Three days after his seventh birthday, Manny Stern, and the last remnants of Antwerp’s Jewish community, caught the last train out of Belgium. It was May 1940 and German troops were encroaching on the Low Countries and northern France. During the Holocaust, between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis systematically murdered over 6 million people as their forces conquered Europe, Russia, and parts of North Africa.
Mr. Stern met his wife, Ritta, at a square dance at City College in Manhattan, she was 18 and he was 21. They’ve been married for 58 years.
However, it wasn’t until four or five years ago that Mr. and Mrs. Stern, grandparents of Eva Stern-Rodriguez ’13, decided to start telling their stories of survival during the Holocaust. On April 16 the Sterns visited Assistant Head of School and history and global studies teacher Glenn Swanson’s Hitler and Nazi Germany class to tell these stories.
Below are the stories retold by Mr. and Mrs. Stern, on April 16, 2013, with occasional editing for readability.
Until a number of years ago I never talked about my experiences, I wasn’t particularly interested, I didn’t attend conferences and conventions and meetings, I didn’t get newsletters, I didn’t care about it.
About five years ago, we had a guest speaker at our synagogue and he was the former Israeli Ambassador to Belgium. He started his talk by saying, ‘My story begins on May 12, 1940 in Antwerp, Belgium when my family and I took the last train out of Belgium that was allowed to leave.’ Then he went on to tell a story that left me very disturbed because it was a parallel story to that of my family. At the end of his talk he asked for questions and I said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, I was on that train.’
He jumped off the stage and came running up to me, he hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘In the 30 years I’ve been travelling all over the world as an emissary of the state of Israel you’re the second person I’ve ever found who was on that train.’ We sat down and exchanged backgrounds, they were amazingly similar.
The train ride. It was a train filled with the last of the Jewish community that was leaving Belgium with the advancing German troops. I should point out that the two days before that, Antwerp, which is where I was born, was being bombed on a daily basis. The train moved very slowly. I have no clue how long it took to get to our destination, it could have taken a week, it could have taken a month, all I remember is that the train would stop every couple of hours because the German planes were strafing the train. Everybody would run out of the train and get under the carriage to avoid being hit by machine gun bullets. Some people didn’t make it on that ride.
We ended up in the south of France, we went from train to bus to truck which took us to a very small village called Bousquet-d’Orb. [Mr. Stern and his family were now living in Vichy-occupied France, the area of the country where the Germans allowed the French government to relocate after the northern half of the country had been conquered by the Axis forces.]
After two years the Germans started making demands that the Vichy gather Jews and ship them up to Germany. The French set up various camps, transition camps, and one of them was in the village of Agde. Notices went up around the village saying that all the men should take a train to Agde where they would do very important work for the government. These were supposedly work camps, in fact they were transition camps, people would stay there for a while then were shipped up to Germany.
[Mr. Stern’s father was bound for the camp at Agde, but,] On the train he was very suspicious and jumped off, he never got to that camp. Of the people who were on that train very few ever came back…All I know is that some period later he ended up back in that little village.”
In the meantime the women and the children were also brought to this camp. My mother, my younger brother, and myself were all taken to Agde. The French were not particularly vicious there, everybody was rather friendly, but every once in a while a load of people were put on a truck. When it came turn for my mother to get on the truck my uncle, her elder brother, said, ‘No, you can’t take her, this woman is pregnant.’ The French had sensitivity to pregnant women and they took my uncle instead. He never came back.
The children were usually put on separate trucks, again to be shipped to Germany. My brother and I were put on a truck and were ready to leave when a woman came and picked a bunch of us off the truck. She kept us until nightfall then we crawled under the barbed wire and out of the camp. Again, I don’t know the details, but [found] myself again in Bousquet-d’Orb with my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, we were all together.
Life went on fairly normally for another while, but my parents became very worried that Vichy was becoming increasingly aggressive towards Jews. They made arrangements to send my sister and me away to farms in the south of France.
[Manny and his sister were sent to separate farms 10 miles apart. It was a totally,] inaccessible part of the country, barely any roads, never saw a vehicle, for two and half years I never saw another child. I was nine and a half years old and my job was taking out the goats and the sheep in the morning. I would go off into the fields and sit and read a book and that was my day. The woman of the house would bring me breakfast and lunch and I spent two and a half years, roughly, doing that.
It was the first time in several years that I felt safe, on that farm. At one point an aunt of mine, who had made most of these arrangements, came to me and said, ‘Your parents are planning to go over to Switzerland, would you like to join them?’ I must have been 10, it was the end of 1943, and I refused to go.
One of the things you realize as you go through this kind of life is that there are so many decision points in a road where you make a decision without really knowing which fork of the road to take. One road leads you to safety, the other to your death.
[After Mr. Stern’s parents crossed over into Switzerland the Germans began to retreat out of France.] They were expecting an invasion not in Normandy but on the south coast of France. So a lot of troops were coming through our area. The French Maquis, the resistance, had established a headquarters in our farm. For a young boy it was very exciting, I was sort of a mascot. They would send me up a tree to see if there was any traffic coming up the roads…and so it went until the end of the war.”
My aunt came to get me and my sister and brought us to a home in Aix-les-Bains. My father, who was in a DP camp in Switzerland, found out where were and came and got me and my sister, crossing the Alps back again, and brought us back to Belgium.
Mr. Stern and his family arrived in the United States in December of 1947. His first memory of New York was of the blizzard that year when, “the snow in New York was five or six feet high.”
I was born in 1936 in Romania, in the capital Bucharest, and for four years had a really comfortable, usual childhood. But in 1940 my parents were affected by the arrival of the German conquering armies and we fled to a place called Czernowitz.
Czernowitz was a capital of Bukovina, a county of Romania, and it’s right next to the Russian border. People were fleeing east away from the Germans, and the Russians still had possession, at that time, of the city. Within the next couple of years the Germans, who had conquered the Romanians, came with a Romanian army [and took back Czernowitz.]
The Jewish inhabitants of Czernowitz were all moved into a small area called a ghetto. We were living in an apartment with another couple of families in the top floor of an apartment building.
My father had fought during the First World War, under the Kaiser, so he had dual citizenship: he was Austrian as well as Romanian. At that time we really had lots of money and in Romania you could buy anything. So when they were deporting the Romanian Jews to concentration camps, we were Austrians, and when they started deporting the Austrian Jews, we became Romanians. So we, in a way, were extremely fortunate not to be deported.
The Romanians and Germans would gather Jews and just shoot them on the street, particularly the men. I remember an incident where the landlady of the apartment [where we living helped us.] Our apartment had a hallway with a gate. She ran up and said ‘go into the hallway, lock the gates,’ and was going to try to keep the German soldiers away. We didn’t find out until later, but we heard the Germans come up, everybody was hiding in terror, but they never made it into our apartment. What we saw next was a number of men from the Jewish families in the building lined up in the street and shot. At that time, because we had this moving citizenship, my father tried to protect my mother and me and sent us with false papers to Bucharest, but somebody ratted us out and we were sent right back to Czernowitz.
In 1944, the Russians came back and we left Czernowitz, because the Russians, in a way, didn’t kill the Jews, but they sent them to labor camps. Both my parents were sent away, but we managed to escape in 1944 back to Bucharest, where we stayed for a year before they allowed Jews to leave the country.
[When the war ended,] we ended up in Vienna, Austria in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp…It was not just people fleeing who had not been in concentration camps. There were a lot of Viennese and Hungarians Jews who came back to these DP camps because it was a weigh station. The Austrians were not particularly fond of these returning Jews because many of them had had property in Vienna and they wanted their housing and places of business back. The saying was going around that Hitler was not very efficient, there were too many coming back to claim their ownership.
[There, Ritta and her parents applied for visas to Australia, South America, and the United States, all countries where they had relatives.] The first that came through was South America so we ended up in Lima, Peru for about a year and a half before our visas arrived for the United States. We got [to the U.S.] when I was just 15, and we’ve been here ever since.