Stoll - A Family Survival Story by Nancy Stoll
This speech was written and delivered
by Nancy Stoll at a Thanksgiving Shabbat Service in the D’var
Torah Synagogue in Pittsfield MA, on November 29, 2003. The
of her father Michael Stoll, his father Leon, and sister
Bella Stolowitzki and their daring escape from a moving transport
train traveling to Majdanek concentration camp and ultimately
rejoining their mother, younger sister and cousin in the
We just heard the story of the generation of Isaac. Isaac was
the son of Abraham. Like Abraham, Isaac became the father of
two warring nations through his sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob then
became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel through his
twelve sons. Like his father before him and like generations
to come, famine caused Isaac and his family to move a number
of times in search of a place of sustenance.
Tol’Dot is also the story of Rebekah, wife of Isaac, mother
of Jacob and Esau. In many ways she is the mother of a typical
family. They are a family that struggles to provide the necessities
of life; a family where brothers compete for their parents’ favor,
where each parent favors a different child; a family where parents
monitor who their children associate with and criticize who they
marry. And, they are a family that tries to live life according
to the path they believe God has set out for them.
on, we learn that Rebekah had a difficult pregnancy with the
Jacob and Esau. “The children struggled in her
womb” (25:22), which foreshadows the struggle that Jacob
and Esau experience not only during their lifetime but, also
characterizes their descendants. Understandably, Rebekah asks
God, “so, why do I exist?” (25:22) As if to say,
first, I was infertile and now I bear guile and deceitfulness
and strife between my sons. What is the point of my life as a
mother to such a group of people?
God’s answer is clear. It defines Rebekah’s role
and explains her otherwise un-motherly actions in the rest of
the story. She is a mother who assists her younger son at the
expense of her older son so she may help bring about the prophecy
of God that two separate peoples shall issue from her body “and
the older shall serve the younger.” (25:23)
have a story to tell about another family. A familiar type
with a husband, wife and three children, living in
a small town in eastern Poland called Lida just before World
War II. My grandfather, Leon Stolowitzki, was an accountant at
the local brewery in Lida. He and his wife, Sarah, had three
children, Bella, Michael and Chana (Ann Monka), who went to a
Jewish school. Leon was living, working and raising a normal,
average Jewish family. My grandparents kept a kosher home, dreamed
of doing well, marrying off their children and becoming grandparents
some day. The kids were just as typical. My father, the second
child and only son of Leon and Sarah, tells stories of his mischievous
deeds, his disinterest in food and his mother coming to school
with a pot of potato latkes so he would eat something hot, his
toils with his studies, subjects he enjoyed and those he didn’t.
He became a bar mitzvah and dreamed of having fun with his buddies.
They were a typical family.
Sixty years ago this past September 19th this family performed
an incredible act of bravery both individually and together during
the Nazi Holocaust. It was only one horrific day among many such
days that came before and after during a dark period of history.
But it was a day that has proved to be the most significant for
many of us sitting here today.
gathering the Jews of Lida into a ghetto and murdering more
of its inhabitants, this was the day the Nazis
were transporting the remainder of the town’s people to
the Majdanek death camp in the familiar cattle trains. My father,
Michael, my grandfather and Aunt Bella were caught and put onto
the train. After traveling for a short time, my father worked
his way to the outside of the car and was able to rip open the
door with his hands. This enabled him, his father, his sister
Bella and others to jump from the train. They made their way
in thick, jungle-like terrain wondering what to do now, where
to go and whom to trust. After about three weeks they connected
with Jewish and Russian partisans who had created a network of
camps in the woods where they lived and fought for their survival
until the war was over two years later.
Meanwhile, back in the ghetto, while my father, his sister Bella
and their father were herded onto the train, my grandmother,
Aunt Ann and her cousin Vella hid in the attic of the brewery
that had become their home in the ghetto. After it was quiet
for some time, my grandmother realized the Nazis had left. She
escaped from her attic-hiding place, as if simultaneously with
the counterpart of her family, and ran to the nearby woods with
the two young girls. Eventually they too connected with Russian
and Jewish partisans who helped lead them to a miraculous family
reunification in the woods three months later.
I have left out many important details about how they actually
jumped from the train and what they encountered along the way,
the fear, the resistance from others, the hardship they endured.
The multitude of events and indignities they suffered in the
ghetto that was their home and the difficulties of living in
the woods, not knowing who, if any of them, would survive.
of the things that moves me about this story is that these
people, people just like us who are sitting here
today, who were forced to live extraordinary lives. They were
not soldiers or fundamentalists or nationalists or any other
social or political label. I grew up hearing their stories and
I would think they were larger than life. In order to have done
what they did I believed they were people who were more god-like
than human-like; that they didn’t have the same questions,
struggles, insecurities and self-doubt that I have. They didn’t
hurt when they bled. It’s similar to how I used to think
about our ancestors in the Torah who I thought were without fault
or fear or weakness. After all, they had dialog with God. But
no, in all their average humanness, my family was able to accomplish
a great thing. When called upon in the most profound circumstance
of their lives. They each made a choice that they would not be
taken willingly, that it would be better if they were caught
running or perhaps shot in the back. That at least, they would
try to escape from the Nazi terrorists. Escape they did, with
tenacity and courage and bravery they probably never would have
known they had in them had they not been put to such a test.
grew up hearing this story and many others of my family’s
encounters with the Nazis, the atrocities - the running and the
unwavering, emptiness in your soul that is constant fear. I also
heard of the individual acts of courage and bravery which, taken
together allowed them all to survive as an intact family unit.
It has taken many years for me to realize the significance of
their survival as an immediate family. There are only a handful
of families who encountered what they did and lived to tell about
It’s a story that has relevance as I think of the events
of September 11th. As many of us have thought-- this couldn’t
happen here. The Holocaust is over and the world must have learned
from this horrific period of human history. The events of Sept
11 also forced ordinary people to perform extraordinary things.
The average person went to work in the World Trade Center on
a clear, sunny Sept. morning. I have an image of men and women
in their work clothes, suits, high-heeled shoes. People who were
forced to choose between leaping from the 102nd floor of the
WTC, or burning in the inferno.
Or people who boarded an airplane as easily as we get into our
cars to go to work every day. I think of the recent wild fires
in California. Not just in the unpopulated hillsides and forests
but fires destroying multitudes of homes and lives of people
just like us. Watching news videos of people returning to their
homes to see a few posts still burning reminds me of the memories
my father has shared of seeing his house still smoldering by
the embers after the bombing of his town which began the Nazi
effort into Lida. He, like the Californians, was left homeless
as of that defining moment.
Abraham and Isaac and each generation to follow had to endure
famine or flood or other catastrophe, so too have we experienced
such catastrophes in our generation. It’s how I interpret
a contemporary psychologist’s term of “full catastrophe
living.” We are each called upon in every generation and
in every family to carry out what we believe to be our destiny.
Why do we exist, as Rebekah asked? We each struggle with the
question of how to live our lives with meaning and purpose. How
will we live in accordance with God? What is our destiny both
individually and as a member of the Jewish people? How is it
that what we do will further the destiny of the Jewish people?
We read how Rebekah contemplated her purpose in life. She chose
to serve God by helping Jacob realize his destiny and consequently
the destiny of the Jewish people even though, in a sense, it
meant sacrificing her older son by cheating him of his father’s
contemplate what my family did 60 years ago. I think of the
wonder of what
they did in light of so many others who couldn’t
do a thing to save themselves. How my Bubba took two young girls
and ran with them to the forest, alone with no one to turn to
for help. No one who managed to escape along with them wanted
to be saddled with the burden of an old woman with two young
How my dad actually climbed through a small window (about the
size of the porthole on a ship) at the age of 16 and ripped open
the lock of the door with his bare hands on a moving train with
no ledge to stand on. How my dad, aunt and Zeyda jumped from
a moving train after the Germans had already discovered the open
cattle car and began to shoot. How they survived their jump,
found their people, and eventually reunited with their mother
To have known my grandparents is the greatest wonder of all.
If only for a brief time since I was only 2 years old when my
Zeyda died. But my memory of him and my Bubba is very clear.
I remember their apartment in Queens with a white leather sofa
(maybe it was vinyl) and a French style etched mirror above it
where I would nap and jump on the pull out bed. My Bubba would
make mouses (as she called them) out of white handkerchiefs as
she and the mouses danced into my memory forever.
people who performed extraordinary acts of courage and survival
that made possible their reunification in the woods
and eventually the safe emigration of the entire family to the
United States so that I and all of my cousins who are here today
could come to know our grandparents from Lida—to know Bubba
and Zeyda Stolowitzki. A normal, average family that was called
upon to do extraordinary things in order to live out their destinies,
to come to this country, to help realize God’s promise
to Abraham and to Isaac in the parsha we have just read where
God promises he will “make your heirs as numerous as the
stars of heaven.”(26:4) Here we are, three generations
(for now—there will be more!) of Leon and Sarah Stolowitzki!
So for us, as it was for our ancestors, when the moment calls
us, when God speaks to us in whatever context he may present
himself, we are called upon to make the choices that will define
our lives and the lives of our descendants.
this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, I would like to express
for having been given this gift to know my extended
family and for them to have survived the Holocaust as a family
unit. Of course, this does not minimize the loss that they have
felt for their extended family in Lida and beyond—aunts,
uncles, cousins and grandparents - may they rest in peace. And
I will take this moment to remember by mother, Etta Stoll, and
my uncle Mundik, Morris Goldfischer, who although they have not
reached this particular day with us, they join us in memory and
am truly blessed to be able to tell you this story about my
his two sisters while they’re here in this room!
I want to thank them for the legacy they have given us and for
making this day and all of the other family events we have shared
May you go from strength to strength!