Longtime Bend resident and business owner David Stoliar, who was the only survivor on a ship torpedoed by a Soviet submarine during World War II, died Thursday at age 91, according to his wife, Marda Stoliar.
Stoliar was the lone survivor of what’s known as the Holocaust at Sea, in which 766 Jewish refugees were killed when their boat was torpedoed by Russian submarines. He didn’t like to talk about that time in his life, his wife said.
“He was a very quiet, very private man,” she said. “He didn’t want his life to be defined by the worst days of his life.”
In December 1941, Stoliar and 766 other Jews boarded a boat named the Struma, planning to travel from Romania and apply for visas to Palestine. The boat was kept in quarantine in Istanbul’s harbor for more than two months, and Turkish officials would not allow the passengers to disembark. On Feb. 23, 1942, Turkish police towed the boat to sea and abandoned it. The next day, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the ship and sunk it, according to Stoliar’s longtime friend Alan Guggenheim, who will publish a memoir in 2014 about Stoliar.
Stoliar was born Oct. 31, 1922, in Romania. His parents divorced in 1934, and he spent his childhood traveling between his mother’s home in France and his father’s home in Romania, according to Guggenheim.
“If David had been a firebrand, a political Jew, an opportunistic man anxious for celebrity and all it bestows, the world might have known more about the Struma,” Guggenheim wrote in a short essay about his friend’s life. “He resisted speaking out because he said it made him feel like a ‘monkey in a cage,’ as he often referred to such a role. He felt guilty when he met the relatives of victims because in their eyes he sensed they were wondering why he survived and their loved ones hadn’t.”
Stoliar married an Egyptian woman, Adria Nacmias, in Cairo in 1945. In 1953 the family relocated to Tokyo, where David learned Japanese and got into the import-export business. Nacmias died of nicotine poisoning in 1961, according to Guggenheim’s research.
In 1968, when Stoliar was 46, he met Marda, 20 years his junior, through a mutual friend. Marda’s immediate family is from the Portland area, but her extended family has deep roots in Central Oregon, she said. The pair married after three dates.
“I had a friend who was always telling me about his best friend, and this one year he told me we should meet but said David just doesn’t like American women,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, he’s going to like me.’ We had our first date in Paris. After that he sent me a round-the-world Pan Am ticket.”
Stoliar flew Marda from her home in New York City, where she ran a successful shoe design business, to Tokyo for their second date. Their third date, in Portland, was also their wedding day.
Marda said Stoliar had a “very sharp sense of humor,” so much so that during their first year of marriage he made her cry with all his teasing.
“He’d say to me, ‘If I can’t tease my wife, who can I tease?’” she said. “After a while I realized he was just teasing me, but at first his sense of humor was so sharp that I didn’t realize he was teasing.”
After their marriage, the Stoliars created a business partnership that lasted 46 years. The couple founded Koala Shoe Co., manufacturing shoes in Korea and exporting them to the U.S. and Canada. They lived in Tokyo, Taipei, Paris and New York before making Bend their home base in 1972.
In October, Stoliar suffered a serious heart attack. Only about 25 percent of his heart functioned after his recovery, Marda Stoliar said.
“We knew he didn’t have a lot of time after the heart attack,” she said. “But he was doing well, he was still making all my travel arrangements for me, as recently as a month ago.”
Stoliar’s health declined rapidly toward the end of March and through April. His wife said the community has offered an outpouring of support since his death.
“I didn’t know how many people were touched by David,” she said. “People that had only known him for the last year would bring their knitting and sit by his bed for four or five hours.”
In addition to his wife, Stoliar is survived by his son, Ron Stoliar, and his granddaughter, Adria Stoliar.
A grave site memorial service will be held at noon today at the Mill Creek Cemetery on the east end of the Ochoco Reservoir in Crook County, Marda Stoliar said.
A memorial service will take place at 2:30 p.m. on May 18 at the Congregation Shalom Bayit, 21555 Modoc Lane, in Bend.
Both services are open to the public. Marda asks that attendees not bring flowers, and that any donations to be made to the KIDS Center.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, firstname.lastname@example.org