Sole survivor

Modern Heroes

Andrew Finkel on the late David Stoliar (1922–2014), who survived the sinking of the Struma

In 2000 I stepped into the lift of a Bologna hotel and in the minute or two it took to reach the lobby I became firm friends with one of my fellow passengers. Her name was Marda Stoliar and she was the wife of David Stoliar, a man whose extraordinary life had figured in a story I had written for The Times earlier that summer (she had spotted my name on the conference badgeI was wearing). As a 19-year-old in 1941, David Stoliar had managed to bribe his way out of a fascist work camp in his native Romania to book a passage to Palestine for himself and his fiancée’s family aboard a leaky Danube cattle-boat called the Struma. The ship never arrived in Palestine.

The Struma had started life some 75 years earlier on the Tyne as a luxury steam yacht, commissioned by the Marquess of Anglesey. It had bounced up and down on waves of fortune, much like the once-prosperous Stoliar family, and it was as a refugee-carrier crammed with 780 passengers and 11 crew that it was to end its life – a Greek-owned ship flying a Panamanian flag and charging the vast fee of a $1000 a berth.

On December 14, 1941, the Struma sputtered into Istanbul. It had been plagued by engine trouble for the whole journey. The British, determined to restrict immigration to its mandate colony, put pressure on the Turkish authorities not to let the boat be repaired or the passengers to move on to Palestine. Ankara was itself all too willing to prevent its neutral territory from becoming a transit route. So the Struma was held in quarantine at a mooring below the Topkapı until, eventually, the police boarded the boat, cut the anchor and towed the disabled ship back up to the nBlack Sea to be set adrift.

On February 24, 1942, David Stoliar was opening the door to the captain’s deck when a Soviet torpedo hit the Struma. He was still clutching the handle when the door flew into the sea. Throughout the night, on his makeshift raft, he heard the shouts of his fellow passengers. By morning there was silence. He was the only one to survive.

Most of us suffer the odd existential tightening of the stomach. For David Stoliar, the knot could never be untied. The question was not just “Why am I here?” but “Why was I the one to be spared?”

The summer before I met Marda I had written of one of the grandchildren of the Struma victims, Greg Buxton, who had sold his home to finance a team of divers to seek out the ship at the bottom of the sea. If the sinking of the Struma had been a terrible triumph of pragmatism over compassion, this attempt to salvage its memory was proving similarly shameful. The authorities were wary of helping to commemorate an incident that showed Turkey, no less than Britain and the former-Soviet Union, in so unflattering a light. A former Turkish foreign minister openly declared that the motive of the divers was to stir up trouble.

The Struma was never found. A memorial service was held at sea, but David Stoliar did not attend. Marda was to explain to me that he had been anxious and embarrassed at the thought of appearing before the families as the one who had survived. Indeed, he had been married once before and never told his first wife of the Struma. Marda only found out by accident, when curiosity led her to research the war archives in the New York Public Library. She kept her discovery to herself, waiting for him to break his silence. Even then, there were things Stoliar never talked of. When Greg Buxton came to visit their home in Bend, Oregon, she stood in the kitchen doorway, afraid to break the spell, as David recounted for the first time in her hearing details of the night the Struma sank.

David Stoliar was to speak publicly on the Struma in an interview for the book, Death on the Black Sea. We met when he came to Turkey with Marda on a private visit in 2002, and I think he was genuinely surprised by the warmth of his reception. He was even reunited with İsmail Arslan who, as a young fisherman, had witnessed his rescue from the icy waters.

The following year I was invited to lecture in Portland and was flattered and astonished that Stoliar drove for hours from Bend to attend. We had a delightful dinner together. He was a modest, articulate and elegant man with a successful career and varied interests. That he had survived one of the bleakest moments of his century was no longer something he buried in his psyche. His delivery from despair had become a symbol of hope. That too was a burden, but David Stoliar bore it thoughtfully and with humour.

David Stoliar, soldier, businessman and lone survivor of the Struma, b. October 31, 1922, Chișinău (now Moldavia, then Kishinev Romania), d. May 18, 2014, Bend, Oregon, peacefully after a long illness.
‘Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea’, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins (London HarperCollins, 2003) is available as an ebook

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Buy the issue
Issue 51, Summer 2014 Istanbul Unwrapped: The European City and the Sultan’s New City
£20.00 / $27.95 / 114.28 TL