, their life, too, had become unbearable, thanks to anti-Semitic laws, deportations and, ultimately, bloody pogroms.

Stoliar's mother fled to Paris to seek safety. The 19-year-old son stayed behind with his father, who eventually bought him a passport and a ticket to freedom -- or, rather, a ticket to Palestine on a ship named Struma. In today's value, that ticket cost $1,000 (€775).

The Struma followed an armada of previous ships that had been trying to make it to the Holy Land since the beginning of the war. Many of these passages, however, ended in death, and most were illegal. Great Britain, which administrated the British Mandate of Palestine back then, had been curbing Jewish immigration since 1939 and ultimately blocked it altogether in the hopes of keeping the Arabs from taking up arms in support of Nazi Germany.

The Struma was no more than a pile of junk. Built in 1867, this former luxury yacht had been sadly degraded to a cattle transport ship. The masts were long gone, leaving just a wooden hull, barely held together by metal plates. The engine, added later, worked only sporadically.

That didn't prevent two Jewish groups from Romania from chartering the Struma in 1941 for their escape from the Nazis. They advertised the journey into the unknown with promising pamphlets, some of which read "Bon voyage!" and "Welcome to Palestine!"

Stoliar signed up along with his fiancée, Ilse Lothringer, and her parents. But when they finally caught a first glimpse of the Struma in the Black Sea harbor of Constanta, it was a bad omen: The ship, originally meant for only 150 passengers, had been retrofitted to carry almost 800, in tiny wooden bunks on three low levels -- and that in the coldest winter in generations.

"Like sardines," Stoliar says. "We couldn't even turn over. But we had no way of going back."

After several delays they finally put out to sea on December 12, 1941. Their route was supposed to take them through the Black Sea, the Bosporus and the Mediterranean to the port of Haifa. But they had gone only a few kilometers when the engine started sputtering - and then died completely as they approached the Bosporus.

A Turkish tugboat schlepped them to the harbor of Istanbul, supposedly to have the engine fixed. The refugees, lacking visas, were forbidden to disembark. Instead, the authorities raised the black and yellow quarantine flag over the Struma.

Trapped in Turkey

Meanwhile, a long, diplomatic tussle began behind the scenes. Great Britain refused to allow the Struma to continue on to Palestine. Romania didn't want it back, either. The United States stayed out of it completely. And Turkey, still neutral at the time and not wanting to get on the wrong side of anybody, forced the passengers to stay on board, where they were slowly starving.

"We were not considered human", Stoliar says. "So why should you help?"

Conditions on board worsened rapidly. Food became scarce; a pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage. The only help came from Simon Brod, a local Jewish businessman who rescued many refugees over the course of the war. He occasionally brought food and water.

Turkey eventually took action on its own. On February 23, 1942, policemen stormed the Struma, cut the anchor chain, tugged the ship back into the Black Sea -- and set it helplessly adrift.

"We knew we had nowhere else to go," Stoliar recalls. "We all smelled the end of it."

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