Page 120

The Struma

I am corresponding with you on a subject other than that of the Little Synagogue. You may recall that during our correspondence I asked that you send me a few copies of "The Scribe".

It has occurred to me that you may be interested in the Struma project as a possible subject for your publication.

I am going to Istanbul at the end of August to participate in the Struma project. The Struma was a ship that was blown up in the Black Sea in 1942 while trying to reach Palestine. I had a relative on the ship.

Since I have already written a detailed version of my Struma story for my family, I am sending you the entire text. I hope you find it of interest.

Fair Lawn, New Jersey

Joel Ives


A few months ago, after more than three years of research, I had finally identified each of the thirty-eight people in a 1924 family photograph. At the centre of the sepia coloured photograph was my grandfather's uncle who later died aboard the ship Struma that was blown up in the Black Sea on 23 February 1942.

The search for historical and genealogical information led to a series of internet contacts with people from around the world interested in the ship Struma and eventually to a meeting in Washington.

The adventure took an international twist a few years ago when I wrote an article about the ship Struma for inclusion in the Jewish Genealogical magazine, "ROM-SIG" (Romanian Special Interest Group). The article I wrote included a list of the 768 people who died aboard the Struma, and mentioned the one survivor of the Struma tragedy, David Stolier who was mentioned in a number of historical sources.

Although ROM-SIG only has a circulation of a few hundred, the article and the list of passengers was put on the internet, which led to people from around the world contacting me.

On Suday morning, 16 January 2000 Sheryl (my wife) and I met David Stolier the sole survivor of the Struma tragedy for the first time in Washington DC. We had been brought together in Washington by the power of the internet. My article in ROM-SIG had put me in contact with Greg Buxton whose grandparents were on the Struma. Greg who lives in Great Britain by coincidence is a diver and has done "deep exploration". The Struma is 70 metres under the surface of the Black Sea. Greg has explored the Britannic in the Aegean. He said he has no objective in his search for the Struma other than to "close the circle for himself and his father that was broken in 1942". I gave Greg the suspected address I had for David Stolier in Oregon and the names, addresses and e-mail addresses of a number of people I had been in contact with that were interested in the Struma. Greg and his friend Louise Trewavas, who publishes a women's diving magazine, met with us in the lobby of the Loews L'Enfant Hotel in Washington, which is near the Holocaust Museum. Jeff Hakko also joined us for breakfast. Jeff is a contact that Greg has made during a visit to Istanbul, Turkey. A few months ago, Greg had visited Istanbul in an attempt to do preliminary research with Turkish divers and to work out some of the logistics of this extended depth "technical dive" and speak to local people about the location of the Struma. Jeff is a member of the small Jewish community in Istanbul and is coincidentally a diver connected with "SAD" Turkey's premier underwater research and diving group. Jeff, Greg, Louise, Sheryl and I were all transfixed hearing David Stolier's story.

David was escaping from Bucharest, Romania with his fiancˇe (Lisa Lotringer) and future in-laws late in 1941. Their goal was to get to Palestine and a place where Jews could be safer. David knew about the horrors of the Nazi's in the West of Romania and that the "Iron Guard" was killing Romanian Jews in the street. David's father stayed in Romania. His mother lived in Paris and was deported and later died in Auschwitz. David boarded the ramshackle overloaded boat Struma in Constanta, which is Romania's eastern port, on 12 December 1941, five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He sailed into an unknown future with 776 other people.

The ship was detained in the Bosporus in the Istanbul Harbour for 71 days during which time it became an international political incident.

David said that the ship was horribly overcrowded. When we passed the wooden bunks in the Holocaust Museum, he mentioned that there were similar constructions on the Struma.

Hundreds of people were stuffed aboard the Struma on a ship that couldn't hold 100 people comfortably. Everyone was assigned space and that was where you had to stay. David was 19 years old at the time. He said the ship was made of steel but wooden platforms were built on the deck to allow more people to be transported in layers. Only a small proportion of the fleeing Jews could fit above the deck at one time. The rest had to endure the stench below deck. There was only one bathroom.

The engines failed outside Istanbul and Struma was towed into the outer harbour.

When the Turks stopped the ship, the engines were barely functioning, the food was running out and the toilet that served the hoards of people stunk.

David said that the ship was boarded by some Turkish police against the will of the passengers in order for the Turks to attach a towline that could pull them out to sea. The Turks had to forcibly board the ship to clear the way to make the connection and to raise the anchor. The Turkish police took control by force and cut the anchor chains. The passengers were very ill, malnourished and weak, so it would seem that little real force was used.

The Turks apparently in a logic that still is difficult to explain, and not generally agreed upon by historians, towed the helpless ship into deeper waters of the Black Sea. David said that he knew that the engine block was cracked. He suspected that the crew had removed the engine in an attempt to repair it. According to US reports from Istanbul, the engine had been taken ashore for repair and not returned to the ship at all. The Struma was truly helpless. Here were 769 Jews, including 103 children and infants, that could not go back to Romania for fear of death, not to mention the fact that the Romanian government would not allow them to return since they had "left the country illegally".

The British would not provide visas for anyone to go to Palestine until it was too late. The Turks would not let this leaking ship pass through their territorial waters under political pressure from the British government. The Russians were killing Jews in the crossfire of War and the Romanian Iron Guard was as murderous to the Jews as the German SS. The world Jewish community struggled to help while the world watched. Eight people, four of whom with connections to an oil company obtained visas and were allowed to leave the ship after pressure was applied by a Turkish company. Israel Dinari was one of these people. A woman Mrs Salomovitz who was in labour was taken to an Istanbul hospital.

The Struma was registered in Panama and some of the crew was Bulgarian. Bulgaria had just become at war with Panama. The crew tried to abandon the ship with the people aboard but was prevented by the Turks. Unfortunately, the rest of the desperate refugees on the Struma had nowhere to go.

After more than two months of stalemate, the Turks towed the helpless Struma out into the deeper waters of the Black Sea under pressure from the British government and as they saw it, with little choice, to rid themselves of the problem. A recent Turkish position is that the Turks felt that the sea's current would cause the powerless ship to be grounded and once that happened, the people could be saved since they would be classified as a "shipwreck". The engineless ship drifted for one night and at dawn about 5.30 am a Russian submarine fired a single torpedo and sank the Struma. The violent explosion that occurred blew a hole in the side of a boat. David said that the ship sank immediately. Anyone below the deck was trapped. The Struma just went straight down. There was debris all over the frigid waters from the shattered temporary wood structures that had been built on the deck. People were screaming and thrashing about in the cold icy waters of the Black Sea. Many quickly succumbed to the freezing water and one by one disappeared. David was thrown up in the air with the explosion and fell into the water. He held on to some wooden planks. He remembered that the waters were calm. He said he would not have survived in rough waters. Towards evening, a large piece of wreckage floated near him and he dragged himself aboard and out of the water. Birds flew over the corpses but no-one appeared to be living. Shortly afterwards, Lazar an aide of the captain was pulled aboard the wreckage but he died shortly before the next morning. Twenty-four hours after the explosion, a commercial boat passed right by David without stopping and afterwards men from the local lighthouse in a small boat pulled David out of the frigid water. They had come from the lighthouse a few miles away. David was the only survivor of the sinking of the Struma. The men that had saved him were surprised that anyone was still alive and David has theorised that they rowed into the wreckage in order to find something of 'value', not to discover a human being alive. Fortunately for David, they took him ashore and wrapped him in blankets.

His hands and feet were frozen but he was alive. He was put in a sick room under the guard of the police who watched him night and day. He was given some food and shortly afterwards his "saviours" didn't know exactly what to do with him so they dragged his limp body, since his feet could not support him, onto a bus and left him on the front seat. Since he did not speak Turkish he had difficulty communicating. At the end of the bus run he was lifted up by both arms and brought into a hospital. He was cared for by a few nurses and doctors for two weeks, completely isolated from the outside world. Then, barely able to walk when he left the hospital, he was brought to the Central Police, arrested, and put in a small cell. For his crime of miraculously surviving this tragedy, he was put in jail. His legs were damaged since they had been frozen. The Jewish community in Istanbul sent him packages of food and clothing.

Actions of the Jewish community in Istanbul (and probably the International community) resulted eventually to his release. Two months had passed since the sinking of the Struma. It was now 23 April 1942. He slept one night in the house of one of the leaders of the Istanbul Jewish community, Simon Brod, and then he was put on a train accompanied by a Turkish police officer that took him to the border of Syria. He stopped at Aleppo and then went by car to Haifa where he was interrogated in the police station by the British. He was given ID papers and told not to contradict the official version of events that the Struma was sunk by a "mine".

It is amazing from today's perspective of overbearing media and pervasive communications that David was told by the Turks and British not to say anything about his ordeal. He was also told not to talk about his ordeal by the Jewish Community in Istanbul since they were living in a potentially precarious situation in the middle of World War II. One would think that his arrival in Israel and his survival would have been met with news media from around the world but David had a friend in Israel and stayed with this friend in relative obscurity for several months and further regained his health.

Later David joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and was stationed with the Eight Army in North Africa. While visiting a friend in the hospital in Cairo, he met Andrea Nachamias. They were married in a local synagogue in 1945.

In the War of Independence in 1948 David joined the Zahal (IDF-Israel Defence Forces) and was a machine-gunner on the Northern front near Syria.

David worked for an oil company in Haifa. When the Arabs boycotted the Israeli oil companies Esso and others pulled out of Israel. David lost his job but was offered a position in Tokyo, Japan. He lived in Japan for 18 years during which time his wife died. He later met Marda Emslie and they married and moved to Portland, Oregon where Marda was brought up. He speaks English very well but also speaks Japanese, French, Romanian, Yiddish and Hebrew. I asked him what language he speaks to Romanians in and he answered, "French". He worked for a shoe distributor selling Buster Brown Shoes and travelled extensively for many years and now lives in Bend, Oregon. David has a son and grandson in California. For years, he never told his son the story of the Struma. When his son was about 20 years old he found some old documents and started asking questions.

(Note: Some of David's story was taken from Saveanu's book)

Professor Jurgen Rohwer a German historian was mentioned since he wrote about a Russian submarine in his book as being the culprit that released the torpedo. Rohwer was the first to uncover the submarine records with the break-up of the Soviet Union. A Russian submarine commander, Lt Denezhko was given a "medal" for his "heroic" action of killing all these defenceless people. Rohwer's book gives the co-ordinates of the attack. One possible view of the "rationale" of the Russian attack is that they thought that there were Nazi spies aboard the Struma. The Panamanian government was discussed since the Struma flew a flag of that country. Dr Fisher was planning to attend the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in Sweden at the end of the month. He said he would bring up the subject of the Struma. He also suggested that the Holocaust Museum was interested in putting together an exhibit about the Struma. The Museum would like a piece of the ship for their exhibit however time will tell whether this will be possible since it requires the approval of the Turkish government to remove any artefact from their country.

The exact location of the Struma still has not been verified. Turkish fishermen tear their nets in an area they know as "The Jew Ship." The Russian submarine had different co-ordinates of where the Struma was blasted to oblivion. Greg will carry out a "side scan sonar survey" concentrating on the two logical sites. David Stolier's story perhaps suggests still another location.

Now the Struma has a web page:



If you would like to make any comments or contribute to the scribe please contact us.