When Max Stodel was 14 years old, the star soccer player had to drop out of school to work six days a week as a clothing company presser to earn money for his family. This difficult life paled by comparison to the hardships he would endure after being picked up by Nazi soldiers in 1941 at age 18 in his hometown of Amsterdam, Netherlands.
During World War II, Stodel worked at some eight Nazi camps - labor camps, transit camps and prisoner of war camps, where he witnessed unspeakable atrocities.
In April 1945, Stodel was in a cattle car near Dachau when the Germans gave him a Red Cross package containing “cigarettes, chocolates, you name it.” The next day, the passengers were taken to the Americans who liberated them.
The 22-year-old returned to Amsterdam to find that his entire family – father, wife (who he married at age 18 just before being sent to the first camp), aunt, and six older siblings were gone (his mother had died in 1939). It wasn’t until many months later in March of 1946 that the Netherlands Security Service confirmed what Stodel had suspected - his family had died at the hands of the Nazis. There was only one person who was not on the list – his sister, Rachel Deegan Stodel.
More than 70 years later, in October 2016, Stodel finally received confirmation from the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region that his sister and her young child died at Auschwitz. Max realized she was sent there 10 days after he arrived in July 1942.
“I can tell you it means a lot to me to find out what happened,” said Stodel. “That’s why I saved this document for 70 years,” he said, referring to the paperwork that was provided by the Dutch government. “I’ve looked for this information for so many years, and you found it,” he said to the Red Cross volunteers who delivered the news. “I thank you for it, and I could kiss you.”
Red Cross volunteer Doug Wiita and Americorps member Tamara Alcantara explained that the Holocaust Tracing service is part of the Red Cross International Restoring Family Links program. Stodel found out about the service from his daughter (from his second marriage in 1946) who picked up a Red Cross Holocaust Tracing brochure at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. He immediately called the Red Cross to initiate a search. Volunteers met with Stodel in person to record the request. They included every possible version of Rachel’s first and last name in the inquiry.
The request was then sent to the American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington D.C., where they work with all the Red Cross National Societies around the world, as well as numerous organizations, including the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. In this case, the American Red Cross contacted the Netherlands Red Cross and the International Tracing Service WWII Archives and searched Yad Vashem’s online records.
The Netherlands Red Cross responded quickly and the Restoring Family Links volunteers delivered the official response to Stodel at his Culver City home. He started to read it, then folded it up and said he would come back to it later, recounted volunteer Doug Wiita, a retired attorney. “It was an emotional moment for all of us.” When asked about why Wiita volunteers for the Restoring Family Links program, he said: “At the Red Cross, our first principle is Humanity, which means we try to alleviate human suffering. These people are suffering, and we can help.”
Americorps member Tamara Alcantara said, “For me to sit and listen to a Holocaust survivor enables me to feel what they felt. You can see stories on TV or read about the Holocaust, but hearing this account first hand is to see history.”
For more information about Red Cross Restoring Family Links services, please visit our blog (http://restoringfamilylinksblog.com/ ). To initiate a search from the Los Angeles area please call (626) 407-4536 or email IntlTracing.LosAngeles.CA@redcross.org.