Rest of the story: Bend man's tale of WWII survival

David Stoliar sole survivor of ship sinking that killed hundreds

Remembering a tragedy: Part 2

BEND, Ore. - "I can even see it -- if I force myself, I can see being in the water, and the Turkish boat coming," Bend resident David Stoliar said Tuesday.

As Stoliar describes the scene of the mad chaos following the Feb. 24, 1942, sinking of the SS Struma, he waves his hands, recalling details vividly as if they were right before his eyes.

It happened 71 years ago, but the now 90-year-old Stoliar will never forget the day a Soviet submarine fired a torpedo at the ship he was on -- a ship he hoped would help him escape  anti-semitic persecution during World War II.

"We were hanging on to all kinds of debris that was still in the water," Stoliar said. "That was very early in the morning, and in the evening, people disappeared, drowning. And by the evening, I was by myself."

Stoliar grew up in Kishinev, Romania, and was 18 when the Axis-aligned Romanian government started killing and persecuting Jewish citizens.

Stoliar himself was forced to work in labor camps, digging ditches.

He said at that time, the government had taken away radios from the Jewish residents, and while they didn't always know exactly what was going on, there were frightening whispers on the street.

"Just rumors, rumors, rumors. These rumors are that basically it's dangerous to walk in the street, people are killed in the street, and make sure they don't catch you," he said.

So Stoliar's father paid a hefty price -- equivalent to $1,000 -- to save his son's life, getting him passage aboard the SS Struma with 768 other Jewish refugees headed to Palestine.

A trip that was supposed to be the beginning of a new and safer life turned out to be anything but.

The Struma, a broken down cattle ship that shouldn't have carried more than 150 people, had a weak and sputtering engine. It only ran for 15 minutes, Stoliar said, before it stopped -- and never turned on again.

He said a Romanian tugboat pulled them to water near harbors in Istanbul, Turkey before turning back.

There, Stoliar said they were confronted by the Turkish government, which refused to let the refugees continue their journey to the British-ruled Palestine.

With no help, no working engine and political gridlock between the British and Turkish officials, the ship had nowhere to go, and starving passengers aboard were left with little food, water or supplies, waiting and hoping for a miracle.

Stoliar said they only survived by the food Jewish Turks would bring to them.

"We were told that we were in quarantine, so nobody in, nobody out," Stoliar said. And we stayed there for nearly two months. It's a nightmare, and it was a nightmare from the beginning to the end. We were quite desperate."

But nobody ever came to their rescue, and finally, Turkish officials cut their anchor and towed them back into the Black Sea -- and left them.

They were a sitting duck in hostile waters.

And on Feb. 24 1942, the S.S. Struma  was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine.

"I was projected suddenly into the air, and then I fell into the water," Stoliar said.  "By the time I surfaced, there was no ship, the ship practically evaporated.

Most died instantly; others slowly froze to death or drowned.

"I could see that he fell into the water and his head was moving, like from the waves, and he was dead," Stoliar recalled, talking about the first shipmate who he had shared a piece of deck with. That man died shortly before Stoliar was rescued.

The disaster killed everyone, including more than 100 children, Stoliar's fiance and his friends -- everyone except him.

"I was sure I was going to die, because all the other people around me were dying," he said.

And those other people dying just may have been what saved him.

Stoliar said as more people died and slipped underwater, his piece of deck rose more and more out of the water -- giving him a chance to get mostly out of the icy water.

After spending more than a day floating in freezing temperatures, he was finally rescued by Turkish coast officials--only to be thrown in jail.

"When I asked why I was being locked up, they told me because I don't have a Turkish visa, I'm an illegal," he said.

Stoliar was finally released to a prestigious Jewish leader.

He went on to fight for the British in Africa during WWII, and then fought again in the 1948 war for Israel's independence.

Eventually, a job took him to Japan that then lea to America.

Stoliar and his family settled in Bend and have lived here since the '70s.

And although he can recall nearly every detail of the tragedy, Stoliar says he couldn't bring himself to talk about the tragedy for more than 50 years.

"I didn't even talk about this to my first wife," he said.  "In the beginning, I felt like something is wrong with me that I survived -- I felt guilty for surviving."

There's now a monument in Israel dedicated to those who perished. But Stoliar says had he not survived to tell the story, the truth likely would have quietly sunk with the ship.

"There are no apologies for anything," he said sadly.  "Even today, to really get to the documents to see -- for example, the Turkish archives are still closed."

Now at 90, Stoliar says he feels free of his guilt, lucky for surviving and grateful he can be the voice for so many lost.

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