"Anyone can go to the Holocaust museum [in Washington DC] but not everyone gets this experience." ~A. Speitel (student, 17)
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Stella Yollin was born in 1931 in Tczew, Poland, in the middle of the Polish Corridor. She had two brothers, Maks and Romek. Her father and mother owned a small department store, selling men’s and women's clothing. In 1938, her family moved to Lodz, Poland, ahead of the Nazis conquering the Corridor. They moved in with her Grandmother and she was sent to a public school together with Jews and Christians. One of her earliest memories of anti-semitism was at the school when other boys would taunt and yell at her, “Hey Jew, go back to Palestine!” Soon after, Stella’s mother began to worry and pulled her out of school and tried to send her to a private school. However, the war intervened and made different plans. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Her father, being an ex-pilot, was drafted into the Polish air force. Within the week, her whole family was forced out of their synagogue, forced out of their textile businesses, forced to wear yellow arm bands and then yellow Stars of David sewn onto their clothing.
In February 1940, while they were living in Lodz, the Nazis formed the ghetto and they were forced to move out of their modest apartment and into an apartment that did not have running water or bathrooms. They had to cart their water up three flights of stairs and use the bathroom on the first floor. Stella decided to take books with her because her parents, being well educated, understood the value of books and intelligence. In the meantime her father was a POW in a German camp. They released him, telling him he would be called up for duty in the war against the Russians. He refused and one day before the Nazis officially closed the ghetto doors, he was reunited with his family on April 30, 1940.
Stella and her brothers were sent with other children to the Children’s Camp for school within the ghetto. There they were given more food, education and a better place to sleep. One day, on a hunch, their mother came to the camp and pulled them out of the camp. The next day the Nazis liquidated the Children’s Camp.
In the late summer of 1942, Stella fell ill and went to the hospital in the ghetto. Then, once again, her mother came to get her a day before the doctors said she was healthy enough to leave. The next day the Nazis liquidated the hospital.
In September of 1942, the Nazis began to deport the old, the sick, the children under 10 years old, and those who could not work. When the selections reached her families apartment, Stella hid behind her mother. Her brothers were taken but jumped out of the truck as it was driving away and ran back to their family. After the High Holy Days of 1942, half the ghetto was empty. Luckily, her family was still alive.
In the summer of 1944, the Nazis closed the ghetto and began to deport thousands of people everyday. Stella and her family were put on the last train and stuffed with one hundred other people into a windowless, hot cattle car without food, water, bathroom facilities and no room to sit or kneel. Upon arriving at Auschwitz, the German guards yelled at everyone, “Raus! Raus! Raus!” (“Out! Out! Out!”). She was placed in a line with her mother and other women. The men and boys were placed in a different line. They were marched through the Auschwitz gates, under the sign that read “Arbeit macht frei.” (“Work brings freedom”). The first German officer they encountered was Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz. Pointing either left or right with a stick, and not saying a word, he sent Stella and her mother to the right and her aunt and cousin to the left. To the right was the camp; to the left was the gas chambers.
Stella’s hair was completely shaved and she was forced to stand naked for two hours while waiting for a disinfecting shower. By late 1944, the Nazis stopped tattooing ID numbers on inmates and instead issued uniforms with numbers. Stella was always hungry and thirsty and resigned herself to drinking muddy rain water to quench her thirst. One morning after roll call, in which she was forced to stand with everyone in her barracks until everyone was accounted for, the entire barrack was sent to Dr. Mengele. Again, he performed a selection (left, right). Stella was sent to the left again and her mother was sent to the right. Stella was sent back to her barracks with two new friends, the Pinsker sisters.
One week later Stella was moved to Birkenau and was happily reunited with her mother. One month later Stella and her mother were transported on cattle cars to the Bergen-Belsen tent camp ahead of the advancing Russian army.
Chosen for work detail, Stella and her mother were sent to the Hambrien Salt Mine where her mother worked in the mine while Stella worked in the vegetable garden with other children. One day a Dutchman, taking pity on Stella, gave her a package. The German Commandant saw the exchange and demanded she give him the package. Stella refused and was beaten so badly that her nose broke. Later, after the war, it took two surgeries to repair her nose. All this for a slice of burned bread. That night the camp was shut down and everyone was sent back to Bergen-Belsen.
After returning, Stella and her mother were placed in the same barrack as Anne Frank. She does not recall whether she spoke with Anne because at that time, Anne was just another girl in the barracks and was not famous for her diary. On April 15, 1945 the British liberated the camp.
By this time she was 14 years old. She and her mother were sent to a Displaced Persons camp. Stella was sent to the DP School, where she met her three best friends. Stella lived with her mother at the DP camp until May 1, 1947 when they were granted travel papers to move to Israel.
In Israel, Stella’s mother openly talked about the war and her experiences in the camps but Stella refused to talk about it. In 1958 Stella moved to Philadelphia and became a Hebrew teacher. In 1985, when the Neo-Nazi Revisionists began to deny the Holocaust, Stella felt compelled to reveal her story--after forty years of silence. In 1988, Stella’s mother passed away peacefully in her daughters home.
Today Stella continues an active schedule of public speaking to schools and colleges the Philadelphia area. Speaking about the the stacks of letters she receives from students, “When I read the letters, it gives me the feeling that they are learning to accept all people, without hate.”