Lone survivor of WWII ship disaster dies


In late 1941, the Jewish immigrant ship Struma, overcrowded, 75 years old and fitted with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine, was jammed with 770 refugees, bound for Palestine from Axis-allied Romania.

The vessel’s engine failed several times before it arrived in Istanbul in mid-December 1941 and she had to be towed by tug into the neutral port.

Turkish officials ordered all 769 passengers to remain aboard and ultimately refused them transit. In late February 1942 the boat was towed into the Black Sea and set adrift.

Within hours Soviet submarine Shch-213, prowling the waters for German and Italian ships, torpedoed the Struma, killing all but one of the 780 refugees and crew onboard.

The lone survivor was 19-year-old David Stoliar, who was plucked from the icy water by a Turkish fishing boat.

Stoliar, who died this month at the age of 91, eventually was able to make his way was first to Lebanon than to Palestine with the help of Istanbul’s Jewish community.

The following year he enlisted in the British Army and saw action in North Africa. Upon his release from the British Army, he returned to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces. In the 1948 War of Independence he fought as a machine gunner, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Stoliar had more than one lucky break in his life.

He was born in Chisinau, Romania, which today is Moldova. His parents divorced not long after but later agreed that conditions were deteriorating to such a degree in pre-World War II Europe that young David should leave.

David Stoliar

David Stoliar

A few months later his mother was arrested and handed over to the Gestapo. Later, she was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, according to Haaretz.

Stoliar lived in Israel until his first wife’s death. He later remarried, to an American, and settled in Bend, Ore., where he spent the last 40-plus years of his life.

Stoliar went on to have a successful business career, but the 10 weeks he spent aboard the doomed Struma and later, upon his rescue, in a Turkish prison, were deeply scarring, his second wife told The Oregonian newspaper.

“Each time he’d consent to be interviewed on the subject, whether by officials from The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or journalists, the next week he would awaken screaming every night,” the publication reported.

(Top: Struma, in Istanbul Harbor in early 1942, shortly before being towed out into the Black Sea where it was sunk by a Soviet submarine.)

6 thoughts on “Lone survivor of WWII ship disaster dies

  1. i never knew the story of this ship, this is so incredibly horrible and sad. i always find the survivors of these type of experiences to be so amazing and puzzling at the same time. why and how do they survive in spite of incredible odds to the contrary? why them and not someone else? there really is no answer…

      • Survivor’s guilt…you see that a lot when you talk to people at museums that tell the story of the Holocaust. They just cannot wrap their heads around why they were chosen to survive when so many died. It’s also interesting to listen to different survivors’ takes on God and religion. Some surprising and varied views.

      • Indeed, it’s difficult to see how one could make it through something like that and not be utterly changed. Some embrace God while others feel there can be no God if something like the Holocaust were allowed to occur. And, as you said, many views in between.

      • And many people with conflicted feelings I’m sure. Elie Viesal has some interesting things to say on his belief in God after the Holocaust. I’ve heard him speak, read interviews, and seen him interviewed on film, and am more intrigued each time by his remarks.

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