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Survivor: Stella Esformes

It was 1944, and Stella Esformes — then Sterina Haleoua — was looking forward to watching the national Independence Day parade in Larissa, Greece.
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September 23, 2014

It was 1944, and Stella Esformes — then Sterina Haleoua — was looking forward to watching the national Independence Day parade in Larissa, Greece. She had even purchased a new pair of beige and brown shoes for the occasion. But the day before the event, in the early morning of March 24, she was awakened by the sound of boots walking outside her family’s apartment, followed by loud knocking on the door. “Open up,” a voice demanded. It was an interpreter, accompanied by two German soldiers. “Come with me,” he ordered. “Take some clothes, food and your valuables.”

Stella and her parents were put in a large, open truck, which  made multiple stops as the soldiers rounded up more families. “We were crying. Nobody was talking,” Stella recalled.

Stella was born on April 15, 1926, in Salonika, Greece, the only surviving child of Avraham and Rosa Haleoua. The couple’s previous four daughters all died between the ages of 1 and 3, before Stella was born.

The Haleouas, who spoke Ladino, lived in a house they shared with another family. Avraham worked selling horses in Larissa, about 90 miles away. He returned home every weekend or two. Rosa was employed as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family, also coming home on weekends. A neighbor cared for Stella.

Stella lived in a vibrant Jewish community where she had many friends and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat.

At 6, she attended Jewish kindergarten. The following year, however, her mother lost her job and they moved to Larissa.

Stella didn’t speak Greek, and she didn’t attend school immediately. Instead she learned to crochet and embroider from Rosa and picked up some Greek while shopping at a neighborhood market.

At 9, she enrolled in first grade, where the children teased her because of her age and poor command of the language.  After second grade, she left school and apprenticed for a seamstress. While there, she sewed several dresses for herself, replacing the one dress she had been wearing every day.

On Oct. 28, 1940, Italy invaded Greece. With bombs dropping, Stella stopped working. Some months later, a neighbor took her own two sons and Stella to live in a village in the mountains, where Stella felt safer. But on March 1, 1941, an earthquake struck, severely shaking the house. Stella’s father came for her that day.

The Greek army pushed the Italian forces into Albania, winning the war. “We were so happy,” Stella recalled. But then Germany attacked Greece on April 6, 1941, occupying it by April 30.

Not much changed initially for the Jews of Larissa, according to Stella. But by 1943, they were issued identification cards and required to check in with German officials weekly. And on March 24, 1944, they were rounded up.

The truck delivered Larissa’s Jews to a large, empty garage. Additional trucks brought more Jews from Yanina, Volos and other surrounding towns. “We were crying and crying,” Stella said.

The Germans took everyone’s valuables. One woman handed Stella a gold necklace with three diamonds to hide, which she embedded in her coat hem.

A week later, at midnight, the Germans marched the Jews to the train station and loaded them into cattle cars, where they sat on the floor “bumper to bumper,” Stella said.

After seven days, the train pulled up to the Birkenau platform. When the doors of Stella’s car opened, the girls and boys were separated, and the older people were directed to board trucks standing nearby. “Stella, come with us,” Avraham pleaded. “No, Daddy, I’m going with the girls. We’re going to work,” she answered. She assumed they would meet later.

The girls were marched to a large room where female capos tattooed Stella with the number 77137 and cut her long hair. Nazi guards then ordered the girls to undress and shower. Stella carefully folded her coat with the gold necklace, planning to retrieve it after her shower. But they exited through another door, and Stella was handed a thin dress and a pair of wooden shoes.

The girls were next taken to a barracks. The first night, Stella couldn’t stop coughing and couldn’t sleep. “I was nervous,” she said.

The next day, she met a girl from Salonika. “Where are our parents?” Stella asked her. “Your parents went where my parents went, to the crematorium,” she answered. Stella thought the girl was crazy, but she subsequently heard the same story from others.

After being quarantined for 40 days, the girls in Stella’s barracks went to work. Stella was assigned to unload potatoes from a train and then cart them by wheelbarrow to the camp.

One day, Stella stole three potatoes, wrapping them in her headscarf and putting them between her legs. As the group returned from work, a capo saw her walking oddly and ordered her to open her legs. The potatoes fell out, and the capo struck her three times on the head with a heavy baton.

The group then stood at roll call where a German guard called out her number and directed her to the sidelines. “I was crying. All my friends were crying,” Stella remembered. Everyone feared she would be taken to the crematorium. Instead she was reassigned to clean the latrines and the open sewer, where she later found a mezuzah that she hid in a piece of bread.

In January 1945, as the Russians approached, Stella and others were evacuated in cattle cars to Bergen-Belsen, a 17-day trip. They were given a blanket and placed in tents.

Some weeks later, the group was transferred by train to Gellenau, a women’s labor camp in Germany’s Silesia region. Stella worked on a machine, standing on her feet from evening to morning, every night. One morning after work, she fainted; she had contracted typhus. Her friends wanted to bring her to the hospital, but Stella refused, returning to work that evening. “I didn’t want to be taken away,” she said.

In March 1945, Stella was shipped to Mauthausen. The first night, she was assigned a barracks filled with sick people. She climbed into a bunk next to a Hungarian woman, who was dead by morning.

At Mauthausen, Stella traded her mezuzah for additional soup. One day, while fetching her extra portion, a Hungarian woman said, “What do you need soup for? You’re free.”

Stella walked up a hill, where she saw American soldiers tossing chocolates and cigarettes to the newly freed prisoners. “We were very happy,” she said. It was May 5, 1945. Stella was 19 and weighed about 85 pounds.

Stella remained at Mauthausen, which became a displaced persons camp. Then, on July 28, the Americans departed and the Russians took command. That night, when Stella was sleeping in a room with 35 girls, Russian soldiers knocked on their door. The girls took refuge in the barracks with the Jewish men, who protected them, and left the camp the next day.

Stella headed for Salonika, where she lived with her cousin Sinto and a group of young people. There she met Yomtov (Joe) Esformes, who was nine years older and the only survivor in his family. They married on July 14, 1946; Stella wore a rented dress and borrowed shoes.

In April 1947, their son, Elias, was born, followed by daughters Flora in July 1951 and Rose in September 1958.

In October 1951, Stella and Joe received a visa to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Los Angeles, seeking a mild climate for Joe, who had contracted asthma in the camps.

The Jewish community helped the family financially. Then, when Flora was 3, in 1954, Stella began working in a window blinds factory. She took a leave when Rose was born and retired in 1963. Stella then helped Joe in the small produce market he had opened in downtown Los Angeles. He sold it in 1969 and died on Oct. 13, 1989.

Stella, now 88, has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She is active in Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa and UCLA’s Bearing Witness program.

While Stella was in Birkenau, a French prisoner read her palm, telling her she was going to be liberated, marry a red-haired man and have three children.

“Believe it or not, that’s what happened to me,” Stella said.

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