Holocaust survivor: Remember the lessons

Standing before a packed auditorium at Penn State Altoona’s Devorris Downtown Center, Peter Stein pointed out sepia-tone photographs of a happy upbringing: family gatherings, his parents’ wedding, the streets near his home in Prague.

On the screen behind them, faded in the background, was the metal gate of a Nazi concentration camp. Its message of “Arbeit macht frei”“work sets you free” — was unmistakable.

Stein, who grew up in the German-occupied territory that had once been Czechoslovakia, told students and guests of his wartime experiences Monday evening as part of an ongoing university effort to address the era. At a time of rising ethnic nationalism in much of the Western world, he warned of the danger of forgetting the Holocaust’s lessons.

“It’s better to know than not to know,” he said, pointing to the risk of a rising us-vs.-them mentality. “That’s the catalyst of any holocaust.”

Born in the 1930s to a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother, Stein spent his childhood playing sports, learning in school and swimming with his father in the Vltava River. When Adolf Hitler’s forces rolled into the heart of Czechoslovakia in 1939, they brought with them the Third Reich’s pseudoscientific racial views.

That left the half-Jewish Stein in danger, especially as members of his family began disappearing into distant work camps.

As the war dragged on, his father joined them.

“Whenever I asked my mother, ‘Where’s my father?’ she said, ‘He’s on a business trip.'”

In reality, Stein’s father was held in Terezin — also called Theresienstadt — a sprawling camp that held tens of thousands of prisoners and forced laborers throughout the war. Many would eventually be shipped to extermination camps to be killed en masse.

Death came quickly for many in the work camps. In 1942, shortly after Stein’s grandmother visited her family for the last time with a gift of chicken-liver casserole, she was snatched and sent to Terezin.

A diabetic, she died within 19 days after the Germans seized her insulin, Stein recalled.

Stein himself would survive the war unharmed, although he lived in constant fear among occupying soldiers, Nazi secret police and at least one deadly (and mistaken) Allied bombing raid. During the nights, his family would tune into the BBC and hear the truth of the impending Allied liberation, even as his teachers parroted false stories of German victories.

Even with hope, the war took a deep emotional toll.

“(I thought), ‘If there’s a God, how come the Germans are here, my relatives are gone, there are bombings?'” Stein said. “I never could square that.”

Then, in 1945, Soviet soldiers marched into Prague and dislodged the German occupiers. Soon afterward, his father arrived among a truckload of camp prisoners, battered but free.

“He had enough strength to pick me up,” Stein said.

After waiting two years for a visa, his family arrived in the United States and began a new life. Stein, who has since raised children and a grandchild in America, now tells students of the important messages still to be learned from the Holocaust.

“I’m pleased there are people that actually care about history,” said A.J. Fink, a senior history student at Penn State Altoona. “It’s a sad thing to say, but there aren’t many Holocaust survivors left.”

A dwindling number of survivors has contributed to a rise in Holocaust denial, Stein said. That, combined with ongoing genocides and tribal politics, makes his message as important as ever.

Pointing to a photograph of his nearly 2-year-old grandson outside the U.S. Capitol, Stein reminded the crowd of that mission.

“For him and all of our kids, we have to try to remember that a holocaust never happens again,” he said. “Not in our lifetimes.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.