There is work. And there is work.
Ask 101-year-old Ben Stern about this, and his face will probably turn serious. He’ll step closer to hear you better, to see you better — and he’ll gently take your hand.
Against a million odds, starting with not much more than nightmares and faith, Stern, who now lives in Berkeley, succeeded in working to feed his growing children, keep his Chicago house warm in subfreezing winters, pay for crayons, books and college tuition.
From near scratch, he worked his way up in the laundry business, raising three kids with his wife, eventually retiring and moving to California to be close to his daughters and grandchildren.
But Stern has another job. And this work, he’ll tell you, isn’t done. It meets him each morning, stays through each night. It brings pressing worry, and it fuels a spirit that keeps him going each day.
A Jew raised in Poland, Stern is a Holocaust survivor. Through luck, lies, tricks, talents, accidents and fate, he survived nine concentration camps and two death marches, a torture that began with the start of WWII, when he was 17.
He survived beatings, illness, starvation, freezing cold, more sickness, more beatings, more starvation.
Today, at first glance, Stern exudes gentle cheerfulness. His smile has a twinkle. He is attentive. Familiar to many on the streets of North Berkeley, Stern’s routine, even with declining eyesight, includes walking twice a week to the Cheeseboard bakery on Shattuck for fresh bread. Spelt on Wednesdays and challah on Fridays.
But look deep into his brown eyes, and you’ll find the suffering. And if he pulls up his left sleeve, there it is, the Auschwitz tattoo, “129592,” with an upside-down triangle, an extra brand for those the Nazis deemed “dangerous Jews.”
Stern’s other work, his other job, is to remind the world that this was real.
“I survived for the purpose of giving you the answer to the questions of how I survived,” he said. “To tell the story of the Holocaust for generations to come.”
With each new burst of antisemitism, Stern wants people to know where this once led. With each new report of Holocaust denial, of a person or group claiming that Hitler’s genocide never happened, Stern’s need to teach his truth becomes more urgent.
This is his responsibility as a survivor, he says.
From the ghetto to the killing centers
Stern’s family lived in Mogielnica, Poland, in 1939 when German SS officers forced them and other Jews into a ghetto, a separated squalid section of the city with guards and curfews.
A couple of years later, in 1941, they, along with thousands of other Jews, were forced to move to the notorious Warsaw Ghetto, known for its particularly wretched conditions — overcrowding, poverty, starvation, disease.
Stern’s grandmother, father, and older brother died there.
He also had four half-brothers from a previous marriage of his father, two half-brothers from a previous marriage of his mother and three full siblings. One survived by immigrating to Palestine before the war. The others, and their children and spouses, were killed by Nazis.
In 1942, as Hitler ratcheted up what he called the “Final Solution,” the mission to eradicate Jews, the Warsaw Ghetto (among others) was emptied, its inhabitants shot on the spot, if weak or resistant, or sent en masse to concentration, death and labor camps, mainly by rail.
Many died or were killed along the way. Stern was sent one way, his mother, sister and remaining brother another.
This was the last time he saw them.
They were among the 300,000 Jews sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, a camp known as a killing center, Stern said. He, then 22, he was packed in a cattle car with other relatively healthy young men to Majdanek concentration camp. He was stripped, shaved, disinfected, given a hard bunk, a daily lump of bread, and assigned to the kitchen to wash potatoes from early morning to night. A job, he later learned, was better than what most others struggled to endure.
As the war progressed, the Nazis systematically expanded, opened and closed concentration camps, moving prisoners around literally like animals.
While an estimated six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, Nazis also murdered millions of others, including gay people, people with disabilities, Romas (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and political opponents.
Stern moved to several different camps, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound, sometimes by force, sometimes volunteering in the hope (never realized) that the next place might be better than the place before.
He labored in kitchens, coal mines, quarries, construction sites. He was made to bandage wounded Nazi soldiers. He witnessed Jews getting hanged, shot, drowned and shoved into gas chambers. He clutched small bones found in crematorium ash he used in road building, burying them in the earth. He escaped death selection by Joseph Mengele — “the Angel of Death” — with a quick lie about his tattoo number.
He stuffed his mouth with a handful of stolen potato skins dripped with steam from a train — a king’s feast, he felt.
Stern lost almost 80 pounds, got sick, weak, and lived scared.
Some things could only be miracles, he said. He gained strength from sharing with those weaker than him, if, when and where he could, usually at great risk. An arm of support. A sip of watery soup.
As Allied troops moved in at the end of the war, the increasingly desperate German military emptied concentration camps with forced prisoner death marches, so-named because the Nazis didn’t care if anyone survived. Most didn’t.
Stern marched twice, from the Buna concentration camp to the Buchenwald camp, and from Buchenwald into the Tyrolean mountains in winter, at the war’s end.
Freezing cold, sparse clothing, almost no food or drink. One foot after the other, one foot after the other; drop and you’re shot.
On the evening of May 8, 1945, American troops swept in to save the remaining Buchenwald marchers, as part of the liberation of war prisoners when the Germans were finally defeated.
Stern, like most Jews, was taken to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp, set up by the Allies for those forced from their homes by the war. Though they took time to get established, especially in the early chaos of the war’s end, the DP camps provided at least some measure of food, warmth, medical assistance.
They were also centers of searches for lost families and loved ones. As soon as they gained strength, many survivors, including Ben, set out in desperation to find family, chasing rumors, thumbing through DP camp lists.
“Traveling in Germany after the war, looking for people, for Jewish people, I ended up in a huge [DP] camp in Bergen-Belsen,” Stern said.
It was here that Stern met his wife, Helen Kielmanowicz, also from Warsaw and also an Auschwitz survivor, who never saw her parents or siblings again.
“From there we developed a love affair. Six weeks later we got married in Germany.”
Helen Stern died four years ago, in Berkeley.
Much ado was made about one of Ben Stern’s roommates after his wife moved to assisted living. She was a German graduate student in Jewish Studies and the granddaughter of Nazis.
She’s since returned to Europe, and Stern now has a less eyebrow-raising person sharing his home.
“He’s witnessed more history than anyone I know,” said Charlene Stern, one of Ben’s daughters. Charlene Stern worked with her father on a recent memoir, Near Normal Man, published in 2022. She also produced a documentary of the same name based on the book, available on YouTube.
Both accounts are gripping, easy to follow, and filled with remarkable detail, testament to Stern’s memory.
They are part of his commitment to educating people about the Holocaust, through the eyes of someone who lived it, a calling felt by many survivors.
Over the years, he’s often spoken to school, religious and community groups. Once, while on one of his regular Berkeley walks, he happened upon a Black Lives Matter demonstration on the UC campus, and took the stage, with permission, to show solidarity in speaking out against hate.
“I fear no one will care or seek the truth of what happened,” Stern said.
At the end of the war, when Stern learned how many Jews had been killed, including almost his entire family, part of him felt like giving up. “And so I accepted that punishment and obligation to live with it till the end of my days. I felt a special, profound obligation to my family and friends, that I was destined by them and for this command: Remember. Never Forget,” he writes in Near Normal Man.
Resolving to protest
His resolve to speak out against antisemitism and the Holocaust took hold in Chicago, after Arthur Butz, a Northwestern University professor published a Holocaust denial book in 1976, The Hoax of the 20th Century.
Stern, living then in Skokie, outside of the city, called Northwestern and said he wanted to share his truths, rebutting Butz. The university invited him to speak to history students and professors, and he did, to a packed crowd, who gave him a round of applause, he said.
Then, about a year later, a group of Nazis planned a march in Skokie, a community of many Jews including Holocaust survivors.
Flyers in people’s mailboxes and on doorsteps said things like “Hitler didn’t finish the killing of the Jews in the gas chambers.”
For Stern, this was a breaking point or break-out point, he said. He’d barely survived Nazis in Europe, and here they were in the “safe” place he’d fled to.
And so, he took a stand.
Along with city officials and many community members, Stern fought to prevent the Nazis from demonstrating, challenging “hate” speech as “free” speech. The matter went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled in 1977 with the Nazis, getting support from the ACLU.
Stern didn’t miss a beat. He threw himself into organizing a counter demonstration that included thousands of Holocaust survivors, their friends and families.
From the book Near Normal Man: “We know that 60,000 from all over the country had pledged to show up. … That morning when the Nazis got off the highway they were met by city officials, police, and the National Guard. When they were told how many people would be standing up against them and their safety could not be guaranteed, they canceled the march then and there.”
His activism carried into the years.
With the passing of each Holocaust survivor, his voice is more precious. In 2017, when Stern heard Nazis planned a rally in Berkeley, he helped organize yet another counter demonstration, passing out flyers in the city asking people to join. The Sunday morning of the rally, 800 people joined Stern in protest, many carrying banners saying “Not Here! Not Now!” — his rallying cry from Skokie. The Nazis were a no-show.
Though sharp in mind, Stern’s weakening eyesight and hearing make it harder and harder for him to communicate. His frustration shows a little, as he leans in to say he can’t hear or he can’t see, often slipping — or easing — into Yiddish.
Not easy for a social man who loves a good game of canasta, a lively meal with family and friends.
He tires easily.
At the same time, with patience and other modes of communication, touch and body language, Stern’s communication channels don’t close.
He delights in showing the generations of his family, including his parents, in the photographs covering his walls.
He turns serious, dark, then bubbles with a kind of joy.
“I like people. I like nice people. I like being nice to people,” Stern says with his twinkle.