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Jewish Journal

Idele Stapholtz

by Jane Ulman

March 26, 2014 | 1:21 pm

Photo by David Miller

Photo by David Miller

The dining room of the Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, Germany, suddenly went dark. Idele Stapholtz — then Ida Steuer — heard shouting and breaking glass as strange men began hurling tables and chairs through the windows lining the back wall. She and her friend Katie Kohn, both 12 years old, grabbed hands and ran. Seeing a partially opened pantry door, they slid inside and huddled terrified in a corner. A teacher later coaxed them out, leading them back through the demolished dining room and outside to the large playground, where the other children were waiting in the cold. They walked with the orphanage staff to their nearby one-room schoolhouse. It was Nov. 9, 1938, the night that came to be known as Kristallnacht

The next morning, the children returned to the orphanage to collect their belongings. The building had been gutted, and furniture, bedding, clothing, personal items and even a piano lay broken and strewn across the playground. Somehow, amid the wreckage, Idele found her photo album and some of her loose photographs scattered about. “They were my identity. I had nothing else to prove I existed,” she said. 

Idele was born on Aug. 13, 1926, in Chemnitz, Germany, to David and Sara Ida Steuer, Polish émigrés who had met and married in Germany. Sara died two days after Idele’s birth, and her hospital roommate, a Mrs. Emerling, whose baby was stillborn, took Idele home with David’s permission and nursed her. 

David visited Idele every week. Her earliest memory is accompanying him to a park, which she later realized was the cemetery where her mother was buried. 

When Idele was 4, her father, a teacher, was offered a new job in Recklinghausen, in North Rhine-Westphalia. Idele was still living with the Emerlings, who by then considered her like a daughter, and to bring Idele with him, her father had to steal her away and quickly board the train. 

In Recklinghausen, Idele lived with the Jacobsohns, a German-Jewish family. She was well cared for by the parents, whom she called Mutti and Oncle, and treated as a little sister by their four teenage children. David joined the family daily for meals.

The Jacobsohns were poor. The mother was a caterer for the Jewish community center, and the father a disabled World War I veteran. They were also secular, celebrating Easter and Christmas.

After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, David was deported to his native Poland. His plan was to secure exit visas to New York for Idele and himself, where three siblings had immigrated before World War I. “I wasn’t heartbroken. I knew we were going to the United States,” Idele recalled. 

Idele remained with the Jacobsohns. But later, as her schoolmates joined the Hitler Youth, they began to throw rocks and call her “dirty Jew.” The first time that happened, Idele ran home to the Jacobsohns, crying. “I didn’t know what a Jew was. I thought it was a disease.” 

The Jacobsohns believed they would be safe in Germany, as Mr. Jacobsohn had fought for the Kaiser. But in fall 1937, the Recklinghausen Jewish community decided that Idele, for her own protection, should be sent to Dr. Leopold Rothschild’s kinderheim (orphanage), in Dinslaken, 25 miles away. 

After Kristallnacht, Idele and the other children were taken to Cologne, where they joined 600 children from across Germany on a kindertransport to Middelkerke, a Belgian town on the North Sea. 

Idele was transferred to Brussels, where Germaine Goossens picked her up on Jan. 5, 1939, taking her to the three-story home she shared with her mother, Marie. The two women owned a children’s clothing store that occupied part of the first floor.

Idele called the women Tante Marie and Tante Germaine. Communication was difficult at first, as the Goosens spoke French and Flemish, while Idele spoke only German. But Idele became fluent in French after only a couple of months in school, thanks in part to a kind teacher who provided extra help. She also quickly made friends, who were always welcome at the Goossens’ home. And on Sundays she accompanied her Catholic Tantes to church.

“I was terribly spoiled,” Idele said.

Then, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, and by 1941, life became more restricted and more dangerous.

When Idele needed a tonsillectomy, going to the hospital was out of the question. Instead, the Goossens’ family doctor, who knew Idele was Jewish, came to the house and performed the surgery on the kitchen table. “I only remember waking up to ice cream,” Idele said.

In the summer of 1941, when Idele turned 15, Germaine took her to City Hall to register as a Jew. But the clerk, probably a member of the underground, advised Germaine against it, and Idele became a child “hidden in plain sight.” She obtained a false ID, with the name Idele Steuer, and a vacant lot for her address. 

In late 1941, when Jews were no longer allowed to attend public school, Germaine enrolled Idele in a Catholic high school, a branch of the Dames de Marie order that Germaine had attended. The dean, Madame Eulalie (also known as Sister Judith), welcomed her — knowing she was Jewish — and kept her status secret.  

The Lannoo family, friends of the Goossens, also protected Idele’s identity, and their daughter Annie, five years older than Idele, became her close friend and surrogate older sister. Idele spent summer vacations at the Lannoo’s home in Ghent, where she learned to ride a bike and swim. 

On Sept. 3, 1944, British troops liberated Brussels, resulting in three days of celebration. “The world stopped,” Idele recalled. Worries about her father and the Jacobsohns soon followed, though she was still unaware of the Holocaust’s full horror. 

In 1945, Idele visited a maternal cousin who had been hiding in Holland, hoping to receive news of her father. But the cousin had heard nothing. “I remember being very, very sad,” Idele said.

Idele then located the four Jacobsohn children, who had immigrated to the United States and England. She learned their parents had been deported in 1942. Gerda, a daughter, had heard that Idele’s father had joined the Polish resistance, but had been captured and sent to an extermination camp that same year, though Idele has never been able to validate this. 

Meanwhile, Idele contacted her father’s siblings; they invited her to visit New York, and she arrived in July 1947 on a six-month student visa. The family treated her well, and she took classes at New York University. In October, she met Benjamin Stapholtz, a U.S. Army veteran born in upstate New York. The two became engaged on May 8, 1948, and were married on June 12, 1949. In April 1950, they traveled to Belgium for a two-month visit with the Goossens.  

Their daughter, Yvette, was born in January 1951 and daughter Deborah in December 1953. The family moved to Lancaster in 1955 for health reasons, and to Los Angeles 18 months later. Benjamin became a CPA and Idele took classes in special education. In 1971, she became a special-education assistant at Palms Elementary School, where she worked until retiring in 1991. 

Through the years, Idele has stayed in close contact with all the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save her. And in 1993, she traveled to Yad Vashem, where she unveiled three plaques to be displayed at the museum, naming Marie and Germaine Goossens, Madame Eulalie, the Lannoos and their daughter Annie as Righteous Among the Nations. 

Now 87, Idele is a member of three book clubs and is relearning German at the Culver City Senior Center. “I find it very healing,” she said. She also enjoys her family, which now includes three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Over the years, she has spoken about her experiences at various Catholic and private schools and continues to speak at Chapman College and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Her focus is always on the righteous gentiles, especially her Tante Marie and Tante Germaine.

“The whole world was going crazy, and these people put their lives on the line,” she said.

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