It was unusual enough that the New York Times ran a lengthy obituary last week about a man who died in 2014. But even more uncommon was the article’s subject, the sole survivor of a Holocaust-era Jewish tragedy with which most people, including many in the Jewish world, are unfamiliar.
The niftar was a man named David Stoliar. He lived modestly and his death was little noticed at the time outside Oregon, where he lived. Once it came to journalists’ attention, though, it spurred the recounting of a wartime saga in 1942.
Mr. Stoliar, a native of Kishinev, Romania, who had lived abroad but returned to his birthplace in 1936, was the only person among nearly 800 Jews fleeing Romania in a refugee ship who survived the ship’s sinking by a Soviet torpedo. There’s more, though, to the story of the passengers on the ill-fated vessel, a 150-foot steamer called the Struma.
The Soviet torpedo was the immediate cause of the perishing of those many lives. Stalin, it later came to light, had given orders to sink all neutral ships in the Black Sea, to prevent supplies from reaching Germany. The ultimate cause, though, of the horrific deaths by drowning and exposure were actions taken earlier by Britain and Turkey.
The story begins on December 11, 1941, two years into World War II, when the Struma, a former cattle boat crammed with passengers desperate to flee to Eretz Yisrael, left the Romanian port of Constanza. Bunks were stacked 10 high, and there was little food or fresh water, and no life preservers.
Passengers paid up to $1,000 each, an enormous amount of money at the time, for passage and visas to Palestine. The visas were never provided, and the ship proved unseaworthy. After a short while, the engines failed, and the captain of a passing tug repaired it in exchange for the passengers’ wedding rings, the only valuables they had left.
Three days later, near Turkey, the engines failed again, and the Struma was towed by Turkish tugs into the Bosporus. Turkey, a neutral power, feared angering either Britain or Germany, and interned the Struma offshore. Istanbul’s Jews brought food to the captive passengers.
Britain, which controlled Palestine and feared the Arab reaction to Jewish immigrants, refused to let the passengers continue without visas. A handful of the beleaguered refugees, including an ailing woman, were allowed to disembark in Istanbul. But the rest of the men, women and children were forced to remain on board, and the Turks cut the Struma’s anchor, and towed the ship back into the Black Sea. Drifting helplessly, it was an easy target for the Soviet torpedo.
19-year-old Mr. Stoliar was the sole survivor of the ship’s destruction. He first told his story only in 2000, recalling people screaming and thrashing in the waves, some holding on to pieces of the ship but succumbing to the numbing cold of the water. He managed to hang on to a piece of the ship’s wooden deck, and about a day later, he was spotted by a large Turkish ship, which sent a rowboat to his rescue.
After being hospitalized in Istanbul, he was jailed for six weeks, apparently to keep him from the news media. Eventually, though, he reached Palestine and joined the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in 1943, serving in Egypt and Libya. He also fought with the Israeli Army in the War of Independence. In 1971, he moved to Oregon, where he and his wife opened a bakery and then a cooking school.
After the Struma’s sinking, there were feelings of guilt, and recriminations, in Britain. On June 9, 1942, a member of the House of Lords, Josiah Wedgwood IV, alleged that Britain had reneged on its commitments to protect refugees and urged that the League of Nations mandate over Palestine be transferred to the USA. “I hope yet,” he said, “to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman, cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler.” The poet Emanuel Litvinoff, who was serving in the British army at the time, called the British khaki he wore a “badge of shame.”
It isn’t possible to know when the world’s civilized nations came to recognize a moral obligation to try to aid and resettle war refugees, as many countries are currently doing. But it isn’t hard to imagine that the deaths by indifference of the Struma’s passengers constituted a turning point.