Monday, September 9, 2013

Estella -- Dad's first love

Dad and his first wife, Estella, in September 1941
(Ninth in a series)
      Her name was Estella Halberstad -- Stella -- and she was my Dad's first true love. She was his first wife, the first Mrs. Louis Van Thyn. She died in a World War II concentration camp.
      She, more than diamond cutting, is what lured him back to Antwerp, Belgium, in the summer of 1940, after he had been a POW with other Dutch Army personnel following the Germans' invasion of The Netherlands in May.
      In his 1996 Holocaust interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Dad admits that being let go at that point was a puzzling development. But to be free at that point seemed fine. However, the Germans (Nazis) kept a record of their released prisoners for future reference.
       They would be back in touch.
       Dad could've remained in Holland with his family in Amsterdam -- his parents and two brothers were there, and Hyman, his older brother, had just been married.
       But Dad's life, at that time, was in Antwerp, where he had gone to apprentice in diamond cutting and lived with his aunt and uncle and two cousins. And there was Stella.
       They had met playing korfball -- an offshoot of basketball, a mixed-gender sport originated in The Netherlands and Belgium (which to this day are the world's reigning powers and have been forever; in the nine World Championship tournaments, they've been the finalists each time, Holland winning all but once).
        (I knew about korfball as a kid in Holland. Suffice to say, it is a strange sport with strange rules -- 11 1/2-foot baskets, no nets, no dribbling, no men guarding women, no women guarding men, etc. )
         Dad played the sport as a young man, and loved it, got his basketball genes from there. Plus, Stella played the game, too. So they met and before the Dutch army drafted Dad -- in April 1939 -- they fell in love and were engaged.
        "In Holland, you first are engaged for a couple of years before you are married," Dad said in his testimony, recalling the times. But when he went back to Holland in the Army, Estella moved to Toulousse, France. (I don't know this, but I imagine she went there for work, perhaps thinking, too, that France was safer for Jewish people at that point than Belgium.)
         But once they both returned to Antwerp, things began to change. Conditions for Jewish people considerably more difficult.
         "The first couple of months we had no problems with the Germans," Dad said in his interview in reply to a question about the Nazi occupation. "They let us work. We were working at the airport, [but] then they found out we were Jewish, and we were all fired.
         "Then we did some odd jobs. Didn't have much trouble, but then they started giving us yellow Stars of David [to be worn on clothing, signifying that the person was Jewish]. You couldn't work anymore, but I work illegal. I took the star off (he was riding his bike, another outlawed right), and did some odd jobs."
           What he found out much later, he says in the interview, was that the conditions for Jews were harsher much more quickly in Holland than in Belgium.
          The next crackdown was a 7 p.m. curfew for the Jews, which meant that Dad couldn't see Stella after that time. So the solution was: "We decide to go be married and stay with my in-laws, and that was better."
        This was September 1941. But the marriage would be short-lived -- not by their choice. By May 1942, they were split apart, never to see each other again.
        Looking at the photo of Dad and Stella on their wedding day, she looks taller than my mother (but then who wasn't?) and thinner. I can't relate what she was like, but I can imagine that my Dad -- who was basically a sweet guy and did what my mother asked, was just as caring with Stella as he was with Dr. Rose.
       I know this -- for the rest of his life, he kept their wedding photo in his billfold, as well as the one of him and Mom. That was fine with my mother, who also lost her first spouse (Moses "Mo" Lezer) in the camps.
Eva Furth-Halberstad (she was our
Tante Eef in Amsterdam)
       An aside here: There are gaps in this narrative of those years, missing pieces which I never asked Dad about, and I wish I could. Neither my sister nor I pressed Dad about Stella; it wasn't a subject that came up. But if we would have asked, he'd have been glad to answer. He was never hesistant to talk about his past, painful as it was at times.
       We did, however, have a connection to Stella -- her sister Eva -- older sister, I believe. This was  Tante Eef (Aunt Eef) to Elsa and me in Amsterdam in the early 1950s.
        Eva was an Auschwitz survivor, too, and in the diamond-cutting business. After the war, she and Dad found each other and Eva then married another survivor, Jacques Furth, who lost his first wife in the war but whose son, Dave, was a hidden child in Holland and reunited with his father late in 1945 (Dave was 4).
        Eef and Jacques were my parents' closest friends in Amsterdam, other than my mother's first cousin, Maurits Kopuit (also hidden as a young man during the war). Whenever my Dad visited Holland after we moved to the United States, he stayed with the Furths (even after Eef died in 1988). They were both among the founders and active members of the Dutch Auschwitz Memorial committee.
          Many a day Eef and Jacques baby-sat me, and Dave -- six years older than me -- was my first friend. I have distinct memories of them all.
           Eef was loud and opinionated, but also passionate and kind. And one other thing: She was a member of the Communist Party. I could not make this up. She believed in Communism, which confounded my parents, of course; Eef and my mother had some, well, very spirited debates, especially once we moved to the U.S. (For those who knew my mother ... can you imagine?)
        So Stella and Dad made whatever they could out of their married life in Antwerp for little more than half a year, with Jewish people's rights and movements severely restricted.    
       "It was early in 1942 when [the Germans] started calling up people from Antwerp, young people, and they went to camps in France," Dad said in his interview. "I was called up in May to go to France, to a war camp."
       It was an ominous journey, and only a beginning.
      There would be little but misery for the next three or four years -- and among that misery was the slow realization that -- unlike him -- his family did not survive.
      Jumping ahead in the story a little, Dad was in a transit camp in Malines (French name) or Mechelen (Belgian) -- in Belgium, about 25 miles from both Antwerp and Brussels; it was the last stop before he was put on the train to Auschwitz. 
       "We were with the 15th transport out of Malines, and we find out that my wife and her parents and so many people were already gone to Germany," he recalled in the testimony. "They were with the 13th transport; they were a couple of days before us."     
      The interviewer asked when he found out about his family in Amsterdam? "We found that out in 1945," Dad replied. "We didn't find that out in Auschwitz."
      How did you know they were gone? "I think we got a letter in the mail [from gentile neighbors in Amsterdam]; it [the mail] was still going then, it was coming to Antwerp, and we found out that they were already gone. My father was in the camp, and my brother was in the camp."
       But he had no idea which camp. "In that time, I didn't know they were gone to Westerbork. My father was in a war camp in Holland. Where I don't know. These are all things we found out when we came back [after the war]. The Germans were real secretive about these kind of things.
       "My younger brother was home with my mother. She was picked up Oct. 13, 1942, in Amsterdam. My father was already in a camp in Westerbork, but I didn't find that out until later."
        In the end, they were all gone -- father, mother, older brother and his wife and baby, young brother, Estella's parents ... and Estella, his first love. 
         Next: Going to Auschwitz



  1. From Patrick Booras: It's an amazing narrative ... I don't want to call it a "story" because just reading it, the reader can feel the pain and unbelievable times. "Eternal be the memories" to all those who left this life way too soon at the hands of the Germans in WWII. Also, I am in the United States because of the events of WWII. Some things in life have no reasoning and/or can't be explained. On the bright side, I'm glad to be born in the U.S. and an American citizen.

  2. From Cynthia May: Always wanted to ask your Dad questions. Thanks. I didn't know you looked so much like your Dad!

  3. From Cynthia Aillet Murry: This is most interesting! Thanks for letting me read these posts. We have so much yet to learn.