Holocaust at Sea The Lone Survivor of the 'Struma'

USHMM/ David Stoliar

By in Bend, Oregon

Part 2: A Sudden, Explosive End


Indeed, that end came in the early hours of the following day -- in the form of a sudden explosion.

Most of the passengers were asleep, including Stoliar. "It was probably three or four in the morning," he says, now softly and haltingly. "I woke up as I was thrown into the air. I fell back into the water, and when I surfaced, there was no vessel anymore. Nothing. Just debris."

What they didn't know at that point was that the Struma had been hit by a torpedo fired from a Soviet submarine a kilometer away. Decades later, it was revealed that Stalin had given out a secret order to sink all neutral ships in the Black Sea.

Most passengers and the Romanian crew of the Struma died in the torpedo's explosion. Among them were Stoliar's fiancée, Ilse, and her parents, who had been sleeping in the bottom part of the ship's hull. One reason Stoliar survived was that his bunk was right below deck.

Back in Bend, Stoliar gets up, rummages about and brings out an album. All he has left is a single black-and-white photo of Ilse, showing her on a balcony, laughing and holding a puppy. It's a copy; the original is in the archives of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Marda nudges her husband back into the past. "So, that night, what happened next?"

Oh, yes, that night. Stoliar sighs and sits down again.

More than 100 survivors were still struggling to stay afloat and alive in the ice-cold water around him. Stoliar and a few others clung to a piece of floating wreckage, a section of the wooden deck. But one after another they froze to death and slipped into the abyss. "Eventually," he says, "I was just by myself."

This time Marda doesn't interrupt him. The living room grows silent.

Survival and Liberation

At some point, a man swam over. He introduced himself in Russian as Lazar Dikof, the Struma 's chief mate. They sat on that piece of wood talking, yelling, trying to keep each other alive.

Morning passed, then afternoon, then evening. Night fell again. At dawn, Dikof was dead.

Stoliar lost hope. He tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists with a pocket knife. But even that didn't work: "My hands were too swollen from the frost."

After 24 hours, a coast guard rowboat appeared and picked Stoliar up. He was brought to the port of Sile and then to a military hospital in Istanbul. A week later, he was moved to a jail, where he was detained for being in Turkey "illegally."

Stolier was kept in jail for 71 days. Only then did the British government decide to grant an "exception" and allow him to enter Palestine. A train took him to Aleppo, a car to Tel Aviv, both arranged by Brod.

Efforts at Forgetting

After the war, Stoliar tried to forget about the Struma and start a new life. His mother had died in Auschwitz. His father survived in Bucharest, and Stoliar brought him to Palestine.

But not even his first wife, Adria, whom he married in Cairo in 1945, knew about the Struma.

In 1954, Stoliar ended up working for a trade company in Tokyo. Adria died of cancer. An arranged date with Marda, a shoe designer from Oregon who was living in Paris then, turned into his second marriage. After a life traveling the world, they settled in Bend.

Stoliar didn't mention the Struma until two years into their marriage.

The story of the Struma faded into obscurity. MGM once wanted to make a movie about Stoliar's story, but he declined. There were a few articles in newspapers and magazines. In 2003, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, two former New York Times correspondents, reconstructed the tragedy in their book Death on the Black Sea. Stoliar, albeit reluctantly, was their main source.

So now he wants to stop talking about it altogether. "Why did the others die," he still asks himself, "but I didn't?"

It's a question with no answer.

His mind returns to the present, and his light-blue eyes twinkle again. He laughs, talks about the weather, discusses the road conditions up on Mount Hood. The happy beagle jumps onto his lap.

This article originally appeared in German on einestages.de, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.

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