The unsinkable David Stoliar, sole survivor of the largest civilian maritime tragedy in World War II dies at home with his wife by his side.
October 31, 1922 – May 1, 2014
It is with great sadness that I pass along the news I received from Marda Stoliar that her husband David Stoliar, 91, passed away shortly after midnight, May 1, 2014. He survived the Holocaust at Sea.
Jay Shupack will conduct a memorial service, Sunday, May 18, 2014, at the Congregation Shalom Bayit in Bend, Oregon.
David lived a rich and varied life, albeit a private life as much out of the limelight as possible. However, he was an historical figure.
In 1942, David was the sole survivor from among almost 800 passengers and crew who perished in the Black Sea after a Soviet submarine, under orders from Stalin to sink enemy and neutral vessels, torpedoed the Jewish refugee ship, the Struma.
Born October 31,1922, in Chişinău, Romania (today Moldova), to Jacob and Bella (nee Leichihman) Stoliar, David whose parents were divorced in 1934, divided his youth in the 1930s between his mother in Paris and his father in Bucharest, Romania.
In 1941, Romanian military authorities ordered David to work with other Jews at the Poligon labor camp, building a firing range for Nazi Germany whose army was massing for their Operation Barbarossa attack against the Soviet Union. His father Jacob bribed Romanian authorities to release his son. He paid Jean D. Pandelis, a nefarious Greek shipping agent and organizer of the ill-fated voyage, the equivalent of an $1,000 for a ticket on what was in fact a retrofitted cattle barge, the Struma. The voyage was foolhardy but Jacob saw it as his son’s only chance to escape fascist Romania and its uniquely vicious, homegrown methods of genocide against its Jewish population.
After many delays in the fall of 1941, mainly to enable Pandelis to sell more tickets to Jews desperate to escape, the Struma departed Constanza, Romania, on December 12, 1942. The engine, salvaged from the muddy bottom of the Danube, failed.
The Struma had to be towed through the Bosporus to Istanbul where Turkish authorities detained the passengers and the vessel for 10 weeks because Great Britain refused to grant the refugees visas to Palestine. In an attempt to avoid inflaming the Allies or Nazi Germany, neutral Turkey towed the Struma from Istanbul harbor back into the Black Sea where the crew of the Turkish naval tugboat, the Aldemar, cast the Struma adrift without a working engine, wireless, anchor or provisions.
At around 2 a.m. the following morning of February 24, 1942, the Struma exploded. Initial reports attributed the blast to a “stray mine.” The first dispatch out of Istanbul, transmitted by The Associated Press and published in The New York Times, said “a search was begun immediately,” but there were “no reports of survivors.”
Had there been no survivors, the Struma might have disappeared as a minor maritime tragedy against a backdrop of world war in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific. But one man did survive, 19-year-old David Stoliar. And to the shame of Turkey whose official archives are still closed on this subject, Stoliar lived to expose their hypocrisy, as well as the intransigence of Great Britain, and blind cruelty of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
David was the only surviving eyewitness to the Turkish authorities’ cutting of the Struma’s anchor. He was the only eyewitness to the inexplicable delay – by more than 36 hours – of the Turkish authorities’ rescue effort, which when it arrived, comprised a rowboat with a half-dozen coast guard, searching for booty among the debris of the Struma, when they happened onto David, half-frozen and clinging to the ship’s debris.
Even more damning, for several decades David was the sole source of information that the Struma, packed with refugees and drifting helplessly without power, lights or an anchor, was deliberately torpedoed, not accidentally blown up by a stray mine. His account was confirmed in the 1980s by Yosef Govrin, former Israeli ambassador to Romania, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, who discovered archival records of the attack by Soviet submarine Shchuka-213, under the command of Lieutenant D.M. Denezhko, in “The Soviet Fleet in the Black Sea During the Great Patriotic War,” by G.I. Vaneyev.
Five months after the sinking of the Struma, French gendarmes in Paris arrested David’s mother Bella and interred her, with thousands of other Jews, at the Drancy concentration facility north of Paris. The French authorities turned her over to the Nazis who, on September 14, 1942, transported her by rail Convoy 32 to Auschwitz. She and about one thousand other Jews in Convoy 42 were executed in the gas chambers the day they arrived.
Five years later, long after the end of World War II, Bella’s second husband, Jacob Tomashin, journeyed to Jaffa, Israel, to track down David and tell him the fate of his mother. David said Tomashin also lost his son to the Nazis’s “Final Solution” that same summer of 1942.
Given David’s personal loss of his mother in the Holocaust, he practically fell out of his chair at lunch with me one day in the winter of 2005 when I read aloud the remarks of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in remembrance of the Holocaust. Sharon, a militaristic leader who David didn’t particular like, said the callous disdain of the Allies towards the plight of Jews fleeing the Holocast resulted in the sinking of the Struma and the deaths of so many Jews in concentration camps, which of course included his mother Bella.
The allies knew of the annihilation of the Jews. They knew and did nothing. The leadership of the British Mandate displayed . . . obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates to Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus were rejected the requests of the 769 (sic) passengers of the ship Struma who escaped from Europe — and all but one found their deaths at sea. Throughout the war, nothing was done to stop the annihilation.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Speaking before the Knesset
Sharon said the sinking of the Struma lay at the heart of the Jewish people’s rationale for their own homeland, and why Israelis must always remember that no nation other than Israel itself will insure the survival of its people.
The sole survivor referred to by Sharon was David Stoliar. If David had been a firebrand, a political Jew, an opportunistic man anxious for celebrity and all it bestows, the world might have known more about the Struma. There might even be an exhibit to it at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. However, he was not that kind of person — and there is no Struma exhibit in the USHMM. He resisted the role of a “monkey in a cage,” as he often referred to such a role.
After his rescue, Stoliar was jailed by Turkish authorities because, he was told, he was an illegal alien. Finally, after two months of incarceration, David was released to embark overland, on the Taurus Express, for Aleppo, Syria, and later Tel Aviv. His saviors were a Jew whose efforts would cost him his family fortune, a Turkish policeman known for torture, and an agent of MI-6 who would be knighted after the war. The Jew was Simon Brod, a one-man Holocaust relief agency who spent his family fortune saving thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of refugees fleeing the Axis nations. The MI-6 agent was British Customs Officer, Major Arthur Whittall. The Turkish policeman was Brod’s well-paid connection, Director General of the Istanbul Police, Ahmet Demir. (David Ben-Gurion, leader of Eretz Israel and soon-to-be the nation’s future prime minister, on a crisp December day in 1944, went to Istanbul, to Haydarpasa railway station, to thank Turkish and British officials, and the Jewish Rescue Committee, for their rescue effort. Against a backdrop that included the blue and white Star of David flag, snapping in the breeze for the first time on Turkish soil, Ben-Gurion singled out Major Whittall and praised him for opening the floodgates. He said it was thanks to Whittall, personally, that a number of human beings had survived what the world would come to know as the Holocaust. One of those survivors was David.)
After convalescence, David tried working as a nightwatchman but couldn’t stay awake all night. He worked one day for the U.S. Army liaison in Jerusalem but lost that job after flipping an army pickup truck in a ditch. He attempted work elsewhere in Tel Aviv but, unable to speak Hebrew, found none.
On January 18, 1943, David joined Royal Army Service Corp (RASC) of the British 8th Army’s Expeditionary Force Institutes (EFI). He was stationed in Cairo for his basic training and served with distinction in the 8th Army, in stations ranging from Alexandria, Egypt, to Baghdad and Jerusalem.
David could have joined one of the Jewish underground movements, perhaps the Irgun (Irgun Zvai Leumi, National Military Organization, also called Etzel), a Jewish terrorist organization founded in 1937; or the Stern Gang (Lohamei Herut Yisrael, Fighters for Israel’s Freedom, also called Lehi), founded in 1940 by Abraham Stern as a breakaway terrorist group from the Irgun. He preferred not. David did not care to be a “fighting Jew” in the Irgun, which would be commanded, in 1943, by Israel’s sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin. And he was repulsed by the Stern Gang among whose commanders back then was another future prime minister, Israel’s seventh, Yitzhak Shamir. Instead, David joined the British Army where he found a healing for his psyche and the time for re-inventing himself – not so much as a “Jew” but rather as a human being.
The British trained him for the quartermaster corps. At first, he communicated with hand signals. I remember quipping, “They must have really needed people.”
David laughed and replied with his usual wit: “Hah! Labor was in short supply. They took anybody.”
Quite quickly, David adapted to military regimentation and learned English, working in the desert bases of the British in Egypt. A British officer taught David English, his fourth language after French, Romanian and Russian, but not his last. David could not recall the officer’s name but he conceded an immense debt to his mentor: “In Tripoli, my commanding officer was a lieutenant in the British Army, a ‘lef-tenant.’ He was a teacher in England, and he insisted every evening to teach me English.”
In 1945, David married an Egyptian woman, Adria Nacmias, in a large British military wedding in the largest synagogue in Cairo. After his discharge from the British Army in 1946, David and his wife relocated to Jaffa, Israel, where he found work with the Humble Oil Co.
Both David and Adria served in the underground Jewish defense organization, the Haganah, and fought in 1948 to help win Israel’s War of Independence. David manned a machine gun in Erfula along the Syrian border.
In 1953, the Stoliars had a son, Ron. In 1954, David relocated his family to Tokyo where he learned Japanese and taught himself the import-export business, especially the manufacture of shoes. Adria died of nicotine poisoning in 1961.
In 1968, David married Marda Emslie, a Portland, Oregon, artist working in New York City as a shoe designer. Together, they lived in Tokyo where they launched what became Koala Shoe Co., manufacturing and representing major shoe brands in England and the United States for many years.
They continued through the decade of the 1970s, manufacturing shoes in Korea and exporting them to Europe and North America. They lived for periods in Tokyo, Taipei, Paris and New York before making Bend, Oregon, their home base in 1972. For many years during the 1970s, Koala imported more shoes to America than Nike.
David became a naturalized a citizen of the United States in 1972.
As the shoe industry changed, David, then 57, and Marda, age 39, retired from that industry and together, in November 1980, launched “Breads of France,” a French bakery and cafe in downtown Bend. Afterwards, with David’s full support, Marda launched International School of Baking, which she continues today with an international clientele of students and bakeries.
Burial with Rabbi Jay presiding, will be Tuesday, May 6, 2014, in Prineville, a high desert city in Central Oregon, not far from Powell Butte where Marda’s family homesteaded in 1901. Survivors beside his wife Marda, son Ron, include one granddaughter, Adria Stoliar.