FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Army News Service, April 12, 2007) - Retired Lt. Col. Charles Stein, a Holocaust survivor and World War II veteran, shared the tragic events that changed the course of his life nearly 70 years ago during a Days of Remembrance ceremony here April 10.
Each year, the United States begins a weeklong commemoration the Sunday before the international Holocaust Remembrance Day, which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, is April 15, a day set aside to reflect and remember a time of devastating loss.
"This is the darkest and most haunting of Army observances," said Brig. Gen. James Gilman, commander, Great Plains Regional Medical Command and Brooke Army Medical Center, during the ceremony's opening remarks.
Stein's words illustrated the point. The 88-year-old vividly recalled the early days of Hitler's reign, and the events that led to the loss of most of his family.
Stein was 19 with high hopes for the future when he started medical school at a local university in Vienna, Austria, in March 1938. A day after Stein started school, Hitler crossed the border of Austria with his army and Stein's school days were over.
"All Jewish students were no longer allowed at the university," said Stein, who watched Hitler parade down the streets of Vienna to the sounds of cheers and Nazi salutes. "I went home and told my parents, 'We've got to get out of here.'"
Austrians welcomed Hitler and his ideology, Stein said. He said each day "stormtroopers" would pull Jewish people from their homes and make them scrub sidewalks with their toothbrushes while people kicked and spit on them.
Stein took to the streets, which was, he said, the safest place to be. "My friends and I met every day and tried to figure out a way to leave," he said. "I went from one embassy to another but was turned away. There was no place to go."
In the meantime, he managed to get a passport, but with a "state-less" mark since his parents were born outside of the Austrian borders.
One day, in mid-July 1938, Stein met up with a friend in central Vienna. His friend had good news. He had heard a rumor that Luxembourg was giving out 14-day transit visas to state-less people. Stein later learned the visas were sponsored by a Jewish organization, which had made an agreement with the government to allow 200 Jews to cross the border.
Stein rushed over to the consulate to get his visa, and was able to pick it up the next day. His parents took him to the train station a few days later. "The last words I heard my mother say were, 'We will never see our son again.' Those words have haunted me my whole life."
Stein and his friend, Max, who had spent four months in a concentration camp, made it to Luxembourg without major incident. A skilled violinist, Stein worked as a musician and saved his money so he could hire a smuggler to help his parents escape. Stein communicated with his parents through postcards since the Germans censored everything else. He was able to convey an address for them to meet up with the smuggler.
"They walked through the woods to the border of Luxembourg and got within sight of the bridge when a German lieutenant stopped them," Stein said. His parents were sent home.
Stein was devastated. He focused on getting to America and found a sponsor through his mother's cousin in the states. It took him a year to get a visa. In August 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and war broke out. Dec. 19, 1939, Stein arrived in New York.
He took a job in the textile factory and applied for college scholarships. Instead, he was drafted into the Army two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stein served in World War II in combat from Normandy to the Czech border and again during the Korean War. He finished out his career as an intelligence analyst for the Defense Department and a diplomat for the Department of State Foreign Service.
In early 1946, Stein learned that his parents had been deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland in 1941, and in 1995, after extensive research, finally found out their fate. They had been gassed in 1942 at the Chelmno death camp.
Stein's parents were among the 6 million European Jews, including 1 million Jewish children, killed in the Holocaust.
As he concluded, Stein reminded the audience never to forget the tragic events of the past and to pay attention to similar events happening today in parts of the world like Darfur. "Please speak up," he said.
(Ms. Elaine Wilson writes for the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)