On December 12, 1941, nearly 800 Romanian Jews boarded a 46-metre boat called the “Struma”. They set sail across the Black Sea from Constanta, Romania, en route for the ancient the ancient Land of Israel, British ruled Palestine. They were trying to escape the Holocaust and aid in the establishment of the new State of Israel. The Struma was horribly overcrowded; people were packed together like sardines. And then the engine failed.

Limping along, 3 days later, the Struma managed to reach Istanbul Harbour. Turkey, trying to stay “neutral” in the Second World War, deliberated the passengers’ fate. For their part, the British would not allow safe passage to Palestine, for fear that the arrival of Jewish refugees might upset local Arabs who were sympathizing with Nazi Germany.

For 80 days, as Jewish organizations and various governments tried to lobby the British to allow the Struma into Palestine, the passengers continued their bleak existence on the tiny boat. One pregnant woman was allowed to get off for humanitarian reasons, and eight others with non-Romanian passports were also permitted to disembark. Finally, the British relented and said they would accept over 50 “little” children from the boat. Children would be separated from their parents and siblings, but at least they would survive. When the Turks heard that only some of the passengers would be allowed to get off, they feared a British trick which would strand all the Jewish refugees on Turkish soil. So on February 23, 1942, they towed the disabled Struma – including a 100 children, half of them entitled to British safe passage – out into the Black Sea. Desperate cries could be heard from the shore. People could also hear the passengers singing “Hatikvah”/“the Hope”, composed by Naphtali Herz Imber in my parents’ hometown of Iasi, Romania. Today, Hatikvah is Israel’s national anthem. Sheets with the plea “SAVE US” were visible over the sides of the ship. The Turks disengaged from the ship and left it to float engineless, aimlessly at sea.

Twelve hours later, a Soviet submarine locked on to the boat. They wanted to make the Nazis look bad (as if that was a problem) and to warn the Turks that their “neutrality” would not save them if they supplied war material to Nazi Germany. So the sub fired a single torpedo at the disabled refugee ship. The sea was full with the dead and dying. Twenty-four hours later, Turkish fishermen picked up a single survivor, David Stoliar.

David Stoliar’s boarding pass for the Struma

David Stoliar’s boarding pass for the Struma

Stoliar was 19 at the time. After being hospitalized, the Turkish authorities arrested him as an illegal immigrant. An international outcry ensued and the Turks released him to the British who hesitated for a moment, but then decided that letting into Palestine a single Jewish survivor from the ill fated refugee ship, would not over agitate Palestine’s Arab population. Stoliar went on to serve in Britain’s 8th Army in North Africa. In 1945, he married his first wife, Adria, who died of a heart attack in 1961. After the Second World War, he served in the Israeli army in the 1948 War of Independence. He then worked in Israel’s nascent oil industry. He married his second wife, American born Marda, in 1968 and they settled in Bend, Oregon. And that’s where he died on May 1, 2014.

I had the privilege of meeting David and interviewing him in 2000 when I made my film “The Struma”.

Struma - poster

At the time, using information gathered from David, Greg Buxton – the grandson of two Struma passengers who went down with the ship – led an international team of elite divers to find the watery gravesite of his grandparents. My film follows Greg’s exploits and we were the first to identify the Soviet sub that torpedoed the Struma. The expedition made global headlines and, on the last day, nearly 100 of the passengers’ relatives boarded Greg’s diving vessel to remember and finally say goodbye. David couldn’t make the last ceremony because he was already battling cancer. He was one tough guy and he managed to survive for another 14 years.

I’ll forever remember David as a very special individual. For years, he did not talk about his wartime experiences. In fact, during the 17 years of his first marriage, he never told his wife that he was the sole survivor of the Struma. I think he had the guilt feelings that survivors have: why did I survive, and they didn’t? Later, he realized that this is a story that must be told and he told his story with both modesty and self-effacement, that only made him appear even larger in the eyes of everyone who met him. He never spoke with hate, never sought apologies and never talked of vengeance. He was a positive human being who celebrated life and encouraged other people to celebrate it as well.

Indeed, today, we celebrated Israel’s 66th anniversary. David Stoliar was part of this miracle. May his memory be for a blessing.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, May 18, at the Congregation Shalom Bayit in Bend, Oregon by Rabbi Jay Shupack. For more, see: http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2014/05/david_stoliar_long_survivor_of.html