lunes, 1 de mayo de 2017

Holocaust survivor’s daughter recounts long-lost letters at Stoughton ceremony

Throughout her lifetime, Gila Kriegel had looked upon a short letter – really a postcard – that her father had written as his lone written words during those horrendous years of the Holocaust. Yechiel Wiener wrote the few sentences to his brother in then-Palestine after he was liberated from Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, which he survived after enduring a death march from a satellite labor camp of the Flossenberg concentration camp in Germany in the closing phase of World War II.
The 180-word letter, dated July 11, 1945, spoke of his desire to reunite with his brother, but also his conclusion not to go back to his native Poland because no one would be left for him. It also talks of his hope for building a new life, and desire to go on.
A few sentiments, but that was all from the dizzying period immediately after the war.
Or so Kriegel thought.
A few short years ago, his cousins suddenly discovered a trove of letters from Kriegel’s father, written again to his brother. She and some volunteers have gone about translating the letters from poetic Biblical Hebrew into English. And the sentiments he expressed as a recent Holocaust survivor have been illuminating.
“One of the things that our translating group has found to be quite striking in these letters is the combination of sadness and hope, of a loss of faith and yet a faith in the future,” said Kriegel of Sharon, the featured speaker at the regional Yom HaShoah V’HaG’vurah (The Day of Remembering the Holocaust and the Bravery) ceremonies, held this year at Ahavath Torah, Stoughton April 23. “We have found ourselves amazed by my father’s incredible resilience in spite of and perhaps because of what he had endured.”
Both her late father and her mother, Sarah Wiener, survived the Holocaust. Her mother’s family survived because a family of Righteous Gentiles hid them in an underground bunker for 2 ½ years. Her mother still shares her own story and spoke to a day school in New Jersey earlier this week.
Her father was in the middle of his medical studies at the Jagellonian University when the war changed his life.
As an example, Kriegel read one of the more recently discovered letters dated Purim 1946 from her father, who survived several labor and concentration camps. He related how the holiday helped him survive the Shoah:
“That ancient story that is not forgotten and that encouraged me. It didn’t fail to encourage me even in those moments when the sharp sword was on my neck and the sharp hatchet blade was over my head. My cheek was being slapped and my body was being cut. (and this is not something I would recommend ) but I just remembered the fate of Haman and how his end was to fall. And those things happened. ”
He later writes of the happy memories of growing up, and then the change as the Nazis took over. He recalls of an uncle sentenced to death for baking Matzahs. And he talks about his own aspirations and inner conflicts:
“And I, what will be my end? Have I eliminated my path? Why have I started now to study? Is it possible that I made a mistake? No and No. I will always find the correct path. In spite of the religious education that I got, to my sorrow my faith in the survival of the soul is gone. (I am so completely lacking in that faith). My parents are no longer living. But they are living within us. Like then as now, I hear their voices. And they are for me guides in the solitary, destitute path that I have set out.”
Wiener, perhaps guided by his parents like he wrote, did continue on the path on which he originally intended and became a physician – as did his daughter years later.
“I believe there is much we can all learn from those who were able to pick themselves up after their lives were shattered and build a new life in a new country,” Kriegel said. “Of course there were those who were not able to do this but so many did. Both of my parents and so many of the survivors that I have met are incredible role models of grit and resilience to their families, friends and communities.”
The theme for the ceremony this year’s Yom HaShoah v’HaG’vurah program, which filled the synagogue with more than 400 people, was Righteous Gentiles. Seven students read about the courage and sacrifice of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Prayers, songs and inspirational readings were performed by several rabbis and cantors, candles were lit by anyone who wanted to remember those lost, and the Temple Israel of Sharon-based singing group Shir Rhythm sang.
The observance was sponsored by Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton; Temple Beth Abraham and Temple Beth David of the South Shore of Canton; Temple Chayai Shalom of Easton; Temple Ahavath Torah of Stoughton; and Adath Sharon Sisterhood, Temple Israel and Temple Sinai of Sharon.
Yom HaShoah is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period.
Learn more about Nazism and Holocaust by reading: 

"The Nazis and Evil: the Annihilation of the Human Being" 

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lunes, 6 de marzo de 2017

90-year-old Holocaust survivor leads double life in Israel and Germany

Photograph of Karla Frenkel Raveh
taken in Lemgo, Germany shortly
after her liberation c. 1945 (Courtesy)

For the past 30 summers, Kiryat Tivon homemaker Karla Raveh has returned to her hometown of Lemgo, where she is an unlikely celebrity.

Karla Raveh is an 89-year-old 
Holocaust survivor leading a double life.

Much of each year, Raveh, who turns 90 this May, is an unassuming homemaker doting on her five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren in Kiryat Tivon, near Haifa in northern Israel. However, in the summers she relocates to Lemgo, Germany, where she is practically a celebrity, unable to go anywhere without being stopped by people on the street.

In Lemgo, Raveh’s birthplace, there is a school named for her. She lives in an apartment above a museum dedicated to her family’s history in her childhood home, a stately house in the center of town. Her schedule is full of speaking engagements and meetings with dignitaries and old and new acquaintances.
Yet, almost no one in Israel knows anything about this. Raveh has told few of her friends and neighbors about her life the last 30 summers in Lemgo, because she thinks they — especially other Holocaust survivors — wouldn’t understand.
Lilach Naishtat Bornstein (Hebrew), a post-doctoral fellow at the MOFET Institute who teaches at the Kibbutzim College of Education, heard about Raveh’s double life and wanted to understand. With Raveh’s permission, she followed her to Lemgo and made a 2012 short film about her together with filmmaker Hans-Peter Lübke, an Israeli-German production titled, “Between Home and Homeland.”
Intrigued by what is permitted — and not — in Israeli society when it comes to bearing witness to the Holocaust, Bornstein also mined Raveh’s story as research for her book, “Their Jew: Right and Wrong in Holocaust Testimonies,” published in 2016 by the Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education and the MOFET Institute.
“There is a trend of survivors going back to their hometowns to give testimony, but Karla’s case is unique,” Bornstein said.
“A tremendous, phenomenal educational project has grown around her testimony. Dozens, if not hundreds, of cultural products have been produced based on her and her testimony in what seems like a strange German obsession,” she said.
Bornstein, 51, was particularly interested in trying to learn why Raveh’s testimony has been received with such interest in Germany, but not in Israel, including among her own family members.
“German Jews long for and adore their German culture, and Karla gave herself permission to compensate herself for her lost German youth. It’s been somewhat uncomfortable for her children to rediscover her intimacy with Germany, which they had associated only with Nazis,” Bornstein said.

A life-changing letter

Karla Frenkel Raveh at age 7 in 1934 (Courtesy)
Karla Frenkel Raveh at age 7 in 1934 (Courtesy)

For much of her life, Lemgo, a small university city an hour and a half’s drive southwest of Hanover, was no more than a memory for Raveh. It was the place where she was born and raised, and from where she and her family were deported by the Nazis to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in July 1942.
Only Raveh and one of her grandmothers survived the Holocaust. After the war, when she was 18, Raveh returned briefly to Lemgo to recuperate from illness and reclaim family property. After that, she left her birthplace — first for Switzerland, and later for Israel — with no intention of ever returning.
Lemgo would have remained locked away in Raveh’s past had it not been for a letter she received in the mid-1980s from a teacher there named Hanne Pohlmann asking her, as the only Jewish survivor from Lemgo, to share her Holocaust testimony with the city’s inhabitants — especially the children. Raveh reluctantly agreed, divulging details unknown even to her own two sons, Michael and Danny. Raveh’s husband Shmuel became the driving force behind the project, encouraging Raveh to write her family’s entire story in German, and serving as her typist.
Raveh submitted her testimony to Pohlmann, who arranged for it to be published as a book, whose first printing sold out quickly. Raveh was invited to Lemgo in the summer of 1986 for a book launch, which in turn launched her unexpectedly back into the life of Lemgo after 40 years. That initial trip turned into months-long annual visits and a true homecoming.
“I am at home here in Israel, and I am also at home there in Lemgo. It’s a hard thing to explain,” Raveh told The Times of Israel during an interview over lunch in her Kiryat Tivon kitchen.
Before her deportation, Raveh and her siblings were the only young Jews in Lemgo. Today she is the only Jew there at all. Warmly and genuinely welcomed back by the city’s residents, Raveh has become “their Jew,” an identity she ambivalently embraces.

From happiness to hell

Herta Rosenberg Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Herta Rosenberg Frenkel,
who was killed at
Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Raveh was born Karla Frenkel in Lemgo on May 15, 1927 to Herta (née Rosenberg) and Walter Frenkel. She had an older sister, Helga, and two younger brothers, Ludwig and Uriel. Walter was a businessman, and the family lived in the inherited family home, which had been purchased and renovated by Walter’s entrepreneurial widowed grandmother in the late 19th century. Both the Frenkels and the Rosenbergs, who were from the Hamburg area, had been living in Germany for generations.
“I remember that my grandfather was a real yekke,” Raveh said, using the term for a Jew of German-speaking origin connoting an affinity for detail and punctuality.
When Karla and her siblings were growing up, Lemgo had a population of 13,500, of which only 60 were Jews. The Frenkels were the only young Jewish family in town, and Karla and her brothers and sister were well integrated socially among the other children. The older members of the family were similarly well accepted and civically involved, with Walter Frenkel and his father (who died when Karla was seven) serving as volunteer fire fighters, among other positions.
The family’s situation changed under Nazi rule, with the children no longer allowed to continue in their German school in 1938. Raveh and her sister boarded with a Jewish family in nearby Detmold, where there was a regional Jewish school, but that lasted only until 1941.
Helene and Theodor Rosenberg. Helene survived Theresienstadt and died two years after WWII in Switzerland. Theodor was killed near Hamburg, Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938. (Courtesy)
Helene and Theodor Rosenberg. Helene survived Theresienstadt and died two years after WWII in Switzerland. Theodor was killed near Hamburg, Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938. (Courtesy)
Raveh’s maternal grandmother, Helene Rosenberg, came to live with the Frenkels in Lemgo after her husband Theodor was killed by Nazis near Hamburg on Kristallnacht in November 1938.
Walter Frenkel’s brother, three sisters and their families were deported from Lemgo to the Warsaw Ghetto, where they died of hunger.
On July 28, 1942, Raveh and her family — her parents, siblings, and two grandmothers — were deported to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.
Helga Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Helga Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
“When we arrived in the camp, we had to walk from the train platform and they put the older people like my grandmother, my father’s mother, Laura Frenkel, on a cart with bags that the strong young men pulled. I remember going over to my grandmother and trying to help her, and she said, ‘The God of old no longer lives.’ She held on for another couple of months and then died,” Raveh said.
The family was imprisoned at Theresienstadt for two and a half years. Raveh and her sister Helga, both teenagers, did hard labor in the fields and lived in youth houses supervised by counselors from Czech Zionist organizations.
“That’s when I caught the Zionism and aliya bug. I told my parents I wanted to go to Palestine, and I remember they didn’t take me very seriously,” Raveh said.
Raveh’s family was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau ahead of her, so she tried very hard to be put on a transport to be reunited with them.
“I volunteered to be on a transport to Auschwitz. I honestly had no idea where I was going to. I went to personally speak to [Rabbi] Leo Baeck, who was the head of the Judenrat to ask him to help get me on the transport list,” Raveh said.
Walter Michael Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Walter Michael Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Raveh ended up in the last car on the last transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz in October 1944. Unprepared for the journey, she did not have any water, so when a young man next to her fell asleep, she stole his flask. It was filled with booze — but she drank it anyway.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the only thing that saved Raveh from being sent straight to the gas chamber was her natural chutzpah and likely intoxication. Rather than joining the main crowd of women, she wandered off down the platform to take in her surroundings. When a guard asked her where she thought she was going she gave an incoherent answer, and he shoved her into a smaller group to the side that ended up being sent to labor duty.
“I was in total shock when I got there. I didn’t know what had fallen on my head. I learned that my entire family had gone to the gas before I got there. My good friend told me that Mengele saw that my sister Helga had an abscess on her hip during a selection and sent her to the gas. She got the abscess from unsterile needles from medicine for typhoid in Theresienstadt. My father traded bread for the medicine and she got better, but she still had the abscess,” Raveh said.
Ludwig Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Ludwig Frenkel, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 (Courtesy)
Raveh remembered standing naked on her first night in Auschwitz and asking the Jewish women in charge what the factories were for, and the women just laughed.
“I didn’t care if I was sent to the gas. I had come to hell and I was only hanging on to life by my fingernails,” she said.
Later, on a transport from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, a woman sitting next to Raveh committed suicide by slitting her wrists. Drenched in the woman’s blood, Raveh dragged the corpse to the conductor’s booth at the end of the cattle car.
“When the door to the booth opened and the air whooshed out, it was like drinking in a cup of water. I will never forget that,” Raveh said.
Raveh was moved from Bergen-Belsen to a munitions factory at Salzwedel, Germany. She was liberated from there by Allied forces on April 14, 1945. She was one month shy of her 18th birthday.

Return to Lemgo

Shmuel (Rubin) Raveh, photographed after liberation from Nazi concentration camps c. 1946 (Courtesy)
Shmuel (Rubin) Raveh, photographed after liberation from Nazi concentration camps c. 1946 (Courtesy)

Determined to reclaim her family’s property, Raveh returned to Lemgo, where she was hospitalized due to tuberculosis. There, she met her future husband, Polish survivor Shmuel Rubin (who later Hebraicized his name to Raveh).
Rubin had survived Mittelbau-Dora, a subcamp of Buchenwald where slave labor fabricated V-2 missiles and other experimental weapons in extremely dangerous underground conditions. He was shot while trying to escape a death march from the camp, and collapsed in the forest, where he was found by an African-American US soldier. Rubin was taken to the hospital in Lemgo, but refused to trust his rescuer until another American soldier spoke to him in Yiddish.
Raveh’s maternal grandmother, Helene Rosenberg, survived the war thanks to a special agreement by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, Security Police Chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and other SS leaders to release 1,200 Theresienstadt prisoners in exchange for five million Swiss francs put up by Jewish organizations in an escrowed account in Switzerland. Rosenberg located Raveh through the Red Cross, and brought her to Switzerland, where she convalesced until she joined Rubin in Israel in late 1949. (Rubin died of cancer in December 1986, and did not live to see his wife’s return to Lemgo.)
“My grandmother refused to believe me when I told her what had happened to the rest of the family,” Raveh said.

An ambivalent relationship

Students and faculty at Karla Raveh Gesamtschule in Lemgo, Germany celebrate the 20th anniversary of the school's naming in 2016 (Courtesy)
Students and faculty at Karla Raveh Gesamtschule in Lemgo, Germany celebrate the 20th anniversary of the school’s naming in 2016 (Courtesy)

Raveh admitted to having a love-hate relationship with Lemgo.
Raveh said she refuses to give her testimony to groups of older adults because she can’t stop thinking that some of them may have been complicit with the Nazis, or even been Nazis themselves. Instead, she focuses her energy on educating the younger generations.
“The young Germans do take responsibility and are ashamed. The older generation doesn’t take responsibility and I won’t speak to them,” she said.
In contradiction, she mentioned how thrilled she is when old school friends and acquaintances recognize her and invite her for coffee to catch up.
“What can I say? To my regret, I still love my hometown. Not Germany, but my hometown,” she said.
Bornstein observed that despite how at home Raveh feels in Lemgo, she limits herself in terms of how she speaks with Germans. Bornstein believed this stemmed from the fact that Lemgo had adopted Raveh as “their Jew,” but not “their Israeli.”
“The only taboo in her conversation with Germans is talking about her being an Israeli. They want to keep her as a Jewish victim. They want to see her as a German Jew, and not as an Israeli,” Bornstein said.
Raveh intends to return to Lemgo this May for the 90th birthday party the city has planned for her, but she is quite certain it will be her last trip there. The journey has become too hard.
She continued to make the trip in her advanced years out of love for and duty to her murdered family. Entering through the same front door at Frenkel Haus she did every day as a child was emotionally difficult. But she felt she had to keep doing it.
“I’ve been showing ‘The God of old’ that my grandmother said was dead that I’m still here,” she said.
Learn more about Nazism and Holocaust by reading: 

"The Nazis and Evil: the Annihilation of the Human Being" 

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sábado, 4 de marzo de 2017

Dr. Robert Berger, A Surgeon Who Disproved Nazi Reports

“Well, I’m thinking about his hands,” remembered Dr. Pat Berger. “I mean, he was a surgeon and so his hands were very important. But, he had very small hands, and I always thought of them as being kind of pudgy hands — and I liked to hold his hand. “
Dr. Robert Berger was a cardiothoracic surgeon whose wife held his life-saving hand. He was a scientist who debunked the medical results of Nazi experiments. He was an early researcher into an aortic valve replacement that avoided the hazards of open-chest procedures. He was every incarnation of a physician.
“I think it was his destiny,” Pat said. “Absolutely. I think he wanted to save lives that he hadn’t been able to save before. That’s one way of putting it. He did work a little in the resistance [during WWII], and he saw horrible things, horrible things. So, I think having a field where he could be on the edge of life and death, that was just up his alley.”
Dr. Berger never discussed his early life as a Hungarian Jew in World War II. But it snuck past his vigilance into his dreams.
“The Nazis would come in and disrupt everything he was doing," Pat said. "Even years after he wasn’t doing heart surgery, he’d ‘do’ heart surgery at night. But sometimes the Nazis would come in and mess it up. It was upsetting to him to have these terrible dreams. He learned fairly early that if he would get up and out of bed and start doing things that he’d feel better, that he’d get back into the real world.”
Watching the news one night, he heard some ethicists debating the morality of using Nazi experiments on hypothermia to save present-day lives.
“And Bob said to himself, 'What kind of data could they have gotten in the 1940s on the equipment that they had in those days that could be really beneficial today?'" Pat remembered.
He hunted the reports down through the archives of the Nuremberg Trials and through law school libraries. Dr. Berger scrutinized them with a scientific eye and then published his conclusions. They were not only unethical — they were absolutely inaccurate. Disproving them so definitively might have been one way he wrestled with his own dreams.
Dr. Berger married late. He loved his daughters, and loved his wide circle of friends (each of whom thought they were his closest). But the man who, at 17, had fled a German displaced persons camp in one country for life in another, never wanted to leave home. The family was in Bermuda once when a plane flew overhead.
“He looked up,” Pat said, laughing, “and said ‘Oh, I wish I was on that plane going home.' And I thought, 'Oh my god, here we are in the beautiful water, sailing, and he wants to go home and do his surgery!' "
For Dr. Berger, the mantra was patient care — always. When surgical patients died, he suffered for it. But he practiced less invasive forms of care, too.
“Especially in his later years, when he wasn’t doing surgery anymore," Pat explained, "he had a list of people that were sick — not a real list, but a list in his head — and he would call people regularly, every day sometimes, depending on the situation. ‘So how you doing? How’s your son doing? Is he still in the hospital?’ You know, that was his regular routine."
Restoring lives was in his very small, great hands; looking after them was in his very large, great heart.
Learn more about Nazism and Holocaust by reading: 

"The Nazis and Evil: the Annihilation of the Human Being" 

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jueves, 23 de febrero de 2017

Holocaust survivor: 'I lost my will to live'

Fanny Starr lay in a field in Auschwitz more than 70 years ago, looking at the night sky and asking God how it was she ended up there.

White flakes fluttered through the darkened sky. It was not snow, but the ashes of bodies burned in ovens.
Her mother, two of her siblings and her extended family members were gassed and burned when they arrived at Auschwitz, Poland, and her father later starved himself in Dachau, she says. Her pain has not receded in the intervening decades.
"The pain will never go away," said Starr, who is 95 and lives in Denver. "It's hard. Never can you forget."
Starr shared her story February, 21 at Colorado State University. The university's Students for Holocaust Awareness organized for her to speak during the 20th Annual Holocaust Awareness Week, and the event was co-sponsored by the Associated Students of Colorado State University, Hillel, Chabad Jewish Student Organization, and the Jewish fraternity and sorority, AEPi and Sigma AEPi.
Starr was born and raised in Lodz, Poland, as one of five children. Her father ran a successful tannery, but the family was forced into the city's ghetto in 1939 when she was a teenager. The Lodz ghetto became one of the largest in German-occupied Europe.
Nazis came to their home, forced them out, and put bullets in their St. Bernard's head and through their aquarium.
During her time in the ghetto, Starr was forced to carefully cut apart clothes and retrieve gold, diamonds and other valuables that had been sewn in them. She tied the cloth pieces in bundles and sorted each retrieved item into barrels that would later be taken away. She did not know until she arrived at Auschwitz that the clothes she had been cutting apart belonged to murdered Jews.
When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Starr and her extended family members were forced into a train car. By her estimate, more than 60 of them crowded into one car.
They arrived at Auschwitz, where they were shaved and undressed. Starr and her younger sister, Rena Alter, survived. So did a cousin and an uncle. She wouldn't find out until 1964 that one of her brothers also survived. The rest of her family members died — they were among 6 million Jews and more than 11 million total people who died during the Holocaust.
Starr and Alter were dressed in gray-striped outfits at Auschwitz, but they weren't tattooed because there were too many people coming through the camp at the time. It was then that Starr said that she gave up.
"I didn't want to live," she said. "I lost my will to live."
The camp was crawling with lice, she said, and many of the people on the bunk beds around her were dead. She pauses and cries when sharing these details, and folds and re-folds a tissue she holds in her hands.
She credits her sister with keeping her alive. Alter grabbed Starr by her striped dress, stood her up and smacked her in the face.
"You have to put yourself together," Starr recalls her sister saying. "We have to go forward."
The pair filtered through other camps across Europe, including Ravensbruck, Mauthausen-Gusen and Bergen-Belsen.
In Mauthausen-Gusen, Starr helped build V-2 missiles for the Germans. A man taught her how to do the job and hid half an apple to give to her, an act she said proved he had a good heart.
She was liberated on April 15, 1945, in Bergen-Belsen, but she remained there because it served as a camp for displaced people and because they could not leave without a sponsor. She met her husband, Zesa Starr, there, and they were married at Bergen-Belsen. Their first child was born at the former camp.
Their second was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and their third in Denver. Helen Starr, their youngest, traveled to Fort Collins for her mother's speech Wednesday. She's also helped her mother to tell her story across the country, a story she said has incredible significance today.
Helen also noted that Fanny Starr is one of a small number of survivors alive and willing to talk about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
"There is only a handful of survivors that will speak," she said. "You could sit down in a room with all of her friends, who are all survivors, they will not talk about anything. It is very painful. They're humiliated and ashamed that they couldn't stand up and fight."

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lunes, 13 de febrero de 2017

Austin veteran from World War II remains a witness to Nazi atrocities

Herbert Stern, now 97 and living in Austin, is one of the “Texas liberators” whose stories of finding Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II will be featured in an upcoming book. Photo by Cat Cardenas.

The silence was almost as overpowering as the stench of death.
It was April 12, 1945, and soldiers with the 9th Infantry Division had happened upon the Nordhausen slave labor camp, hidden in the Harz Mountains of Germany.
Prisoners at the camp had been worked to exhaustion and rarely saw daylight as they were chained to workbenches in the mountain’s tunnels. Those who were no longer fit to assemble V-2 rockets were sent to the crematoria or to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camp’s methodical torture of its prisoners yielded one of the highest mortality rates in the concentration camp system.
Then 25 years old, Sgt. Herbert Stern took pictures of trenches stacked high with human remains and saw ovens with bones scattered along the grates. In the tangle of bodies were a few survivors clinging to life.
“You couldn’t tell life from death,” recalled Stern, now 97 and living in Austin. “The few that were able to raise their heads were taken up by medical officers and treated. It was an experience that none of us could ever forget.”
Those images documented the camp that nearby villagers claimed to know nothing about, seen through the eyes of a man who narrowly avoided being sent to such a camp himself.
Stern’s recollections are among the stories being gathered by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, a state agency that plans to release a book featuring the testimony of more than 300 “Texas liberators” — soldiers who saw the horrors of the Nazi camps as World War II drew to a close in Europe.
Former commission chairman Peter Berkowitz, who oversaw the Texas liberators project from its inception, said documenting their liberators’ testimonies has become increasingly important as the number of World War II veterans dwindles. According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 4 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in the war were still alive in 2016.
“We’re trying to educate our citizens here in Texas to understand the consequences of genocide and honor those heroes who were part of the liberation period,” Berkowitz said. “The stories (liberators) have to tell relate not only the horrors they saw, but an understanding that humanity has a responsibility to help those that cannot protect themselves.”
Refugee to soldier
Born Ulrich Stern in 1919 to a Jewish family in Berlin, Stern experienced first-hand the effects of the Nazis’ rise to power. As sentiments toward Jews worsened, Stern remembers the Star of David sewn onto his clothes, then suddenly being unable to attend school. Sometimes a knock in the middle of the night would precede a friend or family member being taken away.
“(Jews) were singled out and we were very much aware of it,” Stern said. “You could spend hours talking about how many restrictions there were. It was like a noose that was gradually being put around us.”
His father began making arrangements for Stern and his sister to flee to America and England, respectively, but was arrested by the Gestapo in 1934. During his father’s incarceration, Stern stayed with family friends who helped him arrange his paperwork to come to America. It took him two and a half years to get a visa.
Stern left for New York on the MS St. Louis in 1936, just two days after his father had been released from prison. When Stern arrived in the U.S., he met the distant cousins who took him to live in Cincinnati. None of the family members spoke any German, so he constantly carried an English-German dictionary. He changed his first name to Herbert, after his father, to mask his heritage.
After attending college at the University of Cincinnati, Stern was drafted in 1941 and became a U.S. citizen a short time later.
Stern went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina as part of the 9th Infantry Division, which would go on to North Africa, Sicily, and England, where he was briefly reunited with his father after seven years. After managing to get his children out of Germany, Herbert Sr. had used his connections with Lloyd’s insurance market to flee to its headquarters in London.
The value of proof
Eventually, Stern’s division made its way to France, taking part in the Normandy Invasion on Utah Beach, which later earned Stern the French Legion of Honour medal. As a German-speaker, Stern interrogated people from the camp, probing for information on the outfits they were with, what areas they had come from or where other troops were concentrated.
The war was nearing its end as the liberation of concentration camps began. While Stern says many divisions became aware of concentration camps through clandestine radio broadcasts, Stern heard in letters in the early 1940s from his father that several cousins and his grandmother had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, never to be heard from again. He later learned that the husband and wife who cared for him before he came to America had also died in the war, though their son, who was five years younger than Stern, survived his time in the concentration camps.
As he spoke to the townspeople near the Nordhausen slave labor camp, Stern became increasingly angered by their claims that they knew nothing about the camp.
In the years following the war, Stern realized how incredibly important it was that he and other soldiers documented the conditions within the camp.
“I heard people from all over the world saying, ‘this never happened at all,’” Stern said. “It was important to have proof of people like myself who were actually there and who were lucky enough to have cameras because what happened was horrible, simply horrible. I often think, ‘It could’ve been me.’”
Finding the liberators
Following the war, Stern was reunited with his sister, Barbara Quinn, in 1946. They hadn’t seen each other since 1934, and in that time, Quinn had married a soldier from Austin. Stern saw his sister off on a train leaving New York, not knowing that a few years later, he would be living in Texas, too.
He returned to Cincinnati to work for a scrap metal brokerage company, then transferred to the company’s Houston offices where he worked until 1982. He then worked in the oil and gas pipeline business until his retirement in 2007. Two years ago, Stern and his wife, Cathy, decided to move to Austin to be closer to their daughter.
The couple celebrated their 70th anniversary last December, surrounded by their three children, Nancy, Peter and Charles, and extended family.
In 2011, the liberation of concentration camps and POW camps during World War II was added to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). That prompted the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, created two years earlier to educate students and the general public on the Holocaust and other genocides, to seek out the veterans who liberated the Nazi camps.
With the help of Baylor University and the University of Texas’ VOCES Oral History Project, the commission identified 307 Texas liberators. Their stories will be in the book, coming out later this year, as well as an app that will allow people across the state to participate in the search for liberator testimonies.
“It’s a perspective people don’t always hear about,” said program specialist Cheyanne Perkins. “They’re people who bore witness to what happened, standing up and saying, ‘We saw it.’ 


Learn more about Nazism and Holocaust by reading "The Nazis and Evil." Published in 6 languages.

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