Struma survivor David Stoliar
David Stoliar, lone survivor of the 1942 sinking of the 'Struma.' Photo by Alon Ron
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Alon Ron
The Holon plaza commemorating the disaster, in which 768 passengers perished. Photo by Alon Ron

The illegal immigrant ship Struma, which made its way from Romania to Palestine in 1942, entered the history books under rather miserable circumstances. The 768 Jewish refugees on board drowned after the ship was torpedoed in the Black Sea. Only one individual survived. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the sinking, the greatest maritime disaster in the history of the secret immigration enterprise and the worst civilian maritime disaster of World War II.

"Early in the morning, a Soviet submarine fired a torpedo at us. The ship vaporized around me, some 500 passengers were killed immediately. I was thrown into the sea along with several hundred others ... no one came to our aid. Everyone died, everyone, except for me," David Stoliar, the lone survivor of the tragedy said this month. Stoliar, who recently turned 89, lives in the United States. He recorded his life story at the request of the Holon municipality, and excerpts will be read at a ceremony the city is holding next Wednesday evening at the Holon Theater to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking. The ceremony takes place on Adar 7, the date in the Hebrew calendar on which the Struma went down.

Holon was a 2-year-old local council when the maritime tragedy occurred. There were already plans in place to build a new plaza. The sinking of the Struma and the emotional reaction of the residents led the council to name the square after the ship. "They wished by this to express their protest against the British authorities, who were hostile to the immigration project, and to commemorate the dead," Rami Aharoni, the municipal projects director who also functions as the city's historian, said this week.

After the decision was made to name the square in commemoration of the disaster, the council announced an architectural contest to design the new square. The winner was Jenia Auerbach, who proposed a plaza similar to Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, which had been built from her design eight years earlier. In 1968, a monument to the dead was added to the square: a large stone, six meters high, that was sculpted by Andre Reves, a Holon resident and a Holocaust survivor. The unveiling ceremony was attended by hundreds of relatives of those killed in the Struma disaster.

"Today, for me these days are gone. I leave what happened to God and to the history books," Stoliar writes in the testimony he provided to the Holon municipality. "On this day I do not judge all those who were responsible for the tragedy. Instead, I choose to remember those who left us and to express appreciation and gratitude to those who helped me survive," he adds.

The SS Struma was one of 141 illegal immigrant ships that made their way to Palestine between 1934 and 1948 carrying more than 100,000 people. Some 2,000 of those passengers drowned before reaching their destination.

The Struma was in poor shape even before it set sail from Constanta. It had originally served to transport cattle along the Danube River, and was not supposed to carry more than 100 passengers. Sanitary and safety conditions on board were also atrocious. Nevertheless, on December 12, 1941, the ship departed Constanta harbor on the Black Sea coast of Romania, headed for the Land of Israel. The plan was to get to Istanbul and there obtain entry permits to Palestine.

Stoliar was 19 at the time. His parents had divorced when he was a child. His mother lived in Paris and his father in Romania. "She loved me so much and that is why she sent me to Bucharest to live with my father, because she thought it would be safer there. She was right," he says. A few months later his mother was arrested and handed over to the Gestapo. Later on she was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"My father paid a 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," Stoliar says.

The ship departed, but once at sea its engines malfunctioned, and it took great effort to reach the Turkish port. But the hoped-for permits were not there waiting for the passengers, who remained locked up on board the ship under difficult conditions for about 10 weeks. "The Turkish authorities held us prisoner on the ship. We were desperate to escape," Stoliar says.

At last, on February 23, 1942, the Struma was towed out to sea by the Turkish coast guard. "The police ordered us to go down to the lower deck, where we were crowded like sardines in a can. We resisted and threw several policemen into the Istanbul sea. Backup arrived and their people beat us with clubs. They cut the anchor and towed the Struma outside the Istanbul port, toward the deep Black Sea. The ship was left without a working engine, anchor, radio, food or water," Stoliar says.

At daybreak on February 24 the ship was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, which thought it was an enemy ship. Stoliar survived by hanging on to a chunk of wood that had detached from the deck and thanks to the thick wool coat he had on, which protected him from the freezing cold. Stoliar remained in the water all night. Help arrived only after 24 hours: A Turkish fishing boat pulled him out of the water and brought him to shore. Turkish policemen subjected him to a demeaning interrogation and arrested him. He was only released several weeks later, penniless, without papers, in a foreign country. With the help of the local Jewish community in Istanbul he got transit papers and crossed the border into Lebanon, from where he made his way to Haifa.

A year later Stoliar enlisted in the British Army and saw action in North Africa. In 1945 he got married at a synagogue in Cairo. Upon his release from the British Army, he and his wife returned to Israel, and he joined the Israel Defense Forces. In the War of Independence he fought as a machine gunner in the north. Later he worked for an oil company, which sent him to Japan with his wife and their young son. After his wife's death, he remarried, to an American woman, and moved at the end of the 1970s to the U.S., where he still lives today, in Bend, Oregon. "Here in America, the Struma is another footnote to history," Stoliar says. However, he adds, "my time of rage has passed. Like it is written, 'to everything there is a season.' For me, now it is time to mourn, to heal, to embrace, and to convey my memories to the next generation so they will remember and not forget."