Police & Fire

Near-Downing Victim in Somers a Born Survivor

SOMERS, N.Y.--At 87, Heritage Hills resident Lola Margulies no longer gets around the way she once did. In 1941, as 11-year-old Lola Elfenbein, she had to step quickly just to stay alive in Nazi-occupied Poland. Moving frequently, hiding below ground, her belly more often filled with fear than food, she and her family successfully evaded Hitler’s stone-cold killers and saw their town liberated in March 1944. 

In the years since, she’s lost some agility, but not the haunting memory of hunger. “If you haven’t experienced starvation,” she told an interviewer, “you don’t know how much of a crisis it is.” Perhaps that fueled her determination last week to feed a raft of ducks populating a pond near her West Hills Drive home. 

With the help of a walker, Lola made her way to the pond area on a paved road. But off-road, she was on her own in navigating the softer earth. “I couldn’t use the walker,” Lola said. Still, she made it down to the water’s edge. “I was feeding the ducks, throwing bread to them.” 

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But intruders threatened the ducks’ food supply. 

“The geese were trying to get the bread away from the ducks,” Lola remembered, “and I was trying to prevent them from doing it. I quickly moved to my right to throw the bread farther away from the geese.” Instead, she lost her balance. “And that’s how I slipped.”  

She plunged into the pond’s chest-deep water. Panic-stricken, she says, and unable to extricate herself, she cried out for help.

A neighbor, Joanne Colon, was walking nearby, heard her plea and responded immediately. “She jumped into the pond [and] grabbed me,” Lola said. “She didn’t have to do that; she just wanted to save me.”

Her rescuer, Lola recalled, “grabbed me in a bear hug and held me tight to her body so I wouldn’t fall any deeper. She kept saying to me, ‘I’ve got you; I’ve got you; I will not let you go.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Meanwhile, Lola’s plea from the pond had carried farther afield in the Heritage Hills neighborhood. Roch and Jane Cappelli, whose home is above the pond, were hosting their son, Brett, and his son, Brendan, 15, visiting from upstate Valatie. “They were sitting on the porch of the house,” Lola says, “and heard me yelling for help.” 

Just weeks earlier, in June, Brett had lost a son and Brendan his older brother when 19-year-old Brett Cappelli drowned in a Columbia County creek. “So, right away, they came running and pulled me out of the water and pulled Joanne out as well,” Lola says.

She praises the unselfish actions of her rescuers, especially Colon. “She saved my life,” Lola believes. “She held me until I was pulled out by the father and son.”

As a child trapped in the terror of the Holocaust, she endured more than her share of close calls. Hiding in a cramped bunker beneath a farmer’s chicken coop, her family occupied a “grave for the living,” she later wrote for a wartime history of her Skalat, Poland, hometown. “Helpless, hopeless, overcrowded and undernourished we waited for the massacre.” 

Miraculously, they all survived, and in 1947 came to America, initially buying and working a dairy farm upstate before setting down roots in the Bronx. Lola remained sure-footed, juggling demanding roles as a full-time lab tech and part-time college student. It took years, but in the end Lola had earned her doctorate in genetics and became a professor of biology at Mercy College and a research professor at New York Medical College. She and her husband, Joseph, an accountant, raised a son, Peter, a specialist in national security matters and a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law.

hese days, long retired from both classroom and lab, she keeps alive the grim narrative of those harrowing years. In addition to her written recollections, Lola was interviewed for a 2004 documentary narrated by Eli Wallach, and has appeared before numerous school and community audiences, urging vigilance against today’s human-rights violations. She serves as treasurer of the Somers Holocaust Memorial Commission.

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