When Arielle Angel’s grandmother, Stella, passed away, she wrote the obituary. Angel, a Brooklyn-based writer, didn’t plan for a home for the obituary. It was written for family and close friends. When the obituary landed in our inbox, it found a home.
Stella Angel lived in Sheepshead Bay. She owned and operated a local grocery with her husband, David Angel here. She raised a family at East 6th Street and Avenue Z because her own extended family, the Rosas, all lived within walking distance.
Their store, Bay Food Market, was bought from a guy named Mario. No one seems to recall his last name now.
It stood across the street from Dan’s Supreme, a larger supermarket that could have put the mom-and-pop bodega out of business. Instead, the two groceries competed for customers. For years, the Angels engaged in price wars and forewent but little profit. They almost always set their closing time an hour later than Dan’s.
My grandmother, Stella Angel, who lived and worked in Sheepshead Bay from the time of her immigration to the United States in 1952 until her retirement in the early 1980s, died in her sleep last Saturday morning. She was 93-years-old.
She was born Stella Rosa in Salonika, Greece, in 1920, the middle child of five in a middle-class family. Like all of the Rosa men, her father was a butcher. Salonika was a unique Jewish community; its members were descendants of those who had fled the Spanish Inquisition, and they still kept a medieval dialect of Spanish called Ladino as their language.
Greece fell to the Nazis early, and the Jewish residents of Salonika were deported in early 1943. My grandmother and her family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where everyone but my grandmother and one sister, who my grandmother managed to pull off the line to the gas chamber, perished. In fact, my grandparents and my great aunt were three of less than 1000 Greek survivors of the camps. Greece lost 99 percent of its Jewish population in the war. That very particular culture has all but vanished.
My grandparents, who had known each other casually before the war, but who had been separated by age and class (my grandfather, David Angel, was 15 years older, married with children, and an aristocrat), met while my grandmother was in a home for displaced girls in Athens. They married more out of circumstance than of love, and they had a difficult marriage, but they were fiercely loyal to one another until my grandfather’s death in 1995.
My grandfather was happy to remain in Greece, but my grandmother insisted on joining some of her cousins who had fled Greece before the war, and who had resettled in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. My grandparents came over to the United States in 1952 on the USS Independence, and they soon bought and renovated a bodega called Bay Food Market on Sheepshead Bay Road. There they sold Greek and Italian specialty items alongside other staples. They worked there every single day until their retirement, taking a vacation to Florida only once. My aunt, Juliette, and my father, Albert, also worked in the store.
My grandparents were both multilingual – my grandmother alone spoke Italian, French, Greek, Spanish and English, while my grandfather spoke those languages and others – and they confused the diverse neighborhood patrons by speaking to them all in their own languages. My grandmother was known in the neighborhood for her deli sandwiches, and her warm demeanor. She was amazingly intuitive about people. This contributed to her diplomatic prowess, which she exercised daily in dealing with the regulars, the crooked cops, the mafia, and the petty thieves that visited the store.
My grandparents dealt their whole lives with the emotional and psychological fallout from the war. Though my grandmother struggled with mental illness, she never succumbed to hopelessness. She was a talented gardener (even creating a flourishing kitchen garden in the nutrient deficient soil in our South Florida backyard), and an incredible cook (her specialty was her feta and spinach bourekas).
In her later years, she was always surrounded by family, and was attentively cared for at home by my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. She will be greatly missed.
All photos courtesy of the Angel family.