Princeton Ophthalmologist Stephen Felton, M.D. Publishes His Mother’s Memoir of the Holocaust
“A deep night
Blacker than the blackness of eyes.
Has fallen silently
On the World.”
Everyone has a story, and frequently it is surprising. One thinks he or she knows all about a friend or colleague only to discover a remarkable history, previously hidden, which is revealed much later in the friendship or business association.
Such is the case of Dr. Stephen Felton, long-time Princeton ophthalmologist and founder of the Princeton Eye Group. Most of his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had no idea of the harrowing experiences of his early childhood and his family’s ordeal during the Holocaust and events of World War II. It was only recently through the publication of his mother’s memoir, I Shall Lead You Through the Nights that this early history has become known.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1942, Stephen was two months premature, weighing only 2.2 pounds at birth.
“My mother called me her ‘Miracle Child’,” recalls Dr. Felton, and indeed, how he and his mother survived those years during the war is a miracle.
His family consisted of parents Victor and Eva Feldsztein, half-brother Stasio, grandparents, and various aunts and uncles and cousins. Except for his mother, Stephen did not know any of these relatives, for they all perished at the hands of the Nazis, either shot or in the case of his father and Stasio, in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In 1941, his parents had moved to the Warsaw Ghetto (later known for the Jewish uprising there in 1943). “My father was an engineer, owned a factory, and was also a musician,” explains Dr. Felton. “A nurse, my mother graduated from St. Sophie School of Nursing and Midwifery in Warsaw. She was the only Jewish girl among the students, who were mostly Catholic. She had lots of friends there, however, and the religious differences didn’t matter at the school.”
After graduation, his mother worked as a private nurse, and met Victor Feldsztein, whom she married in 1938. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, setting the stage for World War II. Warsaw surrendered later in the month, and the Jewish ghetto was established. Its residents suffered under the Nazi control, enduring starvation, rampant disease, and unceasing brutality and atrocities.
Eventually, the Feldszteins were forced from their home, and went to live with a relative.
At this time, Mrs. Feldsztein continued her work as a nurse on an emergency basis only, for it was increasingly dangerous for the Jewish residents to leave the ghetto and venture outside for fear of being shot or transported to concentration camps. In addition, many of the residents established hiding places in their apartments. It was during this time that Mrs. Feldsztein learned of the deaths of her father, brothers, and sister, all killed by the Nazis.
When Stephen was born in June, 1942, no one, other than his mother, expected him to survive in the harsh conditions under which they were living. In March, 1943, Mrs. Feldsztein and Stephen were able to escape the ghetto. A Christian family, the Mataczes, came to their aid, helping them to avoid detection by the Germans. Stephen and his mother moved from place to place, sometimes hiding in the forest, and Mrs. Feldsztein assumed a new identity as a Polish Christian.
Her dark hair was bleached blond, and the Matacz family helped her learn Catholic prayers and even advised her to “Carry the baby in your left arm. Your right arm must be free to cross yourself when you pass a holy shrine.”
In her memoir, Mrs. Feldsztein notes: “Before the holidays, everyone went to Confession, and that included me. When I came before the priest, I said, ‘Father, the only sin I know is that I am lying.’ The priest answered softly, ‘My dear child, we are all praying to one God. The good Lord will bless you and your son.’”
Stephen’s father and brother Stasio had remained in the ghetto in the hope that they would receive a visa to go to South America with Stephen and his mother, explains Dr. Felton. “That was the last information we had from them. But the visa was a fraud, and they were taken to Auschwitz and killed.”
Although Stephen was only two and three years old during this time, Dr. Felton says he has snatches of memory from his early childhood. He recalls playing with other children, and “I also remember walking into a shed with another boy and seeing dead bodies. These memories date back to 1945, and I remember, too, that throughout my childhood, a recurrent dream was of a marching drum beat.”
After enduring beatings, torture, and lack of food, Mrs. Feldsztein welcomed the end of the war with a mixture of relief, sadness, and a sense of staggering loss. Returning to Warsaw, she found work with a Jewish relief agency, and there she met David Wasserman, a survivor of several concentration camps.
They were married, and after a year in Paris, emigrated to the U.S. in 1947. Upon arrival in Brooklyn, N.Y., as she reports in her memoir, Mrs. Wasserman was immediately in for a surprise. “As we disembarked from the ship, we were greeted by police officials. In Poland, a Jewish policeman was unheard of. When one of these American officials spoke to us in Yiddish, we cried tears of wonder. What a wonderful country this is!”
Dr. Felton recalls arriving in the midst of a big snowstorm. “The streets were covered by a deep layer of snow, and I remember looking at the lights of the cars driving along the Belt Parkway and at the Statue of Liberty in the distance. To my mother, they must have seemed like the lights and symbols of freedom and liberation. The feelings of freedom mixed with the profound tragedy of the previous years must have been overwhelming.”
Their new life would be hard at first, however. The family settled in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, and as Dr. Felton points out, there “was no money, no job, no English language, but there was freedom from tyranny and hope for the future.
“It wasn’t an easy childhood for me,” he adds. “Arriving in the U.S. at age five was difficult. I remember feeling alone and isolated. I couldn’t speak the language, and my mother and stepfather were struggling to make a living and readjusting to a normal, non-threatening environment. My mother sewed yarmulkes, and my stepfather taught Hebrew during the day, and went to night classes to become an electrical engineer.”
Eventually, Mr. Wasserman found work in an engineering firm, and Mrs. Wasserman returned to her nursing profession They both learned English very quickly, reports Dr. Felton. In the next few years, two more children, Mina and Allen, were born.
And despite the difficulties, there were good times for Stephen. He played stickball with the neighborhood kids, and went to see his favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, play baseball in Ebbets Field. In 1951, an important event took place in his life, when he became an American citizen. “I remember my citizenship day as fulfilling a dream,” he recalls.
“Ours was a typical Brooklyn neighborhood,” he adds. “One of my best friends Mark Hutter lived nearby, and I’d go over to his apartment building, stand outside the window, and yell, ‘Mark, can you come out?’ and then we’d play stickball.
“It was a half-Jewish, half-Italian neighborhood, and I remember my parents wanted me to take violin lessons. I’d have to walk by the Italian section, carrying my violin case, and those Italian kids gave me a hard time. I ended up quitting the violin when I was 13.”
Stephen attended Yeshiva Ohel Moshe Elementary School, and was resourceful enough to get to school by himself on the subway when he was in the first grade!
“In school, the morning hours were dedicated to learning Hebrew and studying religion,” explains Dr. Felton. “The afternoon was for regular lessons. It provided an excellent education. The Hebrew education was also cultural, and we learned a lot about Israel.”
Stephen liked school, and was a good student, later attending Yeshiva of Flatbush High School. “I was scientifically-oriented, but I also liked art and music. Later, in college, I took music appreciation. I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music, and I still do.”
Dr. Felton also remembers enjoyable summer vacations in the Catskill Mountains in New York state. “I liked going there, and I had a chance to be pretty independent. My stepfather only came up on weekends, and I had time on my own to go fishing and fool around with the other kids.”
When Stephen was about 10, he began to have doubts about religion. “I really rebelled significantly against religion. I especially liked my Uncle Joe, my father’s brother. I felt more identified with him than with my stepfather, who was the son of a rabbi and very religious. Uncle Joe was a person I admired. I was not religious, and neither was he, and he was Americanized. He was all the things I wanted to be.
“He had come to the U.S. in the 1920s, and he ‘Americanized’ his last name to Felton, which I later did too. He also started a chemical business, which became very successful. When I was nine or 10, I started visiting him at his New Jersey farm in the country. He was very nice to me, and he was a very important part of my life. He had an apartment in Manhattan, too, and the chemical plant was in Brooklyn. When I was 15, I started working there in the shipping department.”
Then, in 1959, it was off to college. Stephen attended Brooklyn College, and majored in chemistry. After graduation, he continued his education at Rutgers University, working toward a PhD, which he completed in 4 years.
“At Rutgers, I had a teaching assistantship, and I also worked in research as part of the program. I had good friends at Rutgers, including students from Ethiopia and Iran. I also had my first visit to Princeton, when we came to a football game in 1964.”
Another major event in his life while at graduate school was marriage to a fellow graduate student in 1965.
The couple then had an opportunity to see another part of the country, when he received a post-doctoral fellowship in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Spending two years there, he published academic papers as part of the program.
In addition, finding time for another endeavor, he built his own sailboat! “I had gotten into sailing, and this was a proud moment,” he says with a smile.
Dr. Felton also realized now that he didn’t want to pursue an academic career. “I wanted to work with people and not be isolated in a laboratory. I thought about getting into industry, and it was possible to work with my Uncle Joe.”
Returning to the east coast, he worked with his uncle, becoming vice president of the chemical firm, and he remained in that position for two years. He and his wife lived in Manhattan, and in 1971, a daughter Jane was born.
And now, a new adventure was on the horizon. For a long time, he had felt an important need to help others, and to make a difference and improve people’s lives. “This had been instilled in me by my mother,” he explains. “As a nurse, she went out of her way to help people. After coming to the U.S., she sent packages of food and clothing to the family in Poland who had helped us. And she also helped a lot of people in Brooklyn.”
So, at the age of 30, he decided to go to medical school. “I didn’t want to waste my life. This was very important. I wanted to make a contribution, and I liked the idea of applying research to help people with medical problems.”
The decision to attend medical school at a somewhat advanced age surprised his family and some of his friends, but not all. His close buddy from childhood, Mark Hutter, PhD, now a professor in the department of sociology at Rowan University, recalls, “I think Steve always wanted to be a doctor, and so I was not surprised that even with his success in chemistry, he left to pursue a medical degree. Now, in fact, both my wife and I are his patients; my daughter was a lazik patient, and our son, inspired by Steve, has become an ophthalmologist.”
Despite having done well on the graduate medical exam, Dr. Felton was turned down by some schools due to an age bias. At 30, he was evidently considered too old to begin medical studies. He persevered, however, and fortunately, Rutgers came through, and in 1972, he entered Rutgers Medical School.
“In the beginning, I wanted to be a general physician,” he says. “I had no great aspiration to become a specialist, and I was also involved in research in biochemistry. I liked medical school very much. I especially liked the clinical aspect. With every rotation, I thought I’d want to go into that particular field. I finally chose ophthalmology because I loved medicine and surgery, and ophthalmology was an excellent combination of both.”
Dr. Felton interned at the Rutgers-affiliated hospital for one year, followed by a 3-year residency program at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. “I enjoyed every minute at Wills,” he reports. “It was top-rated in ophthalmology, and it was a great experience. Ophthalmology generally is a happy medical experience. It is always exciting and changing.”
While at Wills, Dr. Felton received the James S. Shipman Award for his research in angiogenesis.
He had been living in Princeton during his residency, and decided to set up his practice here. Furthermore, in a brave move, he did it on his own. “I knew I wanted to have my own practice,” he points out. “I didn’t want other people telling me what to do, and I started out by myself. I began to get referrals, and friends came, but it was a year before it was profitable. I remember I drove one of my first cataract patients to Wills for the surgery, and then drove her back home afterward.”
Two years later, he decided to take a partner. He had known Dr. Michael Wong at Wills, and asked him to join the practice, which would eventually evolve into the Princeton Eye Group.
Dr. Wong remembers that initial partnership and his association with Dr. Felton. “Steve was my first partner, and he’s been a great partner to me my whole career. What has been so important is trust. Trust in doing the right thing for our patients; trust in doing the right thing for our practice; and trust in being a friend personally.
“Ophthalmology, as a specialty, has moved forward very quickly. Steve has always been progressive, willing to invest in new technologies and learn new techniques to keep abreast. Ultimately, patients win. We’d be at a conference learning a new surgical technique, and I would lean over to him and joke that he was the oldest ophthalmologist in the room. What that tongue-in-cheek comment meant was that while others with his pedigree may be stale and not taking on new surgeries, Steve was always there willing to learn.”
As the practice grew, it added a number of new doctors, and has become known for its innovative advances and techniques. Dr. Felton’s specialty has been cataract surgery and glaucoma. He has performed more than 10,000 cataract procedures over 35 years. As he notes, “I knew I had a skill regarding surgery for cataracts and implants, but I never expected the practice to be as successful as it has become.
“I think what is most meaningful to me is seeing the happy faces the day after patients have eye surgery. This means a lot. And I like being able to figure out what is wrong and make a diagnosis. I enjoy discussing these cases with my colleagues. My partners are exceptionally bright, and we conduct business as true partners. Through discussion and consensus, we have made almost all of our important decisions. Our collective training and caring of patients is what has bonded us together all these years.”
Now, Dr. Felton has decided to take a step back from the practice, limiting his time to three days a week. This will give him a chance to take advantage of many of the opportunities available in Princeton, as well as to enjoy spending time with his family, travel more often, and delve into hobbies, such as bridge and golf.
Regarding Princeton, he notes, “Every once in a while, I stop and think ‘Do I really live here?’ It’s such a great place, especially because of the people who are here. They are so interesting, and there are opportunities to do so much. Now that I’ve stepped back somewhat from the practice, I’ll have more time for this, including auditing classes at Princeton University.”
Family is very important to Dr. Felton. After a divorce in 1988, he remarried in 1990, and he and his wife Barbara have a son Jake, who lives in California. The family also consists of his daughter Jane and Barbara’s children Ben and Jessie and five grandchildren.
“My wife Barb is so important to me,” says Dr. Felton. “She complements me in so many ways. She is my partner; she’s my other half.”
And, of course, all the family has been profoundly inspired by his mother Eva, who died in 1992, shortly after completing her memoir. Previously, she had been able to return to Poland, where she was reunited with the Matacz family, who had protected her and Stephen.
“In a sense, my mother had a somewhat selfish point of view as a result of the Holocaust, which was really the attempt of a mass extermination of the Jewish people of Europe,” observes Dr. Felton. “She wanted the Jewish people to survive. This was her goal, and through me, my sister and brother, she felt she had helped to accomplish that.”
He adds that his mother did not talk about her Holocaust experiences until she wrote the memoir, and he, too, never discussed or even thought about his family’s background until he read her memoir and had it published. He has since spoken at the Jewish Center about the events, and has returned to Poland three times, most recently in 2012, when the Israeli government honored the Matacz family, giving them the designation of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
On an earlier visit with his wife and son, he recalls a poignant experience. “We went to Auschwitz, and took two stones from there in honor of my father and half-brother. We then took the stones to Israel to the cemetery where my mother and stepfather are buried. It was a way to unite the family.”
Dr. Felton’s childhood friend Mark Hutter did know about the family’s Holocaust experiences, but as he says, “That was not a subject we often talked about. I knew Steve’s wonderful mother, who was always upbeat with a smile on her face, as well as his stepfather and brother and sister.”
Adds Dr. Michael Wong: “The early events of Steve’s life slowly leaked out over the decades, but crystallized when I read the book he compiled of his mother’s memoir I Shall Lead You Through the Nights. I knew Eva, but not like that. It’s a story that needs to be told, as it embodies what the Statue of Liberty stands for.”
As Dr. Felton reflects on his early life and his mother’s remarkable fortitude and courage, he is both realistic and hopeful. “I really experienced the Holocaust through my mother,” he points out. “I’m fatalistic. I know that bad things can happen any time. I know that it can all disappear in a day. You must enjoy each moment you have and try to make a difference for people.
“I have been very lucky. A lot of things that happened to me were lucky. For example, I survived my birth. I have always been driven to help others. I never wanted to be wealthy, just comfortable. I wanted to be a nice person and have a good family. In that respect, I feel very lucky.”
Sharing his family’s story with others and keeping the events of the Holocaust in the public awareness are important to him now. Many Holocaust survivors are no longer alive, and many, if not most, of the World War II veterans are now gone. The causes and impact of that war and of the Holocaust should not be allowed to disappear from view.
As Dr. Felton says, “People have to realize that evil exists, but if we confront it directly and openly when it occurs, we can overcome it.”