Surviving the Black Sea: An appreciation of David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the 1942 Struma disaster
By Kaya GençJune 19, 2014
ONE DAY IN 1942, a young man woke to the sound of a great explosion below him. In the course of a few seconds a massive force threw him outside the ship in which he had been sleeping and into the icy waters of the Black Sea. The ship, or what remained of it, was sinking fast. The young man found himself underwater, and when he managed to swim to the surface he heard cries of the drowning passengers and saw little groups desperately attempting to cling to the ship's wreckage. He held on to the deck and watched people's heads and arms as they drowned and disappeared around him. A man held on to his body just before he sank, nearly pulling the young man with him. He felt desperate but could help no one. Hours passed before a man reached him. It seemed miraculous to see him emerge from the sea of dead, but there he was: Lazar Dikof, the ship's chief mate.
Dikof told the young man, a 20-year-old Jew, that there had been an explosion at dawn when he was on duty; he had seen the ship torpedoed from the direction of the shore by an unknown force. "A torpedo?" the young man asked. "A torpedo," the chief mate affirmed.
It was a cold February morning and it rained heavily. The young man’s thick leather coat was useless as the shipwrecked men floated in the freezing water. Turkish authorities had quarantined the ship for weeks, refusing to accept Jews on their soil and forcing the passengers to wait onboard while the ship’s engine was repaired. It was unlikely that anyone from shore would come to their rescue.
Some time later, Dikof confessed to losing all his hopes. If they were fated to be frozen to death, what was the point of waiting under the heavy rain and struggling against the chilling weather? Turkey, the country that was closest to the ship, had refused all their appeals for protection during the previous two months. If they were to die there, why not make it a quick, and less painful, death, he suggested. The young man disagreed. They could survive, he said, if they slapped and punched each other on the face, like fighters on a ring. That way they would warm each other, and if they managed to keep warm long enough then surely someone would come and save them.
Sadly, the young man had little power beyond his rhetorical skills and they, too, were presently failing him. He was sleepy and dizzy, although not yet unconscious. He watched Dikof as the chief mate grew silent. Dikof stopped responding to his questions; the young man soon realized his companion had frozen to death. The dead body disappeared amidst the blackness of the sea. The sky had darkened and the night of desperation was upon him. He took out his pocketknife to cut his wrists. In the silence of the morning the young man reached for his knife, but he was unable to open it; his fingers were frozen.
He was semiconscious when a fishing boat materialized on the horizon. Eight Turkish seamen caught him on the wreckage and put his near-frozen body inside their boat. When he woke up some time later, the sea was gone and he found himself in front of a stove in a boathouse. A group of seamen was looking at him with eyes opened wide. Oblivious to the explosion, they had been surprised that morning to have come across dozens of dead bodies that moved slowly along the water and hit the coast. That day 790 people had died, including 101 children. The young man had lost his family and his fiancée.
Last month, some 72 years after his ordeal in the Black Sea, David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma explosion, died on dry land, in Bend, Oregon. He was among the hundreds of men, women, and children who had been abandoned to their fate by a confluence of war, hate, and international politics. In a strange confederacy, Nazis, Communist officials, British Foreign Office personnel, and Turkish politicians all played various roles in one of the worst maritime tragedies of the previous century.
Stoliar's troubles had begun the previous year, in 1941, when German armies entered Bulgaria, where the young boy lived with his father. Born in 1922 in Romania, Stoliar’s parents had divorced when he was still a child. Afraid, he moved to Bucharest when his mother, who lived in Paris, decided that he would be safer as a Jew in Romania. The entry of the German army into Bulgaria made his father uneasy. The young man, too, was unsettled: as he dug ditches at work camps Stoliar heard rumors about Jews being killed in the streets. His father decided to send him to Palestine, to ensure that he could be as far away from the atrocities of Nazis as possible. Many years later, he told Haaretz newspaper about his father’s attempts to get him to safety:
My father paid an exorbitant price for a ticket for the Struma. Equivalent to maybe $1,000 today. He sewed a leather money belt for me and bought me a heavy coat. Those two things helped me survive. He cried bitterly when I left. Thanks to my father I avoided the terrors of the fascist regime in Romania, which was allied with Nazi Germany.
His mother had already been arrested by the Gestapo and was sent to Auschwitz, where she would be gassed to death in a concentration camp in 1942. Thus began the young man's exodus toward Palestine.
The ship he boarded alongside his fiancée, Ilse Lothringer, and her parents was MV Struma. It was built 74 years before as a luxury steam yacht for Henry Paget, a marquess and courtier to Queen Victoria. The Struma was later used as a troopship during the Balkan Wars and as a coastal trading vessel. During the 1930s, the Struma carried cattle. A decade later, Zionist organizations chartered it to carry Jews to Palestine.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, where Nazis worked to influence the upper echelons of power, the diplomatic circles were intensely confused about how to deal with Europe’s volatile political situation. The country was ruled through a single-party regime led by İsmet İnönü. İnönü took great pains to keep Turkey neutral but this didn't stop Nazi officials and spies from frequenting Istanbul and Ankara in order to plant a Turkish version of their racist ideology into the country. Using a toxic combination of anti-communist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, Nazi officials supported Turkish racists and helped them organize campaigns to bully liberal and leftist Turks, whom they accused of being impure degenerates. A number of Nazi scholars were installed in major Turkish universities and in the media, and Germans increased their presence with frequent headlines in the national press saluting the Führer and Il Duce. Articles advocating the purity of the race, and pontificating about the necessity to keep it free of Semitic, Arabic, and Kurdish influences, contributed to this discourse.
Nevertheless, it was the British, more than any other international authority, that played a decisive role in the sad fate of the Struma. Determined to protect their resources, the British attempted to stop immigration to Palestine, not only from the United Kingdom, but from all European nations. In their book, Death on the Black Sea, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins describe the motives of the British as "coldly strategic." They explain how the British
did not want to devote even more military resources to keeping a lid on hostilities between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, and more important, they did not want to antagonize the Arabs of the Middle East, who controlled huge reserves of oil that were deemed essential to the Allied war effort.
In order to stop illegal immigration, the British Foreign Office was ready to take illegal measures. There were "proposals to sink shiploads of refugees" on "unfounded accusations that refugee boats were infiltrated by Nazi spies" to justify the blockade of Palestine.
This, then, was how the stage was set for the humanitarian disaster that would destroy 790 lives, including Stoliar's.
The Struma, a ship designed to carry not more than 100 people, left Constanta with 781 passengers and 10 crew members, on December 12, 1941. Its diesel engine failed a few hours later, forcing the captain to send distress signals. Help arrived and the engine was fixed, but on December 15 it failed again, when the Struma was towed into Istanbul where the passengers anticipated a warm welcome and brief respite.
Instead, members of the Turkish coast guard forcefully entered the ship and ordered all passengers to the lower deck. When several passengers resisted, officials beat them with clubs. On December 16, Turkish engineers were sent to the ship to fix the engine. Initially, they said it would take a week, during which time nobody would be allowed to leave Struma. The situation on board was desperate. There was little food and fresh water left and the sanitary conditions were appalling.
A representative of the Jewish Agency in Istanbul was the first to bring food and water inside the Struma. This helped boost the morale of the passengers; people were ecstatic to be able to eat fresh oranges. But in the offices of Turkish and British bureaucrats, the immigrants were increasingly viewed as suspicious, rather than as sympathetic. The distrust was ostensibly diplomatic. Since Romania had recently become an ally of the Nazis, a ship from Romania could very well be carrying Nazi agents. The British and the Americans used this "Nazi agents hiding on the ship" theory as an excuse to stop passengers from entering Istanbul. While the Turkish government wanted desperately to get rid of the ship and send it on its way to Palestine, the head of the Colonial Office in Britain struggled to persuade the Turkish government to stop the ship from reaching its destination. The British believed that the Turkish authorities could easily "send the Struma back into the Black Sea if they wished." Since it was an unwanted ship, nobody could complain if something happened to it.
Despite the strict orders of authorities, Jewish organizations did manage to send help to the Struma, by way of bribing Turkish police officers. Every bit of food mattered. Frantz and Collins describe how "a loaf of bread was sliced into twenty-five pieces to feed twenty-five people." When a man attempted to steal an orange, some passengers demanded a public execution. Though calm triumphed in the end, the situation was one of near fatal desperation, anger, and frustration. Behind them was the threat of Nazi cruelty, in front nothing but endless immigration limbo. The sustaining hope was that all would be settled when they reached their destination. Yet by mid-January 1942 the engine was still not fixed, and according to the engineers the Struma would not be able to reach Palestine even if its engine started working again.
Meanwhile neither the Turkish press nor the international correspondents showed much interest in the ship's fate. The tone of the few articles published at the time was detached and distant: there were doctors on the ship, the journalists informed their readers, so there was little reason to worry about the fate of a shipload of Jews.
There was only one family that the authorities would eventually agree to allow off of the Struma. With the insistence of Americans and some help from the influential industrialist Vehbi Koç, Martin Segal (an American citizen who worked as the Romanian head of Standard Oil Company) and his family were allowed to set foot in Istanbul. For the Koç Company this was a profitable act of benevolence. Because they had done business with the Germans in the past, Koç was on the British blacklist and this was a great impediment for the future of their business. Once Koç had managed to persuade the interior minister to release the Segals, his company would be removed from the blacklist. The Americans later took the Taurus Express, leaving Istanbul and the Struma behind them.
The rest of the passengers, Stoliar among them, were not as lucky. The decision to murder all Jews in Europe, the so-called Final Solution, had been made in late January by Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, and the top strata of the SS. On February 23, a month after this decision, the Turkish authorities, under pressure from the British, cut the anchor of the Struma, which was then towed to the Black Sea. Frantz and Collins describe the late (and useless) reaction of the British Foreign Office to a decision to which they greatly contributed:
The Foreign Office responded [to the decision] with a telegram urging the embassy in Ankara to seek a delay. “Please represent urgently to the Turkish Government that they should at least postpone action reported while question of admission of children to Palestine is being considered,” said the telegram. “You should also take opportunity of pressing for re-consideration of Turkish decision regarding transit of children.”
The response had been sent at 7:40 PM, February 24. By that time, the children were at the bottom of the Black Sea.
The infamous torpedo was launched from a Soviet submarine whose officers had mistaken the Struma for a Nazi troopship. The irony of the situation couldn't be more pointed. Communists had killed Jewish immigrants, set adrift by the collusion of the British and Turkish governments, thinking they were killing Nazi spies. In some ways, this incident points to the complexity of assigning blame and fault during World War II. Though one nation committed the final, murderous act, every nation was complicit in the crime.
Earlier this year, The Oregonian interviewed Stoliar in his house. In the interview, the old man can hardly breathe and observes that “the atrocity in the human species has always been active.” When asked whether he wants an apology from those responsible for the tragedy, he says it is too late for all that. Then he offers some advice to young people, which I found very touching in its simplicity. "Just enjoy life," Stoliar says. He seems to have enjoyed his. He worked in shoe manufacturing, founded a shoe factory in Korea, got married twice, and dressed like a proper gentleman every day of the week for the rest of his life. His company used ships for a very different reason: to send shoes to the United States and Canada.
Seventy-two years after the disaster, Europe and its surrounding seas remain dark places. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1,500 people died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe in 2011 alone. The Struma disaster was a startling and deadly moment when diplomacy became an instrument of cowardice, avoidance, and neglect. Fittingly, the wreckage of the ship was similarly neglected and would remain in Şile for the next seven decades. In an age that has failed to deal adequately with the presence of "illegal" immigrants, the Struma’s wreckage is a monument to the human cost of such ambivalence. Anti-immigration legislation remains the centerpiece of extreme right-wing politics, especially in Europe, as last month's European Parliament Election, a triumph of anti-immigrant politicians, showed. As thousands continue to die and as the survivors continue to be held in limbo, it seems that little has changed.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.