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Michael 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 speech celebrates the survival 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 woods.

     Shabbat Shalom!

     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.

     Early on, we learn that Rebekah had a difficult pregnancy with the twins 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)

     I have a story to tell about another family. A familiar type of family 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.

     After gathering the Jews of Lida into a ghetto and murdering more than half 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.

     One of the things that moves me about this story is that these were ordinary 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.

     I 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.

     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.

     As Abraham and Isaac and each generation to follow had to endure some 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 blessing.

     I 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 girls. 
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 and sister.

     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.

     Ordinary 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.

     On this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, I would like to express my appreciation 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 love.

I am truly blessed to be able to tell you this story about my dad and 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 possible. 

     May you go from strength to strength!

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