By David Trilling
When he first arrived in what was, back then, British-controlled Palestine, no one was especially interested in hearing David Stoliar’s astonishing story, even though he was the sole survivor of the sinking of the SS Struma, a rusting steamer with almost 800 Jewish refugees aboard when it was torpedoed off the Turkish coast.
February 24 marks the 70th anniversary of the Struma tragedy. To commemorate it, a small group of local activists held a minute of silence at Sarayburnu Point, overlooking the waters at the mouth of Istanbul’s Golden Horn, where the Struma was once moored.
Stoliar, speaking by telephone from his home in Oregon, recalled that in the midst of war, to many people the Struma sinking didn’t seem like a particularly noteworthy event. “When you have millions of people who died in those times, what is 800? It is insignificant. How can this be important,” Stoliar said. It was only after the war that the Struma’s story gained wider recognition, helping to galvanize efforts to create the Jewish state of Israel in the late 1940s.
In 1942, 19-year-old Stoliar was a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany-aligned Romania when his ship, a retrofitted Bulgarian coking coal carrier, broke down in Turkish waters en route to Palestine. With only a broken auxiliary motor, the ship was quarantined by Turkish authorities at Sarayburnu Point.
The almost 800 Eastern European Jews, mostly women and children, who were aboard the Struma were virtual prisoners for almost three months while the Allies and neutral Turkey debated their fate. London lobbied Turkish officials to prevent their onward passage, fearing that letting the refugees settle in Palestine would anger both local Arabs and neutral Arab oil producers, who could join the Axis in protest. Turkish officials, meanwhile, were determined not to give asylum to the Struma’s passengers. Not only was Turkey straining to accommodate those who had already found refuge in the country, officials worried that accepting the Struma’s passengers might jeopardize Turkey’s neutral status.
For 10 weeks, locals brought the passengers – who had set out for a journey that should have lasted five days – food, fresh water and medicine. “The boat was so packed that not everybody could go on deck; we had to go up for air in shifts so it didn’t capsize,” said Stoliar. When asked why he never simply tried to jump ship and swim to shore, Stoliar answered: “It was extremely cold, and we had [Turkish] policemen on board the ship all the time.”
Finally, on February 23, Turkish authorities cut the ship’s mooring and dragged her back through the Bosporus straits into the Black Sea where, without food, water, or a working engine, the Struma was set adrift.
Hours later, early on February 24, there was an explosion. “We expected the worst anyway. Being left in the open sea with no food, no water, no engine, no fuel, nothing, we felt the end was coming anyway. So at least I was not surprised. I was just sorry,” says Stoliar.
Citing records in Moscow, historians have concluded that it was a Soviet submarine that torpedoed the Struma, possibly mistaking it for an Axis shipping vessel. Stoliar believes the Allies may have conspired with the Turks. It took Turkey 24 hours to launch a rescue effort. After he was picked up, clinging to a piece of debris, Stoliar was held for two months and then granted a visa to Palestine. Once there, he served first in the British army, and later in the Israeli army during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Turkey, Russia and Great Britain have not expressed any official regrets about the fate of the ship and its passengers. At the February 24 commemorative ceremony in Istanbul, a leader of Istanbul’s Jewish community called on Ankara to issue an official apology.
Industrialist Ishak Alaton, who, as a 15-year-old boy, helped carry food and medicine to Struma passengers, said the Turkish government’s refusal to apologize is “demeaning.”
“The Turkish people should be aware of the sins of the past and they should have the courage to ask their politicians to become human beings and ask for forgiveness officially,” he told gathered journalists.
Rifat Bali, an Istanbul-based historian who has written extensively on Turkish Jewry, says the Struma tragedy did not directly affect Turkey’s small Jewish population, but he doubts the Turkish government would consider apologizing “because they do not consider themselves responsible for this tragedy.”
For Stoliar, now 89, an apology today – from the British or the Turks or the Russians – would be “ridiculous.” It’s been 70 years, he says, and those responsible for the tragedy are long gone.
“You apologize for something you’ve done, not what your father has done or your grandfather has done,” he argues. “That has no meaning. You ask an apology from a person that feels responsible for something. But none of the present generation is responsible for what happened seventy years ago.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor.