A Talk with Pete Stern, Holocaust Survivor

On Wednesday, my Topics in 20th Century European History: National Proj, Socialist Dream class, along with the Topics In German Cultural Studies: Remembered Violence class, had the opportunity to talk to Holocaust survivor Pete Stern. My history class had just wrapped up World War I, and we are currently learning about the interwar period and the rise of Nazism.

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I designed this GERMB223 poster

Mr. Stern was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1936. His brother Samuel, born in 1939, was named Samuel because of the Nuremberg Laws, which required all Jewish children to be named after the Bible’s 1st Testament. His father was a well known auto mechanic, a detail which would greatly affect the family’s story. When his father’s auto mechanic place went out of business, he shifted to teaching auto mechanics to the Jewish school.

On November 29, 1941, the family was relocated to the Riga concentration camp ghetto in Latvia. The entire purpose of the Riga ghetto was just to kill. Prisoners were either shot or starved. Fortunately, Stern’sfamily was moved out of the ghetto to a building to sort clothing of the dead, which would be sent back to Germany. In 1942, the family was able to move out of the building to a location near where the army cars were stored because the father was wanted to fix German army cars. By the end of 1942, the family was moved to Russia to fix the army cars there. The family stayed at a farmhouse in a village with lots of German soldiers on guard. While in Russia, the father saved a high ranking German officer.

In a turn of events, the family was sent back to Riga and placed in a city jail cell for 3 months. Then the family was smuggled back to Germany in the back of a truck filled with clothes sorted from the dead. The court ordered Stern’s father to Buchenwald concentration camp and Stern, his brother, and mother to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Stern would never see his father again, and to this day is not sure of the specifics of his father’s death. Stern, his brother, and mother would later move to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, then a German military camp, then back to Nuremberg via truck at the end of the war.

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I designed this GERMB223 poster

In 1947, Pete, Sam, and their mother boarded a ship for the 20 day journey from England to New York City. Pete was detained at Ellis Island until he was cleared of disease. He was then sent to Florida to live with a relative while his brother was sent to live with another relative and his mother stayed in New York City to work as a live-in maid until she could support the family again.

Pete started off in 5th grade, but he was held back to 2nd grade, then he skipped 4th and 6th grades to catch up once he mastered English. Pete and his brother Sam would move back to New York City’s Upper West Side with his mother and stepfather, a Polish survivor who was a mine detector for the Russian army. Pete and Sam attended Stuyvesant High School, which was a vocational high school at the time. Pete would go onto junior college, then worked for a couple years until he went back to become a metal engineer, which we worked as for 10 years until he became a middle school science teacher for 30 years.

Q & A:

Have you been back to Nuremberg since WWII?

Stern: I returned to Nuremberg in 2011 for the 70th anniversary since the Jewish were kicked out. I don’t consider Germany my home. My home is the Upper West Side NYC.

How did you adjust to American culture?

Stern: You learn it on the streets! My stepfather and mother decided to only speak English at home. I have to work hard to remember my German. Even my stepfather and mother would mix German and English together at times.

Why do so many WWII survivors not talk about their experiences?

Stern: Guilt, nightmares.. I don’t think you’re ever over it. Many survivors struggled with PTSD. I was young, so I think I was more flexible.

“All survivors survive for being a little less human than they would like to be.”

Mr. Pete Stern lives in Wynwood and has two sons who both went to Haverford College. He has written a memoir on his experience surviving the Holocaust. He is a self proclaimed “intellectual pessimist, emotional optimist.”


More Holocaust/WWII related events happening in the Bi-Co:

BEHIND ENEMY LINES – An Evening with Marthe Cohn
WED, November 4th, at 5:00pm (talk begins at 5:15)
RSVP at trichabad.org/shoah The Rohr Center for Jewish Life ALL welcomeMarthe Cohn (born 1920) was a beautiful young Jewish woman living just across the German border in France when Hitler rose to power. As the Nazi occupation escalated, Marthe’s sister was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. The rest of her family was forced to flee to the south of France as Marthe joined the French Army. As a member of the intelligence service of the French First Army, Marthe fought valiantly to retrieve needed inside information about Nazi troop movements by slipping behind enemy lines.

The Rohr Center for Jewish Life is offering to pair you with a local survivor, help you travel there, help you have a meaningful relationship with the survivor, and guide you in bring the story to life and to benefit our college community and beyond.
Fellowship will take place next semester so make to sure to apply early! Apply here.

THE WALL IN OUR HEADS: AMERICAN ARTISTS AND THE BERLIN WALL commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reunification of Germany and reflects on legacies of division in American culture. The exhibition features critical American artistic perspectives of the Berlin Wall from 1961 through the present, including artworks that confront social boundaries in the United States as well as the complex historical crossroads of Berlin. The Wall in Our Heads is curated by Paul M. Farber, Postdoctoral Writing Fellow, Haverford College.