An article published by Shay
in the newspaper "Davar Hashavua"
From a message sent by Mr. Ami Atir:
... I received a copy of this article from Mr. David Stoliar,
who informed me that it was written by Mr. Shay Eliash and had been
published in "Davar Hashavua" in 1955. Upon reading the article it would
behoove you to remember that it has been several years since its inception
publication. The article is brought to you in its entirety, exactly as it was originally published. I have made no changes, only a few typographical corrections.
I thought it only fitting to bring you this article here as a "balance" and to counteract the article written by Ayhan Ozer. Mr. Ozer's article was published in 1992 in the "Turkish Times"; it is still available today on several sites on the Internet as well as on this site.
I am not an historian, but it would seem to me that the article written by Mr. Ozer quite faithfully depicts the background to the whole "Struma" tragedy, as well as the chain of the main events - including dates, both before and after Struma's fateful voyage.
However, the discerning eye will easily find Mr. Ozer's attempt at a cover up for the part that Turkey played in this awful tragedy and Turkey's culpability. I would like to cite a small part (abbreviated and censured) of the letter I received from Mr. David Stoliar, in regard to Mr. Ozer's article: "The article is totally inaccurate as far as the behavior of the Turkish Authorities during Struma's stay in Istanbul Harbor and their actions after the sinking of Struma".
Mr. Shay Eliash's article does not try to "blacken" the Turks' record, it simply makes no blatant attempt at embellishing the facts. As I have stated before, I am not an historian but since I have read quite extensively about this subject, I will presume to draw the conclusion that, as it concerns the Turks' behavior, the facts as described by Mr. Shay Eliash are more accurate than those we find in Mr. Ozer's writings.
As stated above, I thought it is fitting to bring here this article as a "balance" to Mr. Ozer's article. "Davar Hashavua" no longer exists. I have, therefore, asked for and received Mr. Shay Eliash's permission to publish his article in this forum (Mr. Eliash is now working for the "Maariv" newspaper). Many thanks to Mr. Shay Eliash.
The English translation was made by Mrs. Esther Waisman, my cousin
Amnon's wife. Many thanks to her for the effort.
Ami Atir February, 2000.
time was nine in the morning. The sea was calm. David Stoliar, who was
twenty years old at the time, was asleep in the bowels of the ship "Struma".
All of a sudden there was a huge explosion, and David found himself in
the water. The ship sank fast, taking with it all its hundreds of passengers.
Mr. Stoliar saw scores of people trying desperately, but failing, to hold onto parts of the shipwreck. The water was frigidly cold and people, try as they might, could not hold on. "There were many cries for help", recounts David Stoliar, "but they all drowned. I managed to somehow hold onto a wooden bench. The Captain's assistant, who was next to me, told me the Turks had torpedoed the ship. Then he drowned too."
David Stoliar was rescued and brought to dry land by some Turkish fishermen. 760 men, women, and children drowned that morning on February 24 1942, in the Black Sea. David Stoliar was the sole survivor.
When I was asked to locate Mr. David Stoliar, I turned to the archives.
One newspaper claimed that he had disappeared in Tokyo, another said he
passed away. David Stoliar's name was added to the long list of the Struma
Victims who are remembered every year in a service at the Rabbi
Gutman Synagogue in Tel Aviv. When I told him about his name having been added to the list of victims, he laughed. "They say it is a sign of longevity", he said. "I must also add that many blessings have been bestowed upon me in my life; I don't deserve any more."
Up until the time of this conversation, many people tried to track down this man and failed. This attempt at finding him also seemed doomed to failure. My first telephone conversation was with the Kibbutz Kineret, in the hope of obtaining some information from Mr. Shmuel Stoler. It turned out that Shmuel Stoler had passed away but his son, Menachem Tal, lived in Kineret.
Mr. Tal, who is a distant relative of David Stoliar, told me that Jacob Goren, a History teacher, lived in Hulon and David Stoliar was his mother's cousin. He had no answers to my questions about David Stoliar's whereabouts or if he was indeed still alive.
My quest led me to the journalist Dan Stoler, who could shed no further
light on the matter at all; so much so that I almost gave up. I found out
that it was virtually impossible to pick up the trail of a person who had
left the country many years since and was considered deceased. As luck
would have it, just as I was about to throw in the towel, Dan's wife suggested
that I contact her mother-in-law, Sophie Stoler. And it is there, in Hod
Hasharon, that I found my first clue. Sophie Stoler was glad to inform
me that only a few days prior to my visit she had received a postcard from
her husband's cousin who was living in Nice France. In his postcard, Leo
Stoler wrote that his cousin from the United States of America was coming
to pay him a visit. This cousin was no other than David Stoliar, the sole
survivor of Struma. So he was alive, after all.
A Ticket to Palestine
David Stoliar was born seventy-three years ago in Kishinev, which, at that time, was part of Romania. He was an only child. With his parents, he moved to Bucharest where his father owned a textile factory. The conditions for the Jews worsened early on in 1941. "We had to wear a yellow patch" says Mr. Stoliar. "We were expelled from school and were told to report at the concentration camp every day at five in the morning. Our job was to dig trenches in which the German Army could practice. Romanian soldiers guarded the camp. I was allowed to go home only after dark, when it was impossible to dig anymore."
There was a rumor circulating around Bucharest that the "Betar" Group
had bought a ship with the intent of letting its members sail to Palestine.
It was also said that they did not have enough funds for the trip. The
Betar members decided to raise the necessary monies by selling tickets
to Jews who were not members of their organization. The only condition
was that the would-be passengers should have a passport and a Romanian
exit visa. "My father decided to get me out of Romania as fast
as possible", says Stoliar, "because it was rumored that Berlin was putting pressure on the Romanian government to round up all the Jews and send them to concentrations camps in the North. My father paid for my ticket (400 Lei) and also managed to obtain a passport and an exit visa for me".
The trip to Constanza, where "Struma" was anchored, was postponed many times for technical reasons. Finally, on the night of December 7 1941, all those who were lucky enough to have tickets for the trip to Palestine boarded the train in Bucharest. "Once we were all on the train, the Romanian soldiers locked all the doors so no one could change their mind" says Stoliar. "As I was saying goodbye to my father that night I had the feeling that I would never see him again".
The passengers arrived in Constanza the following day. Their excitement
at the prospect of sailing to Palestine was great but it soon dissipated.
An Old and Decaying Ship
Prior to embarking on the ship, the passengers had to go through the
rigorous searches of the Romanian Customs. It was a tedious procedure that
lasted three days. "We had to hand over any object of any value in our
possession", says Stoliar. "All our money and jewelry was thus
confiscated by the Romanian Customs people. Many of the passengers were stripped searched. The Customs officials were very callous".
After their Customs ordeal, the passengers met with the "Struma" representatives, who were sure to weigh each and every suitcase. "My suitcase was full of clothes and other necessities, but each individual was allowed luggage up to ten kilograms only, so I had to leave half of my belongings behind", tells Stoliar.
The sight that met the passengers, once they were finally allowed on "Struma", was not a pleasant one, to say the least. They saw a rickety boat, sixty-one meters in length and six meters wide, which had been built in 1830 for shipping cargo. "It was an old decaying boat, not even fit for hauling animals much less people", says Stoliar.
769 immigrants were crammed into this boat onto narrow planks that had been specially installed inside the ship and on its decks. They had only one single bathroom. They took comfort in the thought that the whole trip to Istanbul would take only 14 hours.
On the night of December 12 1941 "Struma" was towed outside of the territorial waters of Romania and started on its way to Turkey.
The mishaps started almost immediately. "Several hours after the tow had left, there were problems with the engine", says Stoliar. "We were told that the engine had been transferred to "Struma" from another ship which had sunk. The Bulgarian Captain signalled for help. In the late hours of the night, the tow, which had led us out of Constanza, came back. The Navigator and the Engineer came on board. They agreed to fix the engine for a large amount of money. None of us had any money, because we had to give it all to the Romanian Customs Officials. We had no other choice but to give them our gold wedding bands (those of us who had them)".
The repairs took several hours, at the end of which the boat got on
its way. Due to the irregular beat of the engine and the water that seeped
into the engine room the fourteen-hour trip to Istanbul took four days.
Hunger, Filth, and Sickness
"The air inside was stifling; it was filled with smoke from the engine", remembers Stoliar. "Only a small percentage of the passengers had room on top deck, so we took turns. We were hoping that in Turkey they would recognize us as refugees and let us continue our way to Palestine over land".
As the ship neared the Bosphorus Straits, the ship's engine stopped working. Several hours later, during which "Struma" was drifting aimlessly, a Turkish tow arrived and towed us into Istanbul Port.
The Turks insisted that "Struma" be returned to its port of origin;
however the Captain managed to convince them that the engine was defective
and it was impossible for the ship to sail at all. While the engineers
were making the necessary repairs, the crew and passengers were not allowed
to disembark. The inadequate sanitary conditions on board caused an outbreak
of dysentery among the passengers. "We were housed in cage-like structures,
one meter by one and a half meters, which had been built along the full
length of the ship. Each one of these cages housed five people. The conditions
were intolerable. We suffered from hunger and filth; we were suffocating
in the terrible air
and stench pervading the ship. It was not until eight days later, that the Turks finally allowed some little food, sent by the Istanbul Jewish Community, on board".
"Struma's" passengers did not want to alarm their relatives back home.
In postcards they sent home, they cheerfully talked about their good health
without making any mention of the misery that had befallen them. "Our Dearests",
wrote the couple Anutsa and Abraham Frankel to their parents, "don't worry
about us. We are well, and in only a few days we should be continuing on
our way to Palestine". "My Dearest daughter", wrote GB to his daughter
in the United States of America, "there is no heating and I have caught
a cold..... Can you imagine that I paid 750 Lei for two tickets on this
ship, a sum comparable to first class accommodations on a Trans-Atlantic
Liner sailing from New York to Australia. We had to sell everything we
owned in order to pay for these tickets.....Many kisses from Mom and myself".
"Spies" on board ship
In order to justify prohibiting the passengers from disembarking, the Turks claimed that the ship was in Istanbul on transit only. Should the Jewish immigrants disembark, the Turkish Government would be charged with breaking its neutrality and giving refuge to those who were fleeing. There was also the ever-present danger of the spread of disease.
The British claimed that there were spies among the immigrants. The British Foreign Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, said that if they were to be granted entry into Palestine a very dangerous precedent would be set, and thousands others would follow.
In a telegram sent by the British Ambassador to Turkey, to his government,
it was said, among other things, that only if His Majesty's government
agreed to give the immigrants permission to enter
Eretz-Israel, would the Turks let them continue on their way. He called upon the British Government to bestow legal status on these immigrants for humanitarian reasons. The Colonial Office in London denied this request
The Minister for Middle-Eastern Affairs, Lord Moyn, stated that the arrival of some 800 illegal immigrants would create extra hardships for the (British) High Commisioner (to Paletine) in his war against illegal immigration. It would also encourage other Jews to embark on similar journeys to Palestine. He suggested that the Turks send the ship back to its port of origin.
News of the helpless immigrants, stranded aboard a ship in the Port of Istanbul, reached as far as Eretz-Israel. The leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish Agency, the Union of Romanian Immigrants, and the Chief Rabbis, all inundated London and the local British Mandate Authorities with requests on behalf of these unfortunate people. They all demanded that these immigrants be granted legal entry as part of the 32 thousand Entry Certificates not yet used.
A member of the Jewish Agency was sent to Istanbul with the sole purpose of persuading the Turks to allow the passengers into the city of Istanbul until their visas to Palestine could be secured from the British.
While "Struma" was anchored in Istanbul, Idov Cohen, one of several
who headed the Union of Romanian Immigrants, sent a letter to the Department
of Immigration in the Jewish Agency. "It seems to me that we should be
doing something about the fate of these people. Whether in London,
Turkey, or anywhere else - we have to do something to save them, so that they do not become prey to the Barbarians or drown in the deep seas", wrote Cohen.
A Floating Coffin
The Turks allowed nine passengers off the ship after major pressure came to bear upon them.
Mrs. Zalmanovits, who was pregnant, was granted entry and was taken to an Istanbul hospital. Others had legal entry visas into Palestine, and even though theirs had lapsed, the British Consulate in Istanbul was given permission to renew them.
Martin Segal was among those few lucky ones who were allowed off the ship. Upon his arrival in Eretz-Israel, at the beginning of January 1941, he gave the leaders of the Yishuv detailed information about the state of the ship. "The conditions on board are most difficult", reported Segal. "760 men, women, and children are imprisoned in narrow quarters, without fresh air or light; the ship is not unlike a coffin floating on water. They are suffering from hunger, filth, and cold. Some have been taken ill with stomach ailments. It is imperative that steps be taken immediately to help these unfortunate passengers because they are in grave danger".
Did the leaders of the Yishuv do all they possibly could to help save these people's lives?
It is Professor Yoav Gelber's (of Haifa University) belief that the
leaders of the Yishuv did not do their utmost to try to save the immigrants
on board "Struma". "It is important to note that the group of
immigrants on this ship organized without the knowledge of the Yishuv in Eretz-Israel. The leaders had only rumors to go by. Unlike the case with "Patria", there was very little known about "Struma" until those who were allowed off the ship in Istanbul arrived in Eretz-Israel and told the whole story. This was the darkest period of W.W.II. "Struma's" fate was not the most important matter on minds of the leaders of the Yishuv. Their major concern was a possible, and imminent, invasion of Palestine
by the Germans".
"Struma" spent nearly two months in Istanbul. "The atmosphere among the passengers was very difficult", recalls Stoliar. "We felt defeated and abandoned by the outside world. There were many rumors circulating, all of them bad".
And Then Came the Explosion
On February 23 1942, Turkish Police boats encircled our ship and severed
her anchor. "Struma" was tied to a towboat and taken northward, to the
Black Sea, outside the territorial waters of Turkey. The immigrants
tried to cut the rope that tied them to the tow, and fought the police
who came on board. The police quickly gained the upper hand after some shots had been fired in the air. Ships passing by reported shouts for help and a sign on the side of ship, which read "SOS". No one came to help.
"There was no logic in setting a ship to sail without an engine or anchor, especially as there were some 800 people on board without sufficient food or water", says Stoliar. "The only explanation one can find to an act of this kind is that the Turks intended to destroy the ship and its passengers, alone or with the aid of others".
The ship drifted for a while, hours passed, and then there was an explosion.
The bottom part of the ship, made of steel, sank immediately. "Hundreds of people who were in the bowels of the ship drowned", recalls Stoliar with tears in his eyes. "Among them was my girlfriend, Lisa Lotringer, and all the members of her family. The top part, made of wood, blew up and shreds were scattered all around. I was saved from the explosion because my bunk was directly under the main deck. I was asleep when it happened; the explosion thrust me in the air and I found myself in the water. When I recovered, I tried to find Lisa, but I never did".
According to Stoliar, at least 80 people survived the explosion and
tried to hold onto parts of the wreckage. "Some people tried to hold onto
a piece of wood remaining from the deck, about seven meters in length and
it had some metal rods attached to it, like an upside down table. The piece
of wood was large enough, but there were too many people holding on, so
it sank. There were many people who just froze to death in the cold water
and drowned. There were many bodies floating in
A Night in Frozen Waters
Stoliar was one of the people who held onto a piece of wood. The training he had received at a Jewish sports club in Bucharest helped him, but it was his will to live and keen survival instinct that saved his life. "I saw a large bench, like one of those park benches, floating close by", he recalls. "I swam towards it and lifted it onto the wooden plank which remained of the ship's deck. I climbed on top of it so that I was several centimeters above water. This saved my life. Had I not managed to build this platform, which got me high enough above the freezing water, I would have surely not survived the night".
The First Officer of the ship swam to the bench and managed to climb
on top. He told Stoliar that while he was standing on deck he saw a torpedo
coming towards the ship. He immediately ran to the Captain's cabin, and
just as he reached for the cabin door there was an explosion and he was
catapulted into the water. The door handle was still in his hand."During the night we talked, sang, and called for help", tells Stoliar. "The First Officer said that if we fell asleep we would never wake. We
were so freezing cold that we had no sensation at all in our bodies. In the morning the officer just rolled off the bench and his head was bobbing in the water. He was dead. I wanted to swim ashore but I was too weak, so I went back to the bench. As I looked around I saw that I was the only one still alive".
The explosion happened in the morning, only ten kilometers from shore, But there was no attempt made to reach the ship.
It was on the next day, twenty-four hours after the disaster, that a Turkish fishing boat passed close by; the fishermen saved Stoliar. "The Turks were very surprised to find a man alive after having spent a whole night in the freezing February water. I was stiff as a board, and could not move. The fishermen were very nice and fed me bread and olives. They knew nothing of "Struma", or how it might have sunk".
Stoliar was taken to the hospital under police escort, and was prohibited
from talking to anyone. At the end of a month he was moved to a prison,
despite his weakened state of health. For many months Stoliar was unable
to feed himself. "They treated me quite fairly in prison, but it was difficult
being alone in a cell", says Stoliar. "The Jewish community in Istanbul
took care of me; they sent me food and clothing. Many thoughts went through
my mind - the explosion, the drowning, and what would become of me. The
police interrogated me several times; I was asked, over and over again,
exactly what had happened to the ship. I was hoping that the Turkish Authorities
would let me go".
Demonstrations Against the British
The whole Yishuv was shocked when word about "Struma" got around. All the newspapers published long lists of the names of all the people who perished. There were many demonstrations against the British Authorities who, by denying the only way open to the immigrants, were responsible for the tragedy even if only indirectly. Flyers were circulated that read: "Sir Harold MacMichael, known as the High Commissioner to Palestine, is wanted for the murder of 800 Jewish Refugees who perished in the Black Sea on board 'Struma'."
In his typical British hypocritical fashion, MacMichael shirked off all responsibility: "What happened to these people was indeed tragic; however, the fact remains that they were citizens of a country which is at war with Britain. They left enemy territory for Palestine, and we bear no responsibility for them".
The leaders of the Yishuv gathered to determine what would be an appropriate
response on their part. Elija Golomb said in the meeting held at Beit Havaad
Hapoel of the Histadrut on February 27 1942: "What can the public here
do so that this tragedy that befell the passengers of "Struma" does not
become a hindrance to saving Jewish Refugees but rather act as a catalyst?
We must denounce the responsibility the British Government bears in this
tragedy. We have to do our utmost to
convince Jews to take the risk and try to break open a way to Eretz-Israel".
The question of who actually caused "Struma" to sink remained unanswered
for many years. Stoliar has always felt that it was a conspiracy among
the Germans, British, and Turkish Governments to get rid of this "nuisance".
There were many articles published in Communist Romania during the nineteen fifties and sixties about "The Gestapo conspiracy to sink the "Struma"." Notwithstanding, in 1952 there was a trial held in which eleven of the Zionist organizers of that voyage were tried in absentia. They were accused of persuading people to sail an unfit vessel that could not possibly hold the number of passengers they allowed on it.
In 1965 there was a different version of these events published in Germany. The Historian, Jurge Rohwer, claimed that it was a Soviet submarine that sank the "Struma". This article, by Jurge Rohwer, was validated in 1978 when there was a book published in Moscow by the "Military Publication House of the Ministry of Defense of the Soviet Union".
In one of the pages of this book it says that the Soviet Submarine number "ShCh-23", under the command of Senior Lt Denezhko and Commissar Roynchev, on February 24 1942, at dawn, spied an enemy cargo ship, named "Struma" of about 7000 tons in volume. She was attacked from a distance of about 12 kilometers by an underwater torpedo; the torpedo hit its target and sank the ship on the spot.
The commanders of the submarine received Medals of Distinction for this
Usual Trials and Tribulations of Assimilation
Stoliar was released from prison after several weeks. That first night he spent at the home of Simon Brod, the head of the Jewish Community in Istanbul. The next day he boarded a train for Aleppo, Syria, on his way to Palestine. "When I left Romania, I had no certificate which would have allowed me entrance into Palestine", recounts Stoliar. "The Turkish officer who accompanied me to the Syrian border provided me with a British Pass into Palestine. Upon my arrival in Aleppo, I was picked up by a British officer in his car and taken to the Police Station in Haifa".
After an interrogation, Stoliar was given ID papers by the British Authorities, and he was also warned not to contradict the official version of events - that it was a mine that sank the ship.
David Stoliar did not ask for and did not receive any special treatment for being the sole survivor of "Struma". He suffered all the trials and tribulations of a new immigrant to Palestine of that time.
In Palestine of 1943, they were looking for young Jewish volunteers to join the British Army. Other than ideology, Stoliar had his own private reasons for wanting to join. "After I was through with all the interrogations, I got to Tel Aviv", says Stoliar. "I could not work due to the facts that my hands and feet, which had frozen during my night in the water following the sinking of "Struma", had not yet healed. A friend took care of me for several months until I was able to start working; at first I found a job as a night watchman and later as a driver at the American Mission. In the end I decided to sign up for the British Army. In 1942 my mother was sent to Auschwitz where she was exterminated. I felt the need to fight the Nazis".
Stoliar served with the Eighth Army in the Battle of North Africa. At first he was with the Division which supplied water in Benghazi and Tripoli, and later he was moved to Headquarters in Cairo. Stoliar was visiting a friend in the hospital in Cairo when he met Andrea Nachamias. They were married in the local synagogue in 1945.
How Fragile Life Can Be
A year later he was released from the British Army and moved to Haifa with his wife. The feeling that he had not done enough gave him no peace. "Upon my return from Cairo I worked for a merchant who supplied different items to ships that came to the Haifa Port", says Stoliar, " but I felt a disquiet I could not ignore. I decided to join the "Hagana", and later, during the War of independence, I joined Zahal (IDF - Israel Defence Forces). I was a machine-gunner on the Northern Front by Syria".
When he was released from Zahal, Stoliar started working as a supervisor
for the oil company "Esso" in Haifa. After just a short sojourn, the company
left Israel and Stoliar was offered a two-year contract in Tokyo. He had
many misgivings, but finally decided to go to Japan with
his wife and with Ron , his one year old son.
Stoliar stayed in Japan for 18 years during which his wife died of heart
disease. "Following my wife's death I left the oil-company and started
working for a Canadian shoe manufacturer", recounts Stoliar. "I later met
a shoe designer from New York, Marda Emslie, and we were married in
her hometown of Portland, Oregon".
David Stoliar has been living in Bend, Oregon since 1979. He and his wife have been employed as buyers, of shoes produced in China, by the Canadian Shoe Company by the name of Brown.
During the months of September to December 1956, the Israeli Foreign
Minister, Moshe Sharet, traveled to Asia. In the course of this trip he
visited Japan among other countries. In a speech he gave to the Jewish
Community there, Moshe Sharet spoke about "Struma". "The story of
"Struma" is evidence to the lack of a Homeland and the meaning of Independence", said Sharet. "Only one man survived that ordeal, a heroic guy, a good swimmer, who somehow managed to triumph over the ice-cold water".
At the end of the speech, one of the people in the room approached Sharet and introduced David Stoliar to him as the only survivor. "I could not believe my ears", said Sharet. "I slapped his chest, a heroic chest, that saved him in his most dire moment. I bed him farewell and never asked his name or his life story since that tragedy. Why was the country of Israel not enough for this sole survivor of "Struma" - this person whom fate snatched back from the depths of the sea, the one and only among his brethren, a truly historic person?
I asked this question of David Stoliar.
"There is no connection between my leaving Israel and the tragedy which
occurred on 'Struma'", says Stoliar. "Sometimes life throws you a curve
and you have no control over the direction in which it takes you. After
the tragedy at sea I saw myself as living on borrowed time. I think I am
more aware than most of how fragile life really is. I am quite surprised that I am still alive".
Where Are They Today
These are the people who were allowed off the ship in Turkey and whose lives were thus saved:
The Segals (man and wife) who lived in Israel and passed away a few years ago.
Mrs. Zalmanovits who married a wealthy Lebanese merchant and lives in Paris, as far as it is known.
Israel Frank-Dinari, at 73 is retired and living in Tel Aviv. For years he was one of the managers at the company responsible for putting on exhibitions and fairs.
David, Israel's brother, is living in Israel. He was the manager of the Bundess in South America.
Tina Frankel is living in Israel.
Bertn Schneider left Israel for South America.
The name of the eighth survivor is not known. However, according to
Israel Frank-Dinari this man, whose name he did not know, was killed in
a car accident shortly after his arrival in Israel from Turkey.