Students Leet M. and Ella R. were matched with Holocaust survivor Stella M. during this year’s Next Chapter program.
As part of the Next Chapter, students write biographies of their survivors, then create personal projects to reflect on the experience of meeting and getting to know a Holocaust survivor. For her personal project, Ella created a piece of art.
10th grader at The Urban School
Through the Next Chapter Program I have learned that a major cause of the Holocaust was a lack of empathy for the victims. Candy, which my survivor has loved her whole life, is meant to represent my survivor’s sweetness. It is included in the piece as a tribute to my survivor, Stella, to demonstrate that her sweetness and kind heart have remained constant in her life despite the bitterness she has faced. My hope is that by acknowledging Stella’s sweetness, a core part of her humanity, the viewers are able to feel empathy for Stella and all that she has been through. In addition, the mirror itself is meant to encourage empathy and mutuality by allowing the viewers to see themselves in Stella’s story and put themselves in her shoes. Lastly, the writing on the mirror is all direct quotes from my survivor that stuck with me and will continue to shape the way I interact in the world. These quotes are just one tangible example of the many impacts that Stella has had on me. Lastly, in the center of each candy is a date, person, or symbol important to Stella. I hope this piece conveys Stella’s sweetness as well as the importance of empathy and acknowledging humanity.
“Stella M: A Child at Heart”
10th grader at Stuart Hall High School
Note: Stella’s birth name is Esther. The author switches between the two names in the essay.
When people want to know if Stella survived the Holocaust, they ask, Were you in Belgium during the war? A yes answer is enough for them to know, but they should realize that their question asks for more than what can be said in a one word response. One period of a person’s life does not tell her whole story.
The sun was beginning to set behind the stone facades of Schaerbeek, but Stella was still outside. She was with her best friend Lou-Lou, and together they had been exploring their neighborhood on a scooter all afternoon. After borrowing some money from her dad without him knowing, Esther raced with Lou-Lou across the cobblestone streets to the candy store. The wind rushed across their faces and blew their identical clothing as they escaped the wrath of adults. For some reason, Esther and Lou-Lou had an unparalleled friendship compared to Esther’s other friends. Maybe it was the fact that they were from the only non-Christian families in their neighborhood. But things like that do not usually influence childhood friendships.
No years of a person’s life are more memorable than when she is a child, and none of her experiences are ever the same afterwords. Stella’s childhood experience was full of freedom, growth, and innocence.
Esther’s fondest memories of her childhood take place in the Schaerbeek streets, where she would play with other children, enjoy candy, and eat ice cream. Reflecting on her childhood, Stella believes that it was much safer in cities back then: she had freedom to go outside by herself as a young child, even at night. When she was not playing in the streets, Esther enjoyed going to the movies and reading. Her older brother Léon taught her how to tap-dance when she was 9, and she received mandolin lessons from a teacher who came to her house. While watching her father work in his hat shop, called Chappelerie, she would also listen to him sing old Yiddish folk songs. One of the songs is called Oyf’n Pripetshok in Yiddish, which Stella noticed is also in Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List. Esther’s lifelong love of listening to and playing music started when she was young, and today, she cannot bear silence. Her near decade of being a child was full of unforgettable memories and experiences.
Stella’s childhood changed permanently with the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. She remembers when the first bombs from German planes began to land, and how her parents told her to hide in their home’s basement. Although the bombs were loud and destructive, Esther was not frightened because she did not see the danger in what was happening. Children are too innocent to be able to understand the gravity of the concept of war.
Between 1940 and 1941, the Nazis began to enact anti-Semitic laws that required all Jews to hand over their radios, wear yellow stars, and be inside their homes by 8:00 at night. All Jewish stores had to be titled Jewish Enterprise, so Esther’s father had to put these words in front of his hat store. Esther remembers how hard it was to not be able to listen to music and play outside at night with her friends. She was 10 at the time. When they told her that she would not be able to go to school, she was deeply saddened. She also remembers how the Nazis required Jews to gather 5 pounds of copper or lead to help their war effort, even if that meant turning in valuable treasures. In 1941, the Nazis began to stamp a letter J on Jews’ papierens. Because Esther was not 14 yet, her passport was not stamped.
1942 to 1943 was the worst year that Stella can remember. As the war accelerated in 1942, Esther’s parents began to fear for the safety of their child. Her brother Léon was hidden by his girlfriend. On August 13, Esther’s father worked out a deal with the mailman to keep Esther safe. The mailman and his wife would clothe, feed, and shelter her as their own daughter, and her dad and mom would visit as often as possible. Esther was confused and angry when she discovered this. Like many other hidden children, Esther despised the idea of recognizing a new set of parents. Whether she liked it or not, she also had to change her name to Stella Vanderbeeken. Changing her identity was the best way to avoid being caught, although it presented emotional difficulties. Esther was lost among the thousands of other changed identities during the Holocaust.
After a day of living with her stepparents, Stella’s birthparents came to visit her. They brought her a basket of sweets and some clothes. Although she was excited to see her parents, Stella knew something was amiss. When it came time for them to leave, her mom did not look back at the window where Stella was waving. Her mother was sobbing. It was then that Esther realized that she did not know when she would be able to see her parents. Sadly, 1942 was the year when 44 percent of all Jews were deported from Belgium. August 14 was the last day Stella saw her birthparents. Her dad’s last words to her were: “Vive le Belges!” or “Long live the Belgians.” Today, Stella recognizes this as the reason why she does not have American citizenship.
Despite still having hope that she would one day see her birthparents again, Stella would learn after the war that their fate had been inevitable from the minute they left: they had been taken to Auschwitz. At the moment, all she knew was that she could not see her parents.
The next day, August 15, was the Catholic holiday of The Assumption of Mary. The Vanderbeekens had been invited to a dinner in Leuven, a city east of Belgium where they had friends. Stella sobbed the entire train ride, heartbroken that she could not see her parents. Her stepparents were frightened that if Stella continued to cry, more attention would be brought to them. When the Vanderbeekens got to Ypres, their friends were surprised to see them with a 12 year old daughter. Stella did not seem to mind this attention, and went to a local fair with their son. Stella recalls that she had a wonderful time, eating snacks, candy, and playing games. This period of once again being able to be a child was short lived. Stella felt guilty after having a great time at the fair because she was reminded about her parents.
In the first days of her new life in hiding, Stella was left at home for hours while her stepparents were at work. Prohibited from going outside, Stella began to understand that she would have little freedom in the coming months. She turned to peeling potatoes and playing with the family dog to relieve her boredom, but it was hard to live this way as a teen.
As summer turned to fall, the house began to get cold because there was no heater. With Stella bored and cold, her stepmother asked her boss at L’Union Belge if Stella could come to work with her. Surprisingly, the boss said that Stella could, as long as she did not get into trouble. Stella did small jobs at the office, such as filing. Reflecting on her years at the insurance company, Stella realizes that everyone at the office must have known she was Jewish. She is grateful that nobody said anything.
Her time working at the insurance company was not entirely danger free. In 1943, while coming home one day from work, the Gestapo stopped the tram she was on to check the papers of everyone on board. The officers walked up to each passenger and asked for his or her identification. When they got to Stella, all she had to give them was a paper that her stepparents had given her. Stella did not have any formal identification because she was not old enough. She shook uncontrollably and grabbed onto the woman next to her, who was trying to comfort Stella. The policeman looked at Stella, and understood that she was a young Jewish girl. He let her go without trouble, which Stella considers a miracle. Another time, a man in a black shirt appeared at her home, claiming to her step father that he knew the Vanderbeekens were hiding Stella. If they did not allow him to take Stella’s old house, he would inform the Gestapo about Stella. The Vanderbeekens immediately told Stella to pack a few things for a short trip to Ypres, a town in the western Flanders region of Belgium where they had friends.
Stella thought that she would finally able to return to her previous life when the Holocaust in Belgium ended in 1944. At least that is what she hoped for. News of people reuniting with their loved ones filled the streets. Optimistic friends told Stella that she should not worry, because she would eventually find her parents. Between her nighttime French lessons, Stella waited for them to come home. She clung to hope until she saw film footage of the camps in the movie theaters. She knew that they were not coming back. After she understood the sickening truth, she grew physically weak and unhealthy. Not eating and fainting several times a day became a regular routine. However, Stella was able to keep up her hobby of playing the mandolin. As a 16 year old, she traveled with other student musicians around Europe and performed in small recitals. She continued to take French and Flemish lessons from 7pm to 10pm, knowing that it would help her get a better job than what she had at the insurance company.
Although the war was over, Stella’s stepmother was still overprotective of her. In the coming years, she opened all of Stella’s letters, including the ones from her boyfriend. In 1950, Léon wanted Stella to move to Israel, where he was part of the military and lived in a Moshav. When Stella’s stepfather got a hold of this news, he told her that he would kill himself if she left Brussels. Stella was forced to tell her brother that she could not go to Israel with him, so she stayed and lived with her stepparents.
Stella reignited her passion for listening to music in her 20s, and while dancing in a club during 1952, met her future husband Sam (Solomon). Sam had recently come back from Israel, where he fought in the Independence War from 1948 to 1950. Sam had survived the Holocaust living in a windmill with several other hidden children. After having their first child, they moved to Anaheim in 1966 so that Sam could open Sam’s Tailoring Shop. In order to learn English, Stella watched movies and learned from her friendly neighbor. Stella helped her neighbor learn French. In 1967, Stella began to work as an accountant for Brunswick Bowling Company in Southern California. The company let her take time off when she was pregnant and paid for her medical bills. Unfortunately, Stella’s good fortune ended after a series of jobs at different medical practices between 1969 and 1980 in Fullerton, California. Starting in 1981, Stella worked at a radiologist office for two years. However, her family did not receive the medical care promised to them because the manager of the office failed to pay the insurance bills. Sam struggled with a heart condition, and was not able to get the care he needed. Sam passed away in 1983.
After working a different job at a hospital for four years, Stella traveled back to Belgium in 1987. It had become too expensive to live at her house in Fullerton, and her kids were spread out around the world.
Back in Belgium, Stella had a wonderful time with old friends. Some of them had also survived the Holocaust, and together, away from their families and recent experiences, it was almost like they were children again.
Stella moved to San Francisco in 2009. She brought with her two large bags of Belgian candy and chocolate, to the amusement of the cab driver, whom she winked at and lied, “It’s for the kids.”
 Oyf’n Pripetshok means “on the hearth” in English. M.M. Warshawsky (1848-1907) wrote the lullaby about a rabbi teaching children the Yiddish alphabet. It is now an important song for remembering the Holocaust. From “Holocaust Related Music.” A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust. Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, 2009. Web. 17 May 2017 <http://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust/resource/music.htm#oyf>.
 Papieren is the Dutch word for the passports all Jews had to carry. Jews who did not have Jewish names had to add Israel (male) or Sara (female) to the beginning of their names on these passports. Along with these additions, the passport had a person’s family, names, wealth, profession, place of residence, place and date of birth. Doing this to the passports made sure that the Nazis could know almost everything about a person, and use this information to accelerate the persecution of Jews. The Nazis encouraged emigration so that they could take Jews’ property. From Landé, Peter. “Passports of German Jews.” JewishGen, 28 Mar. 2008, <www.jewishgen.org/databases/Holocaust/0148_German_Passports.html>. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.
 The Nazis’ decision to deport all Jews was part of their goal to eliminate Jews from Europe. This goal was called the Final Solution.
 Blackshirts were people who the Nazis used as street terrorists. They were violent and brutal. “SA (Sturmabteilungen/ Storm Division) Brown Uniform Shirt with 2 Detachable Collars.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 14 Dec. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn509411>.
 Moshavs are agricultural settlements in Israel, where many immigrants came after Israel was founded in 1948. Moshavs were based off of the principles of communal work and the pooling of labor and resources. By 1983, there were over 155,000 Israelis spread across 448 moshavim. Kaushik. “Moshav Villages of Israel.” Amusing Planet. N.p., 24 July 2014. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/07/moshav-villages-of-israel.html>.
 Children were hidden anywhere possible, including cellars, attics, closets, backyards, forests, animal barns, and Christian organizations. Decoster, Charlotte. Jewish Hidden Children in Belgium during the Holocaust. 2006. U of North Texas, MA thesis. <https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5468/?q=Jewish%20Hidden%20Children%20in%20Belgium%20during%20the%20Holocaust>. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.