Stefi Altman, treasured mother, grandmother, friend and Holocaust survivor, passed away on Saturday, December 2, in Houston after a long and very blessed life.
Born Szyfra Fiszbaum to Syma and Yitzchak Fiszbaum in Lublin, Poland on May 15, 1926, Stefi was the third of four children. Living within the bustling heart of Polish culture and politics, the Fiszbaum's large and joyful family enjoyed a bounteous life full of happy memories. It was not until the 1939 German invasion of Poland that this contented family's world was changed forever.
Because of their Jewish faith, the Fiszbaums were ordered from their home. Older brothers, Velvel and Moshe, were seized and placed in the nearby Majdanek concentration camp, where they were viciously abused and later murdered. Meanwhile, the remaining family walked 18 miles to Moszenki, Poland, seeking refuge in a barn. Stefi was separated from her family and, with the help of a teacher and Catholic priest, was given a false identity and sent to the Jastkov labor camp. When the Nazis discovered Stefi was Jewish, she was beaten and taken to jail; and the priest, her only friend, was hanged for his humanitarian efforts. She later learned that 35 members of her family were killed, along with approximately 2,000 other Jews in the small town of Belzyce.
For nearly five years Stefi was imprisoned in several concentration camps, including Treblinka, Majdanek, and Dorohucza. At each location, she witnessed horrifically haunting images of human suffering and endured starvation, beatings and atrocious living conditions. In Dorohucza, Stefi was briefly reunited with her one, remaining relative - little sister, Kayla. Though careful not to show affection and thereby garner the attention of her heartless captors, Stefi was cheered by the presence of her sweet sister. However, in an act so sadistic, she shortly thereafter witnessed the brutal murder of her beloved sibling.
Daringly, Stefi eventually escaped from Dorohucza by hiding amongst a group of travelling civilians and then dashing into the Polish wilderness. Had she stayed behind, she doubtless would have been one of the 20,000 Dorohucza inmates murdered in one of the deadliest single massacres of the Holocaust. Instead, she wandered from town to town, hiding from Nazi soldiers and informants. Eventually, a kind-hearted farmer placed Stefi with another Jewish family hiding in a makeshift cave within his barn in the small, rural village of Plowszowice. There she remained, barely surviving, until Soviet liberators freed the area in 1944.
It was not until 1946 that Stefi met and married her husband and fellow survivor, Herschel Altman. The following year, they were blessed with a son, Moses David "Mickey" Altman, whom they considered a gift from G-d. The family was able to come to America through the generous sponsorship of Herschel's loving cousins, Sam and Sarah Brounes of Houston, along with the guidance of their son Pincus Brounes and daughter Miriam Foreman.
While Herschel labored as a peddler of vegetables and then as a meat purveyor, Stefi enjoyed homemaking and mothering their only child. However, in 1963, Stefi suffered another great tragedy when her beloved Herschel passed away suddenly after suffering a stroke. With her determination and strength, Stefi obtained a job at the gift department in Foley's Sharpstown and then afterwards at Sweeneys in the Galleria, where she was admired by customers and staff. All the while, Stefi encouraged her teenage son to pursue his education. Mickey, supported by his loving mother, graduated from The University of Texas – Austin and the University of Houston Law School.
Mickey and his two children, Nicholas, 36, and Maren, 19, have been the torches which lit up Stefi's existence. In addition to her heartwarming visits with her son and grandchildren, Stefi enjoyed spending time with beloved friends, especially Regina Rogers; attending services at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, where she was a member for nearly 60 years and proud of her relationships with the late Rabbi William Malev, Rabbi Emeritus Jack Segal and Senior Rabbi David Rosen; volunteering at Holocaust Museum Houston; and speaking to local school groups and educators about the Holocaust. The recipient of hundreds of letters from children and adults who heard her testimony, Stefi was fulfilled with the knowledge that she had impacted their lives in such a significant manner.
Stefi also bravely testified against former Dorohucza Nazi soldier, Andrew Kuras, in his U.S. Citizenship Revocation hearing. Her unwavering voice joined the many others which bear witness to the brutal violence of the Holocaust and honor the enduring memory of loved ones inhumanely silenced by Nazi soldiers.
"I hope the world will remember what I cannot forget," Stefi once expressed. "The victim's names were not recorded. They were not given graves or headstones by which to remember them… I always carry the shadows of my family left behind. They will be in my heart forever."
Though her life was marked by such great losses, in death Stefi will be reunited with the loved ones who preceded her and especially her beloved husband, Herschel.
Stefi's family will continue her legacy of a purposeful life and passion for family and friends. Her survivors are son, Mickey; grandchildren, Nicholas and wife Jennifer, and Maren.
The family extends special thanks to Stefi's angel, Leah Mueller of Jewish Family Service, whose extraordinary concern, care and love have been a source of comfort and strength for nearly 15 years; Rabbis Jack Segal and David Rosen for their prayers and love; the wonderful staff of Bayou Manor for their care and attention; and to Stefi's devoted personal caregivers, Lou Stevenson, Willie Garrett, Billie Joshua and care coordinator Ashley Stoetzner, from At Your Side.
Additional appreciation is expressed to Regina Rogers, Joyce Ahearn, Edith Minceberg, Edith Jucker, Lisa & Erick Miller, Carol Simmons, Marsha Gershen, Claire Grace, Jeanette Siciliano, Ellen Trachtenberg, Michelle Flornoy and Stefi's many other loving friends at Holocaust Museum Houston.
Just as Stefi carried the memory of those she loved and lost in the Holocaust, so shall we carry the memory of this valiant woman whose inspirational life testifies to the endurance of the human spirit and the importance of never forgetting the painful lessons of history.
A memorial service for Stefi will be conducted by Rabbi Jack Segal on Tuesday, December 5, at 4:00 pm at Congregation Brith Shalom (4610 Bellaire Blvd). A burial service will be held at 2:30 pm at Congregation Beth Yeshurun Cemetery (1037 Post Oak Road)?.
Honorary pallbearers are Barnett Gershen, Jimmy Gordon, Erick Miller, Bill Orlin, Dr. Arvey Rogers, Lonnie Schiller, Bill Simmons, Bruce Stein, David Stein, Robb Todd, Rick Turner and Ricardo Weitz.
The family requests no flowers. Contributions in Stefi's memory may be made to the Stefi Altman Endowment Fund at Holocaust Museum Houston, 9220 Kirby Drive Suite 100, Houston, Texas 77056.