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.’ 


Source: http://www.mystatesman.com/news/national/austin-veteran-from-world-war-remains-witness-nazi-atrocities/mYssNw4Egb5GVroY1TeU0J/

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

5.00 out 5 Stars
Get it on:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Kobo
Scribd
Apple