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Bella Goldfischer, Why my mother is special

by Doris Cultraro

Speech given at a Hadassah Luncheon honoring my “EMA" at their E-MA Luncheon in 2002.

     I’m pleased to be here today with you, the dedicated members of Kew Gardens chapter of Hadassah, invited guests and family, at your E-Ma luncheon. I’m delighted that you’ve chosen, as your honoree, a very special person – my mother Bella Wagner. I’d like to share a few special recent and not so recent thoughts with you about this woman and why she is just so remarkable.

     E-MA, which means Mother in Hebrew, and highlights the name of your luncheon, has a very special meaning for me. My first trip to Eretz Yisroel, in 1967, was quite unplanned. It was 3 weeks after the 6-day war. The trip, originally being scheduled for my father who was the sole survivor of his family to escape the Nazi Holocaust. He was planning to meet and reunite with his 2 uncles and their Israeli family. He had not seen them since the 1920’s. This trip, his only link to a lost family, was scheduled the same day as the Israeli war broke out. As it turned out, I went in his place a few weeks later.

     I was only 15, embarking on a journey, to spend the summer visiting with his (my) family – people I did not know, unable to speak their language and wondering what part of my fathers lost family and my heritage I would be able to discover. I was scared and excited at the same time. My Israeli relatives were the lucky few who left Poland in the early years of Zionism to settle what was then Palestine. Pioneers, settling a hostile land, carving out a homeland for the Jewish People. They survived.

     The trip was an experience that changed my life, (I even learned some conversational Hebrew), and upon my return, I started to call my mother E-Me - “my mother”, and to this day that’s what she is and how I fondly address her “E-Me”. I cherish the fact that I still have her to lean on, be guided by, disagree with, talk to and listen to. She is someone I share my joys, and problems with, and most importantly love and am loved by her. I’m lucky, she talks freely to me about her life before the war, life in Lida, Poland and her struggles during and after the war. I’m very proud of her. She freely gives of her time to be involved with many worthy causes including Hadassah, the focus of this assembly - and that has been a way of life for her from her early youth.

     As a child, a fundamental principal in her upbringing in Lida, was love of the Jewish people and Israel. My Zayda, her father, was an active Zionist in his youth, and instilled the love of Judaism, Eretz Yisroael and a Jewish homeland early, in the hearts and minds of his family.

You may not know that she became a successful business woman Forest Hills for almost 40 years, having her own classy dress shop with her partner Esther Aaron.

     You may not know that she is completely fluent in 7 languages. From English, to Hebrew, To Yiddish, to Russian, to Polish, to German, to Italian, and maybe more - Some by choice and others by necessity. When discussing literature with her when I was a teenager, how can one compete when your mother says there’s nothing more beautiful, than reading Dr. Zhivago in it’s original Russian, as she did! She was put at risk during the WW II, finding herself in dangerous situations because she didn’t look Jewish and was often asked to speak to the townspeople asking for food, directions or information – often at great peril of being discovered.

     You may not know that E- Me participated as a member of the NY Delegation of Partisan Fighters against Nazism at the 1970 World Gathering in Yad Vashem, Israel, laying a wreath, and honoring the Jewish Partisans fighters of WW II. They dedicated a Memorial to honor those fallen heroes. She became a teen-age partisan fighter during the Nazi holocaust when Lida and the life that she knew was abruptly ripped away from her and she was determined to fight back.

     You may not know that my mother was sought after to give testimony at a Nazi war crimes trial in Germany - to bear witness to the horrors she observed and experienced in her little town.

You may not know that E-Me met my Father, Morris Goldfischer, also a holocaust survivor, in an Austrian DP camp for Jewish Refugees after the end of WW II. He was sick, and she worked as a nurse’s aid caring for the sick. It was the dawn of a new world for them, having walked out of the charred horrors and holocaust hell of war torn Europe, where being Jewish was a crime.

     You may not know that she was only 19 years old, when WW II ended. Her teenage years lost forever. E-Me saw more horror, knew more fear, than most people should ever experience in any lifetime. I believe her commitment to her faith, family, and a will to survive kept her strong and focused.

     You may not know that at the time soon after her liberation, she was guarding defeated German soldiers at gunpoint - She never told me that. I heard it directly from one of the commanders of her Partisan Group when I met him in 1995 - during a trip to her birth city, Lida. A group of survivors and some family members, of whom I was one, together traveled to Lida to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their liberation and the end of WW II. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime to actually see the town she lived in – the places that were only visible to me behind my closed eyes and in my imagination from the stories that were told around our dinner table. This elderly gentleman informed me of her accomplishments with awe and spirited conversation as he reminisced about this petite young girl with fire in her eyes. He was talking about my mother, E-Me.

     You may not know that she and her immediate family miraculously escaped the May 8th, 1942 massacre in Lida. Sixty-Seven Hundred Jews were brutally tortured, humiliated, forced to go through a selection where families were separated, and marched into the woods on a cold rainy May morning, to be murdered for the crime of having been born Jewish. My mother’s entire family consisting of mother and father, Sara and Leon Stolowitzki, brother, Michael Stoll and sister, Anne Monka, were protected and hidden in the former Pupko brewery where her Father, my Zayda worked as an accountant. 

     You may not know that during the final liquidation of the LIDA GHETTO, in September 1943, E-Me, her father and brother were rounded up like animals, and taken to the train station to be herded onto a transport train bound for death in Majdanek concentration camp. Her mother, sister and young cousin Vella, whose whereabouts were unknown to them, were hiding in an attic until nightfall not knowing who was dead or alive. Climbing down a ladder of torn sheets, under cover of darkness, they managed to escape into the primeval forest to take their chances against all odds.

     You do know there is a positive ending to this tale for my family. My Uncle Mike, who is here today, was a skinny runt of a teenager. Enroute to the concentration camp, he managed, after several unsuccessful attempts, to pry open the doors of the human cattle car. By climbing out a small window and holding on for dear life to the side of the moving train car he somehow managed to tear away the lock from the door. A very small handful of people, 11 to be exact, men, women and children, including my E-Me and Zayda, jumped for their lives from the moving train, while Nazi soldiers were shooting at them. My mother and her family chose life. They chose to fight back, and by a miracle, or what my superstitious Zayda believed in was providence, they survived and were re-united with their wife/mother, sister and cousin in the Naliboki woods. My Zayda, a man in his forties at that time, said, “I’m with you children” as they jumped into the dark unknown from that moving train so long ago – preferring to die on their own terms and not in a gas chamber. I cherish the fact that he still lives so vividly in my memory today - as I was 11 years old when he past away. I was fortunate to have known and love this brave and gentle man and my Bubba.

     No on else dared to jump, and no one else survived. The brave few eventually joined up with the Bielski Jewish Partisan Brigade and embarked on a career of sabotage, deceit and Jewish Survival against the Nazis and other opposing forces. They were a unique and daring brigade of men, women, and children - including the elderly. On a glorious day in 1944 – when the war ended for them, over 1200 Jewish people walked out of the tragic darkness of the primeval forest they reluctantly called home into a new Dawn and the start of new lives.

     You may not know that the Russians invaded her town in 1939. The Nazi’s invaded Lida on June 22, 1941 – dropping incendiary bombs in the wee hours of the morning, burning the Jewish section and much of the town. She was only 16 years old and facing death as her family ran to the brook behind their house to escape the flames. I recall her saying that my Bubba had the key to their house in her pocket but there was no more house where that key would fit. On June 22, 1952, 11 years to the day after that horrendous event, I was born. The anniversary day of her worst nightmare had come full circle in her life and became a day of joy with the birth of a daughter.

     E-Me, my mother, is a very special woman, with a special strength, an extraordinary family, and a very special commitment to the Jewish People, Israel and Hadassah. She lives life to the fullest, donates her time and talents, accepts her life journey, and strives to help make this a better world in her own special way. She brings that dedication to her family, her commitment to the Jewish People, and to Hadassah.

     I’m proud that you have chosen to honor Bella Stoliwitzki-Goldfischer-Wagner - My Mother, EMAE-Me as your E-MA honoree at this time. I’m even more pleased to be able to tell this story while she is here to listen to it too. It is an incredible family that I am part of and a cherished history to be preserved.

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