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Stella Yollin: The story of a Holocaust survivor

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It is my privilege and honor to present a Holocaust survivor that I know personally – Stella Yollin. This past Thursday was Yom Hashoah– The Day of Remembrance, above any other on the Jewish calendar, is marked with great sadness, sorrow, and commemoration for those who tragically lost their lives to Nazi madmen.

Over 11 million people of Jewish heritage were massacred by an inhumane and barbaric onslaught led by one Adolf Hitler.

Even mentioning his name leaves me with a sick feeling in my stomach. Yet we must remember his barbarism and those who blindly followed him into a catacomb of murder that was perhaps the most unforgiveable, unforgettable act of human indecency and annihilation in the world’s history.

If we do not remember, then we are doomed to repeat his actions. Never Again!

Yet, for all of the sadness, all of the anger, all of the pain and suffering that Yom Hashoah brings, it also brings great hope to us all in knowing that Israel stands strong and her people are still filled with virtue.

It brings great honor for the victims and survivors as a beacon of humanity’s ability to overcome and to forgive the unforgiveable.

And it brings great humility for those of us who know Holocaust survivors.

I am indeed very thankful to be in the category of “knowing a Holocaust survivor”.

I first met Stella Yollinback in 1991 or so, when I worked as a direct care staff person at the group home that her son lived in. Her son suffers from both autism and moderate mental retardation, and he needed to be put into a group home because he was known for becoming violent, especially towards her.

Since I was very capable of handling people with aggressive tendencies, I was sent to his home to assist the female staff assigned to him.

Stella was such a kind and generous person, that we quickly became good friends. She always greeted me with a kiss and a warm smile.

And even though her son would often physically attack her, she genuinely and deeply loved him. His violent behavior was due to a form of psychosis that was linked to his autism. She always felt that he despised her because she somehow caused him to be autistic, but I assured her that she had nothing at all to do with her son’s condition. Sometimes these things just happen for unknown reasons.

For decades, Stella has lectured at high schools, colleges and universities on the Holocaust and being a survivor. She’s so willing to retell her heartbreaking story because she is dedicated to informing young people about how dangerous it is to be prejudiced and to judge others simply because they are different.

Heartbreaking may be the only word that I can find to describe the horrific events of Stella Yollin’s life. By the time the Holocaust ended, she and her mother were the only members of her immediate family that was left alive.

She told me of how she, her mother, aunt, and cousin were in line as the Nazis determined which Polish Jewish citizens were going to the infamous concentration camp known as Auschwitz and which ones were going to their deaths in the gas chambers.

If they liked you for some reason, they sent you to the line on the right. Otherwise, they sent you to the line on left. The German officer looked at us and sent me and my mother to the line on the right because he thought we were pretty. They sent my aunt and cousin to the line on the left – I never saw them again.”

Here is just some of her amazing story, which is posted on the website of The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Educational Center

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 daughter’s 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.” (http://www.holocaustawarenessmuseum.org/node/94 )

Yet after all the horror and tragedy that Stella has seen and endured, she remains a wonderfully kind, compassionate, and fun-loving person. In fact, I’ve hardly ever seen a more bubbly, happy, and carefree spirit.

Her story was compiled and written by Dr. Jerry L. Jennings in a book entitled “Stella’s Secret”.

She has had at least 3 great loves in her life – all are now deceased and ironically, all of them were named Bernie

She still resides in a lovely, large home in Northeast Philadelphia, near her two sons. I worked with her son for over 10 years before moving to Charlotte; the other son is a successful businessman.

Here is to you Stella! You are the greatest person that I have ever known.

Adonai be with you always!

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