Luba Stachel, Minsk survivor with lust for life

“Nope. No Jews here.”

These words, uttered by a 6-year-old to the bands of Nazis marauding about Minsk looking for fugitive Jews to kill, is what has made it possible for you to read this. Thanks to a child’s poker face, Luba Stachel lived to be 84 and hoist a pair of grandchildren. She was not summarily executed 60 years ago like so many of her friends and family.

Stachel, who died June 13 in a Berkeley home for the aged, was a charmer right to the end. Though she had seen and experienced some of the worst history had to offer, friends and family recalled her as an exceptionally kind, positive and just plain fun woman.

“Oh, I think of a warm, loving, motherly, smiling and beautiful woman. I smile when I think of Luba,” said Sylvia Schwartz, a former neighbor and friend of Stachel’s for more than half a century.

Stachel, an only child, was the daughter of a Minsk opera singer. The family lived well and she planned to be a doctor prior to World War II. However, when Hitler turned toward the Soviet Union, Stachel’s father, Isaac Bakst, disappeared. It is unclear whether he was deported by the Nazis or pressed into service by the Soviets. The only certain thing is that he never came home.

Stachel and her mother, Rashell, were placed in the Minsk ghetto, forced to labor in the fields and then quake in their boots as the Nazis rampaged through and randomly killed Jews. At one point, her mother escaped into the nearby woods and served as a cook for resistance fighters.

Not long after, Stachel escaped as well, and hid with a Christian family. Stachel brewed beer that the family sold to make ends meet (her daughter, Telsa Grimé, jokes that between Rashell’s food and Luba’s beer, the family knew always how to serve a proper meal).

Stachel stayed with the Christian family for years, thanks in part to the couple’s quick-thinking young daughter, who never gave away to the Nazis who was really staying in the house.

Following the war, Stachel and her mother traveled to Germany to take a place in a displaced persons camp and, they hoped, earn a ticket to America. Heading through Poland on the way, they met decorated Polish and Russian army veteran Felix Stachel, a Jewish cavalryman from Lvov. Luba and Felix fell in love and were soon married. Their daughter, Telsa, was born in a German D.P. camp.

The new family landed in New York, where Felix found work in an asbestos plant. He only stayed at the plant for a few months, but it was enough: He died of mesothelioma at age 56 in the early 1970s.

After being worked, quite literally, like slaves on a relative’s farm in New Jersey, the Stachels traveled to Petaluma, where, like many Holocaust survivors and refugees, they became chicken farmers. Grimé has childhood memories of her father and mother taking her to chicken ranches, where the three of them would vaccinate thousands of chickens by hand. Felix later bought his own farm on 10.5 acres near Cotati.

Stachel’s love of music lasted throughout her life, as did her love of reciting Russian poetry. She was a famously good cook — “Luba, what have you got to eat?” was a commonly repeated phrase in the Stachels’ neighborhood. She also had a passion for gardening. She battled cancer for the last few years, during which time her son Richard became her primary caretaker.

She is survived by Telsa Grimé of Novato, sons Richard Stachel of Richmond and Norbert Stachel of New York, and two grandchildren. The family suggests donations in her memory be made to the cancer foundation of your choice.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.