One of Dr. Stephen Felton’s earliest childhood memories is of standing on the deck of a ship in New York Harbor, gazing at the lighting of the Statue of Liberty and watching the twinkling lights on Earth.
It was cold and snow was on the way, but Felton, who was 5 in 1947, was transfixed by what he saw. He didn’t know it at the time, but the twinkling lights were car headlights on the Belt Parkway that connects Brooklyn and Queens to New York.
Felton, his mother and stepfather were preparing to land in the United States and start afresh, after six years of avoiding Nazi soldiers and the near certainty of hard labor or death in Nazi concentration camps. .
They were Holocaust survivors.
“(Arriving in the United States) meant joy and freedom,” said Felton, who retired from the Princeton Eye Group on Sept. 1 after a 40-year career. He is the founder of the Ophthalmology Group, which has offices in Princeton, Somerset and Monroe Township.
“America is everything I thought it would be. It was amazing. It really is a beautiful thing,” Felton said of the United States, which also allowed him to flourish and grow. go to medical school to become an ophthalmologist.
Felton’s story begins in the Warsaw Ghetto, Poland, where he was born in 1942. His mother’s father and siblings had been killed by the Nazis and she was distraught, he said. He was advised to have “a baby” to have a reason to live, he said.
Felton was that baby. He lived with his parents and half-brother in the Warsaw ghetto, where the Jews were separated from the rest of society by the Nazis. Spurred on by deteriorating conditions, his father arranged for Felton and his mother to be smuggled out of the ghetto.
But Felton’s father and half-brother could not escape. They were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Felton and his mother hid, moving from place to place. Her mother had several encounters with the Nazis, who suspected – but could not prove – that she was Jewish. She dyed her hair and turned into a Polish Catholic woman, with false identity papers.
Towards the end of the war, Felton and his mother were protected by the Matacz family. His mother had a close friend in elementary school, whose brother was a Polish policeman. She remembered her friend telling her to find him if she ever needed help.
Felton’s mother found Stefan Matacz, the Polish policeman. Members of the extended Matacz family – the policeman’s brothers, their mother and their aunt – took them in and helped them move from place to place to avoid the Nazis, risking their lives.
“(Stefan Matacz) and his family protected us. We went from one Matacz family to another Matacz family. People were suspicious if you stayed too long, so we had to move,” Felton said.
Felton and his mother spent the last years of the war living with Stefan Matacz’s wife and children in a small village, posing as family members. Stefan Matacz had moved his family from their home in Lublin to a small nearby village for their safety.
For their efforts, the Matacz family was honored by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel. They were included in the list of “Righteous Among the Nations,” which is an honor given by Yad Vashem to Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
After World War II ended, her mother married another Holocaust survivor, Felton said. They moved to Paris and eventually emigrated to the United States, he said. Her biological father’s uncle had moved to the United States in the 1920s and agreed to sponsor the family.
Felton said he, his mother and stepfather settled in Brooklyn, NY. He received a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a doctorate. in Chemistry from Rutgers University. He worked for his uncle, who was his role model, at the Felton Chemical Co.
While working for his uncle, Felton said, he was unhappy and wanted to do more.
“I was bored. I felt like I wasn’t really helping humanity. I really wanted to be a doctor,” he said.
So, despite his mother’s reluctance, he applied to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and was accepted into medical school.
After completing medical school, Felton decided to major in ophthalmology, which is the study of the eye and its diseases. He was trained at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, established nearly 200 years ago in 1832.
The specialty appealed to him because it offers a good combination of internal medicine and surgery, he said.
“It’s a wonderful specialty with mostly happy patients. Restoring vision through cataract surgery and LASIK has been very satisfying for me and my patients,” Felton said.
When he was ready to start practicing medicine after completing his training, Felton considered joining an existing medical practice. He said he realized his training at Wills Eye Hospital was “exceptional” and decided to start his own practice.
Felton said he met doctors at Princeton Hospital and arranged to sublet a room in a doctor’s office where he could start his own practice. For the first week or two of his practice, all of his patients were his friends, he said. Soon the practice began to grow.
“After two years on my own, I realized that having a partner to share my responsibilities and meet the needs of the community was the way to go,” he said.
Felton, who taught resident physicians at Wills Eye Hospital, contacted one such resident – Dr. Michael Wong – and invited him to join the practice after completing his training. The two doctors joined forces and began to develop the Princeton Eye Group.
The Princeton Eye Group has grown to include 10 ophthalmologists – many of whom trained at Wills Eye Hospital – and four optometrists who have earned doctorates in optometry. They can provide many of the services offered by ophthalmologists, with the exception of surgery.
The Princeton Eye Group offers five outpatient surgical centers for specialist eye care, as well as the three offices in Princeton, Somerset and Monroe Township.
“I think it’s way beyond what I expected when I started my practice. I look back and think, ‘Did I really do that?’ “, Felton said.
The few months leading up to his retirement were difficult, he said. Patients came to the office to say goodbye. Many times there were kisses and hugs because “these are people I have cared for for 40 years. We talked about their lives and you get to know the people well.
Now that he’s retired, Felton said he’ll be spending more time with his children and grandchildren. He said he and his wife enjoy traveling, playing bridge and golfing. There will be more time to engage in these activities, he said.
Felton said he would also like to spend more time researching his family’s history and continuing his mother’s legacy by documenting their mutual Holocaust history. His mother, Eva Feldsztein, had written a memoir of her experiences during the Holocaust.