Michael Stoll (Stolowicki) was born in 1926, in Lida, Poland (what is now Belarus). Michael attended a private school where he received an education in Hebrew. His family spoke Yiddish and kept a kosher home. Lida had a strong and vibrant Jewish cultural life; Yeshivas, a Jewish library, and many Jewish organizations.
In the summer of 1939, when the Jewish population of Lida numbered roughly 8,500 people, the Russians entered and occupied Lida. Under Russian occupation, food, clothing, and other essential items became commodities. In addition, the Russians imposed strict rules in Lida, including closing the Hebrew schools and forcing Jewish children to attend Russian schools. People in town who favored socialism reported Michael’s father for being a Zionist. Zionism was considered counter-revolutionary and anti-Russian, and Michael’s father faced interrogation for months. However intense and brutal the Russian occupation was, the family was not prepared for the future under German occupation.
The Russians stayed in Lida until June of 1941 when Germany bombarded Lida. Michael’s home was bombed and he and his family were able to escape to and live in the brewery where his father worked along with seven other families. In the meantime, the ghettos of Lida were being formed, and slowly Jews from smaller towns were brought there. Jews were forced to wear yellow Stars of David, and a Judenrat, a Jewish ghetto militia, was formed.
On May 8, 1942, the Lida ghetto was “liquidated.” Around 6,700 people who could not work, such as the elderly and children, were brought to a field and killed with machine guns. Michael and his family were able to hide in the brewery which was spared because it produced beer and other products for the German army. Michael lost many family members that night: his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and two cousins.
A little more than a year later, on September 15, 1943, the Germans emptied the brewery of its remaining Jews and Michael, his father and his older sister, along with the remaining families who were not in hiding were put on a train headed for the Majdanak death camp. At just 17 years old, Michael bravely helped his family and many others on that train car escape. He broke the bars of the small window, climbed through it and inched his way on a sliver of track for 10-12 feet while the train was traveling at about 40 miles per hour. He broke the wired and sealed latch with his bare hands and opened the door from the outside, allowing people to jump.
After wandering in the woods for two weeks, the small group who jumped from the train made their way to the Bielski family camp where, miraculously, Michael reunited with his mother and younger sister who were able to hide and later escape from the brewery on their own. At the Bielski family camp, Michael participated in missions where partisans were sent out to a village or town to bring back supplies and food for the camp.
Regarding his courage to fight back as a partisan, Michael recalled: “I did not know... I never dreamed in my life that I'd have that kind of will to fight back. I didn’t know I had it in me, but life teaches you certain things.”
Michael and his family stayed at the Bielski camp until July of 1944, when they were liberated by the Russians. After living in a series of Displaced Persons camps in Austria until 1949, Michael arrived in the US. Ironically, while he was unable to obtain a job because he was not yet a citizen, in 1950, he was drafted into the U.S. army during the Korean War and served in Indianapolis where he worked as an interpreter in Russian and German and also learned English during this time.
In the United States, Michael met his future wife Etta Greenblatt, who gave him the push to start his own business as a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of decorative marble, glass and mirrors. Married in 1957, they raised two children in Brooklyn, NY. They vacationed in the summer and winter in the Catskill Mountains of NY, where Michael taught his children to ski. He often took his children and nephews with him on ski trips to Colorado, Italy and Austria. After his retirement, Michael would spend a month every winter in Utah where he continued his love of skiing.
Michael spent many years as president of the Lida Holocaust Memorial Foundation which aims to cherish the memories of all those who have been lost in Lida and neighboring communities as well as commemorate those who survived - with the hope of keeping the Lida spirit alive for generations to come. A memorial service is held every year close to the Yahrzeit of May 8, when most of the townspeople living in the ghetto were murdered in 1942.
In 1973, Michael traveled to Israel with a group of Bielski partisans and met with Golda Meir who offered her gratitude and a tribute to those who fought as partisans.
In 1994, Michael traveled back to Lida with his sister Bella, other surviving Bielski partisans, his wife and two children, and received a hero medal from the Belarus government to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
Over the ensuing years, Michael was interviewed on camera for films documenting his and the partisan experiences including, The Shoah Foundation, Jerusalem in the Woods, Defiance, The Train, and Four Winters. A book about his life is forthcoming once a publisher is secured.
Over the years, Michael has spoken about his experiences to many groups of young and old at schools, colleges, synagogues, and community groups throughout the northeast United States and Canada.
In 1997, Michael and Etta retired to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to be close to their grandchildren. Michael moved to Lenox in 2018.
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