When the Nazis ripped his family from their home in Poland, Ben Stern survived the ghettos and the concentration camps by never losing faith in human kindness.
So now, at the end of his life, the 95-year-old has found an almost perfect antidote to how he was treated by the Nazis: Opening his California home to one of their descendants.
His roommate, Lea Heitfeld, is a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, whose grandparents were active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party. Rather than shy away from her family’s history, it has inspired her to learn about Jewish people and educate others about their religion and what they endured during the Holocaust. She’s even getting her master’s degree in Jewish studies.
Welcoming Heitfeld, the kin of the very people who brutally forced him from his childhood home, to live as his roommate while she finishes her degree feels like “an act of justice,” Stern said in an interview. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”
There is much about their living situation that defies norms: the sizable generation gap, the gender divide and, of course, the fact that they’re a Holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of Nazis. And yet they’ve both found they have so much to give each other.
A photo clipped from a newspaper from Helen and Ben Stern’s arrival in America in May 1946. (Courtesy: Charlene Stern)
Heitfeld provides companionship to Stern, whose wife of more than 70 years recently went into a nursing home because of her worsening dementia.
In the evenings, the unlikely pair watch TV together, usually the news. They have dinner together almost every night, and snack on herring salad and crackers before their meal — a mutual favorite. They have long conversations about history and current events and he tells her stories of his life in Poland before the war. Last semester, Stern, who never went to high school or college, audited a graduate class with her, and they walked together to campus every Thursday night.
For Heitfeld, Stern’s friendship is the rarest of gifts — an insight into human resiliency and compassion.
“This act of his opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” she said. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”
‘I was reborn’
Stern was a teenager when Nazis took over his small Polish town. He survived life in the Warsaw Ghetto, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the death march from Buchenwald. When Americans liberated them, he went searching for his family and found no one.
He met his wife, Helen, in a displaced prisoners camp after the war and the young couple made their way to America with nothing more than a dream for a new life. He had no education, no trade, no money and could not speak English. But he had his life.
“I was reborn. I did not forget what happened to me, but I was determined to rebuild the family that I lost and speak out on the pain and losses that so many people gave their lives for no reason only because they were hated because of their particular religion,” Stern said. “We found a mixture of religions being accepted and that was opening the door for a free life, that was a gift that until today I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to build the beautiful family that I have.”
His daughter, Charlene, has preserved her father’s story in a 28-minute documentary called the “Near Normal Man,” which is what he calls himself. No one could spend a day in Auschwitz and call themselves normal, he’d tell her. In the film, Stern recalls in his own words and with moving detail what he endured and how it shaped his worldview afterward.
“When the Nazis came, his only weapon was his insistence upon living and remaining human,” Charlene Stern said. “I asked him, ‘How did you change? How did you change after the Holocaust?’ He said, ‘Char, I became more compassionate.’ That’s the father I inherited.”
Charlene’s voice caught as she recalled showing the film to Heitfeld’s parents when they came to visit. After watching, Heitfeld’s father, whose parents were Nazis, asked whether he could help her get the movie shown in Germany. He said they would travel around the country together — the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the son of a Nazi solider.
Charlene and Lea Heitfeld are both, in a way, students of their past who feel compelled to use their family history to educate. Heitfeld grew up in a small town in northern Germany and, until she moved to the United States five years ago to work as an au pair, she’d never met a Jewish person, she said. On her way to dropping off the children she took care of at school, she’d pass a Jewish retirement home. With several hours in the morning to herself, she decided to volunteer there. It was one thing to be meeting Jewish people her own age, but she said she wanted to spend time with the generation directly affected by what her ancestors did.
“I’ve reflected so much about my own identity. If I want to identify with my country, it’s about confronting the things that hurt and put me in an uncomfortable position,” she said. “I feel responsibility for the memory of the Holocaust.”
Not staying silent
The rise of anti-Semitic-fueled acts in the United States — bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries — has been weighing heavily on Stern and Heitfeld.
The vitriol directed at minority groups, not just Jews, is all too reminiscent. “I walk with a fresh injection of pain and hurt,” Stern said.
Heitfeld feels it, too. “I’ve been in more pain that I’m living with a man who went through this and now has to be confronted with this on the news,” she said.
But this is not the first time Stern has been faced with this painful reminder of his past. In 1977, he and his family lived in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, which at that time was majority Jewish. A neo-Nazi group requested a permit to demonstrate in the streets in their town. It was a haunting proposition, the idea that a group bearing swastikas would once again converge on his town. Stern refused to sit idly by and let this happen, so he organized an effort to block them from coming. Because of First Amendment rights, Stern didn’t succeed in banning them, so instead he encouraged other Jewish people to not hide away afraid, but instead to stage a counter-demonstration if the Nazis came.
Ira Glasser, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocated for the neo-Nazis’ right to march, wrote in the Huffington Post that it was “a brilliant response and a perfect remedy for a country with strong First Amendment rights.”
Living with a millennial. Making the film. It’s all in service to Stern’s lifelong mission to ensure young people are informed to stand up to hate once there are no more survivors left to tell their stories. For Stern, this new wave of hate is yet another moment that he cannot stay silent.
“I feel like it’s important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, religions. We’re different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world. It should be in harmony instead of hatred, racism. … We are all born; we’re all going to go. While we’re here, we should try to improve the world.”
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