The last survivor of the Struma passes away

The last survivor of the Struma passes away

David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the worst civilian maritime disaster of World War II, has died peacefully at his home in Bend, Oregon, after a long illness. His wife, Marda, was at his side.

A quiet, self-effacing man, Stoliar remained largely silent about his World War II ordeal for decades
after he was fished from the icy waters of the Black Sea by Turkish rescuers in 1942. He was the only person among the nearly 800 passengers to survive when their disabled ship, the Struma, was sunk by a Soviet submarine.

Months earlier, Stoliar and his fiancé had boarded a converted cattle barge in the Romanian port of Constanta, with hundreds of other Romanian Jews fleeing the Nazi-inspired Romanian Iron Guard. The ship was headed toward Palestine when its engine failed on the Black Sea and it was towed into Istanbul.

The Struma sat in the harbor for more than three months while the British blocked onward passage and Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. It was a familiar story, based on coldly strategic motives. The British did not want to antagonize the Arabs of the Middle East, with their vast reserves of oil that were deemed essential to the Allied war effort. For their part, the Turks were trying to remain neutral as World War II engulfed one country after another.

After three months of failed negotiations with the British, a Turkish tugboat pulled alongside the Struma, attached a chain and towed the ship back to the Black Sea. A few hours later, just before dawn on Feb. 24, the Struma was struck by a single torpedo from a Soviet sub.

Most people died instantly. Others survived the blast but drowned in the icy waters. For 24 hours, Stoliar endured by clinging to a piece of wooden flotsam, drifting along the coastline. Eventually, a watchtower crew from the small Turkish fishing village of Şile set out to look for survivors. The crew found Stoliar and brought him ashore, where villagers fed him hot lentil soup and gave him a bed in the boathouse. Soon after, two soldiers arrived and took Stoliar to a military hospital in Istanbul and, when he recovered, to prison.

Months later, facing international condemnation for its role in the Struma tragedy, the British gave Stoliar a visa for Palestine. A Turkish policeman escorted Stoliar to the Turkish-Syrian border, handed him his papers, and shook his hand. After a short time in Palestine, Stoliar joined the British army in 1943 and was sent to North Africa. When he returned to Palestine, Stoliar found himself in the midst of another war - and working in an intelligence unit for the Jewish army - in what became known as the War of Independence.

Later, Stoliar worked for Esso Oil in Haifa, Israel, and when American oil companies began moving out of Israel, Stoliar went to Tokyo to work. He married an Egyptian woman, Adria, and had a son, Ron. Stoliar later said that Japan was the perfect place where he could work hard and no one would ask questions about his past. “Basically, the Japanese live and let live; it was a very pleasant feeling that nobody pays any attention to you,” Stoliar said.

Stoliar was born in Kishinev, Romania on Oct. 31, 1922. His father, Jacob, moved the family to Bucharest in 1927, where he joined a brother in the textile industry. At the onset of World War II, Romanian Jews were stripped of their property and many were the victims of pogroms led by the Iron Guard. Worried that his son would not survive, Jacob Stoliar paid thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain a passport and for a ticket on the Struma for his son.

For most of his life, Stoliar talked little about the Struma tragedy. His first wife, Adria, died in 1961, without ever hearing about his ordeal. In 1968 he remarried - a young American shoe designer, Marda Emslie. It was three years before he mentioned the Struma to Marda, and he was shocked to learn that she already knew. Simple curiosity had led her to look up his name in World War II databases at the New York Public Library shortly after they met, but she had decided that if he was not going to mention it, she would not either. 

After participating in the creation of a book and a documentary about the Struma, Stoliar decided to return to Turkey in 2002, even driving up the shore road to Şile where he had been brought ashore 60 years earlier. In the late afternoon sunshine, Stoliar met a new watchtower crew and one man asked if it was good to be back. Stoliar responded it was better that time around, than the first.

A private man, Stoliar had said his hello, and farewell, to a place and people he had met under the direst circumstances.

*Catherine Collins is the co-author of ‘Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea’