A Survivor’s Story

January 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the millions who suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis. Survivor Stella Sonnenschein remembers it all too well—this day and every day—and shares her story in the hopes of preventing future genocides.

Stella Sonnenschein survived the Holocaust after her parents smuggled her out of the Warsaw Ghetto
Stella Sonnenschein survived the Holocaust after her parents smuggled her out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Stella Sonnenschein is careful not to underestimate the power of a child’s memories. The 88-year-old was only 4 years old when World War II broke out, but the ensuing decade was the most formative of her life. “I remember everything: the sky being dark and the bombs raining down at an angle like shooting stars,” Sonnenschein says more than eight decades later. “I look at children completely different now. They see what’s going on and understand more than we think.”

During the Holocaust, approximately 6 million European Jews were murdered, including Sonnenschein’s father, Hersh; her older brother, Yosek; and more than a dozen other relatives. Sonnenschein, who now resides in Aventura, calls herself “lucky” because she survived. Despite the agony of reliving painful childhood memories, she has retold her firsthand account of the Holocaust countless times to students across the county.

“I try to teach my students that no matter what you go through, you have to overcome it and do the best you can to be kind, help other people, and be grateful,” she says. “Maybe I can help somebody not be an anti-Semite and to be a more tolerant human and loving of everyone, not only Jews—whether they are Muslim, gay, anyone.” 

Although South Florida is home to one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors in the world, there are now fewer than 50,000 nationwide. Sonnenschein understands that, as survivors age, telling her story is more important than ever. But, thanks to the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation’s interactive program called Dimensions in Testimony, her experience has been immortalized. The immersive installation uses artificial intelligence from Sonnenschein’s recorded video responses (she participated in more than 40 hours of interviews, answering roughly a thousand questions) to create real-time conversations with her and other Holocaust survivors who participated in the program. Last October, Sonnenschein’s testimony debuted at the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center in Dania Beach. 

Stella Sonnenschein 1
Stella Sonnenschein

“It’s mostly for the next generation,” she explains. “For the people who will be there when we are not there in person.” 

Sonnenschein fondly remembers glimpses from her life in Warsaw, Poland, before her family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939. There, Sonnenschein would have to hide in a small cabinet from Nazi officers who were sending children to concentration camps. “I could only see their shiny boots,” she recalls. “I was so scared that they’d pull me out, because they could hit you, beat you up, kill you.” 

When it became too risky to keep concealing their daughter, Sonnenschein’s parents devised a plan to smuggle their blonde-haired, green-eyed daughter out of the ghetto using a new identity. Stella would become Stasia Borkowska, a Polish Catholic orphan. She was 7 years old. “They gave me a new name, a new family history, and taught me the Catholic prayers in Polish,” she says. “They told me not to forget who I really was, but to forget enough to not be caught in a lie because they would kill me.” 

Over the next four years, Sonnenschein lived with several foster families, who never suspected that she was Jewish. But she says she felt immense guilt for lying about her identity, especially as she prepared for First Communion in the fourth grade. “My biggest sin was lying,” she says. “I wanted to be honest with the priest, but I couldn’t tell him the truth. I didn’t know what they were going to do if I did.”

Stella Sonnenschein
Stella Sonnenschein

When the war ended in 1945, reports about the scope of the genocide led 11-year-old Sonnenschein to believe she was the only Jewish person alive. She was overjoyed when she was reunited with her mother in 1946, and then deeply saddened to learn that her father had been killed during a rebellion against the Nazis, and that her brother, who was 13 at the time, had been picked up by the Gestapo police and taken to Pawiak, a prison notorious for torturing and killing inmates. Sonnenschein’s mother had only survived by disguising herself as a firefighter and marching out of the ghetto as if she were a member of the squad. 

Stella was given a new identity as a Catholic, Polish orphan and was taken in by foster families. She survived; her brother, Yosek, did not
Stella was given a new identity as a Catholic, Polish orphan and was taken in by foster families. She survived; her brother, Yosek, did not.

“When my mother survived, I thought they all had survived,” Sonnenschein says of her father and brother. “It was bittersweet because she had to tell me how they were killed. That reality was a lot for a child emotionally.” 

To this day, Sonnenschein dislikes the sounds of airplanes and people speaking German, which she admits is a “nice language” but one that she still finds “triggering.” In 1950, Sonnenschein and her mother moved to Israel to be closer to surviving relatives. It was there, on a blind date, that she met her future husband, Ben, a Holocaust survivor who was living in the United States. As newlyweds the pair moved to New York in 1958, settled in New Jersey, and had two children, Gail and Howie. In 1991, they moved to Aventura, which Sonnenschein considers “one of the best places in the world.” 

Her husband died in 2015, and while she misses him dearly, she refuses to let grief take over. The spirited octogenarian dresses in vibrantly patterned clothes, paints with bright colors, and enjoys visiting with friends and family. Sonnenschein takes chair yoga and water aerobics classes, and especially relishes the positions that require her to look up and spread her arms wide in gratitude. 

“That kind of movement always makes me happy. I don’t know what it is—being outdoors, blue skies—but it’s something physical that connects with my brain, and I just think, ‘Thank God.’ People live such a short time on this earth. We should make the best of it.” 

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