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.
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.)