Stella was born in Chemnitz, Germany in 1928. Her mother was Lola Orbach nee Glaser born in Crakow and her father was Sucher Orbach from Ukraine. They emigrated to Germany when both were aged 17 and met and married there. There was also a brother named William who was 3 years older than Stella. Their parents worked in a joint textile business in Chemnitz. Stella remembers when Hitler came to power in 1933 seeing fighting in the streets between communists and Nazis. Her first encounter with anti-Semitism was when she was 6 yrs old at school. She also remembers that her father whacked the Nazi janitor of their block of flats with a stick when he called her father a ‘dirty Jew’.
In July 1938 the family went on their usual holiday to a spa in nearby Czechoslovakia. As soon as they had crossed the border (mother, brother and Stella. Father followed later), her mother said ‘we are never going back’. Stella and her brother were ‘elated’ because of the anti-Semitism they had experienced in Germany. Stella’s father was at first unwilling to join them in Czechoslovakia as he thought there was much to keep them in Germany, but was persuaded by Stella’s mother. After some months in Prague the four of them flew to Brussels and then to London. Stella’s grandparents in Warsaw had urged her parents to write to a great-aunt living in London and ask her to get them a Visitor’s Visa, hence the decision to head for London.
They arrived at Croydon airport in December 1938 and stayed with the aunt in London until they found a flat in East London. Stella and her brother were enrolled in religious school in Stamford Hill.
When war broke out they were evacuated with the school to Suffolk and billeted with local people. This was a mixed experience, as although the hosts were kind, they didn’t always understand how hungry these young people were, so Stella was often ravenous and would scavenge raw runner beans from the fields, leading to stomach upsets. Was attending lessons in the evacuated religious Jewish school which resulted in Stella, who was not religious, getting into trouble for turning on lights on Shabbat. At that point she decided to abscond and return to her family in London. She recounts the adventure of taking the Green Line bus to Kings Cross on her own, and how she found her way to relatives in Clapton East London. Subsequently she went to school in a convent where the nuns were wonderfully welcoming to Jewish children. Then came the Blitz, with Stella’s memories of bombs, sleeping in shelters, and German planes strafing them in the streets as they were on their way to shul in their best clothes to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. She and her mother dived for the ground as instructed and Stella remembers how muddy her lovely white gloves were as a result. There was a further evacuation with her family to Suffolk where her parents worked on the land.
Stella went to the village school at first and then was encouraged to take the equivalent of the 11+ which gained her access to secondary school in Ely. She took herself out of school aged 15 as she didn’t think her Maths proficiency was sufficient to pass the matriculation exam, although good in other subjects including English. She then went to Cambridge aided by a ‘Jewish Refugee Organisation’ (AJR?) which provided her with room at their hostel and paid for book keeping and shorthand/ typing classes. She was very happy there. Her brother joined the British Army and was sent to Germany as an interpreter attaining rank of sergeant major.
After the war Stella returned to London and got a job in the studio of a ‘wonderful’ picture-frame maker, where she was in charge of looking after some ‘priceless’ paintings. She worked there until she got married in 1949. Her husband was a British Jew who she met at a dance. She knew immediately that he was the man she would marry. They went on to have two sons.
Stella does not think her refugee status affected her subsequent life in Britain. She says that they (her family) never felt like refugees. They were made welcome in this country and considered it ‘home’. Stella has had a very happy life despite early experience of upheaval and exile. She says that she tends to live in the present. As she says, she is ‘a very lucky woman’.
Additional Comments: Interview conducted on Zoom
Key words: Chemnitz, Germany, Hitler, anti-Semitism, Nazis, family, father, mother, brother, textile business, janitor, Czechoslovakia, Prague, plane, Brussels,
Croydon airport, London, East End, great aunt, evacuated, Suffolk, Lakenheath, billeted, hungry, runner beans, religious school, Stamford Hill, absconded, Green Line bus, Kings Cross station, convent, nuns, Blitz, bombing, sleeping in shelters, strafing, Rosh Hashanah, Ely, Cambridge, matric(ulation), school, Jewish Refugee Organisation, hostel, book keeping/shorthand typing classes, British Army, picture -frame maker, married, English Jew, sons, happy, lucky.
[Atmosphere in 1933] It- it was- it was when I started school at the age of six, that I had my first sort of, encounter. I had a little umbrella with red stripes, and a little schoolmate of mine said, “Is that the blood of the- of, of, of, of German babies that the Jews were killing?” So that- and I came home to my mother and said, “Could this be true?” So that was my- that was the first, my- my first experience of what- what, what was happening.
[When the family left Germany to go to Czechoslovakia in 1938] We were elated. My brother and I were elated. Because we had already experienced anti-Semitism. We were thrown out of our schools. We were- and we were spat at in the street and so, you know, we had experienced the anti-Semitism quite strongly. We were not allowed to- to sit on park benches. We were not allowed to use swimming pools. We, you know, did- we already had experienced a lot of anti-Semitism. So, we were very, very happy to leave all that behind.