- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins
Harper/Collins Ecco, 352 pp. $26.95

This numbing story of international indifference and cruelty might never have been told, except that one young man survived a torpedo attack on a refugee ship filled with Jewish refugees from Nazi Romania.
19-year old David Stoliar was the one link between a major atrocity within the Holocaust of World War II and living memory. It is the most terrible part of a book of terrors that without him, the whole history of the doomed refugee ship Struma and its 786 passengers plus captain and crew might well have dissolved into that vague category: the lost and unaccounted souls of the war.
But Mr. Stoliar, thrown from his makeshift bunk by an explosion into the waters of the Black Sea the night of Feb. 24, 1942, had the luck to be wearing all his clothing and a stout leather jacket; and the luck to find a piece of wooden floating wreckage. He had the further luck not to be killed, but helped, by Turkish fishermen searching for survivors.
There is not the slighest doubt Mr. Stoliar's story, here retold by able journalists Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins in "Death on the Black Sea," is anything but true. The facts of the Struma disaster are embedded in the archives of the nations which share part of the blame Germany, of course, Romania, Turkey, Greece, Britain, the Arab states and indirectly, the United States.
Able researchers, blunt and plain story tellers, the authors deserve high praise for avoiding the "re-creations" of conversations and thoughts and intentions that mar so much nonfiction today. They give the reader the facts, they back up their quotes, and in this tale they need no hyperbole.
As a backdrop to the story stands one of the darkest episodes of the War the tale of how increasingly desperate European Jews, thrown out of their homes and denied their rights as citizens, robbed and swindled at every turn, persecuted and punished, fled toward Palestine as a last hope, only to see their champions, the British, turn against them.
The direct blame for the Struma disaster is laid to the Russian submarine which fired the fatal torpedo, according to this carefully researched examination. The sub was acting on direct orders from Joseph Stalin to destroy all neutral shipping in the Black Sea, to stike a blow against the Soviet Union's new enemy, Germany.
The second most heinous act was Britain's refusal to allow refugees into the Jewish state (then named Palestine, later Israel) that the British had themselves helped create. The reason? British diplomants and officials (with the notable exception of Winston Churchill) did not wish to risk upsetting the Arab world and thereby threaten oil supplies.
Blame is also laid to Turkey, where veiled anti-Semitism and oriental desire to save face resulted in Struma being set adrift as a sitting duck for submarine attack; blame to Greece, where greedy ship brokers ruthlessly chartered broken down wrecks like Struma, packed them with refugee families, and sent them knowingly to death.
And of course blame to the great evil itself, Adolf Hitler's mad plan for purifying Europe, and to Romania's corrupt puppet king, Carol II, his son Michael and the monster Romanian strongman Ion Antonescu, who agreed with the Nazis to purge Romania's 750,000 Jewish citizens and residents, Europe's largest Jewish population.
America's blame was simple indifference. Made aware of the situation and the circumstances by State Department operatives, the U.S. goverment did nothing to help the Struma proceed to its destination in Palestine; but instead echoed the British policy with platitudes about limiting immigration.
The cumulative result of these forces and pressures? The hulk, after languishing near Istanbul for months, its passengers slowly weakening from lack of food and disease, is towed by a Turkish tug into international waters and abandoned to its fate, its engines inoperative, its wooden hull seeping water, its passengers stretching bedsheets over the sides of the hull daubed with the words "Help Us."
Why did the Russian sub commander strike what was so obviously a helpless, non-military target, an act which actually helped the Germans in their "solution" to the Jewish problem? We will never know. The man died a few months later when his submarine was destroyed.
Woven into the suspenseful history of the fatal voyage is the eyewitness account of Mr. Stoliar, a man permanently scarred by the war, by the loss of his family in the Holocaust, and a seemingly inevitable survivor's guilt. In addition, the authors relate how a young British sport diver, Greg Buxton, conceived a plan to locate the wreck of the Struma, and perhaps resolve remaining mysteries and at least to comemorate the undersea gravesite. His grandparents had both perished on Struma, while his father, sent away from the terror as a boy to Britain, survived and remembered.
Mr. Buxton, in spite of exhausting efforts in 2000, did not find the wreck. That last chapter will only come when the Turkish government allows easier access and allows researchers to explore its foreshore. But in the meantime Mr. Frantz's and Ms. Collins' meticulous effort is a lighthouse signal to a great shame that would have lain half-hidden in the twisted wreckage of World War II.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer and critic.

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