A Survivor’s Story

Published 10:14 am Wednesday, April 1, 2009

COAL GROVE — While textbooks can give students a limited understanding of past historic events, meeting people who are a part of history puts those words a little more into focus.

For students of both Dawson-Bryant and Chesapeake high schools, history was in person first-hand Tuesday.

Retired Lt. Col. Charles Stein, a Holocaust survivor and World War II veteran, shared the heartbreaking events that altered the course of his life nearly 70 years ago at a speaker’s forum sponsored by the Dawson-Bryan History Club and the school’s Key Club.

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To a gathering of more than 200 in the Dawson-Bryant cafeteria, the 89-year-old vividly recalled the early days of Adolf Hitler’s reign and the events that led to the loss of most of his family.

Stein was only 19-years-old with high hopes for the future when he started medical school at a university in Vienna. Just one day after Stein began school, Hitler crossed the border of Austria with his army on March 11, 1938, and Stein’s school days were over.

Shortly thereafter, Stein watched Hitler parade down the streets of Vienna to the cheering of more than 1 million people. Following the parade, Stein’s mind was made up.

“I went home and told my parents, ‘We’ve got to start packing.’”

Austrians openly welcomed Hitler and his ideology with “great cheer,” Stein said. He added that each day “storm troopers” would pull Jewish people from their homes and make them scrub sidewalks with their toothbrushes while people kicked and spit on them.

The Escape

With his friends, Stein took to the streets meeting every day trying to figure out a way to leave Austria.

“We made the rounds from one embassy to another but we were turned away every time. There was no place to go.”

Shortly thereafter Stein managed to get a passport, but one with a “stateless” mark since his parents were born outside of the Austrian borders.

“It was more of a travel document than a passport,” Stein said.

However, that so called “travel document” would be a catalyst towards Stein’s escape from now-occupied Austria.

Stein explained that in the summer of 1938, a friend confirmed a rumor that Luxembourg was giving out 14-day transit visas to stateless people. Stein said that he later learned the visas were sponsored by a Jewish organization, which had made an agreement with the government to allow a specific number of Jews to cross the border.

Hearing the news, an excited Stein rushed over to the consulate to get his visa and was able to secure it the next day.

Taken by his parents to a train station a few days later, Stein heard something that has never left him.

“The last words I heard my mother say were, ‘We will never see our son again.’ Those words have been with me for the rest of my life,” Stein said.

Stein and a friend Max — who himself had spent four months in a concentration camp — made it to Luxembourg without much trouble.

Being from Vienna, Stein was a skilled violinist and worked as a musician in the attempt to save money to hire a smuggler to help his parents, who were still in Austria, escape.

“I only took the violin on my mother’s recommendation as she told me that if I ever was in a pinch I could sell the violin for food or money.”

Stein said he communicated in code with his parents through postcards since the Germans censored all packaged mail. Soon he was able to save up enough money and was successful in conveying an address for his parents to meet up with the smuggler for a middle of the night rendezvous.

Sadly, Stein’s plan never came to fruition.

“The smuggler came to the door and said that my parents got within sight of the bridge that connects Luxemburg when a German lieutenant stopped them and sent them back.”

Not having valid passports, Stein’s parents had no choice but to return to Austria. Crushed, Stein 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 and finally on Oct. 7, 1939 Stein has all the necessary paperwork to leave Luxemburg for America. On Dec. 18, 1939, Stein arrived in New York.

Arriving in America

He took a job in the shipping department of a textile firm, worked as a waiter in a summer camp and was drafted into the Army on October 7, 1941, exactly two years after receiving his visa and two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In June 1943, Stein was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery and was transferred to military intelligence. He served in World War II in combat from Normandy to the Czech border and again during the Korean War.

He then worked as an intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense and in 1966 transferred to the Department of the State Foreign Service until his retirement in 1978.

“As a little refuge boy, I think I came a long way,” Stein said.

Despite his military, professional and personal success in America, (Stein is married and the father of three) he never forgot about his parents.

In early 1946, Stein learned that his parents had been deported to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland in 1941 and after nearly 50 years and extensive research, Stein finally found out their fate in 1995.

His parents had been gassed in the Chelmno death camp vans on February 1942. The rest of Stein’s family — aunts, uncles, cousins — fell to a similar fate at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Stein’s parents were among the six million European Jews, including one million Jewish children, killed in the Holocaust. Stein’s speech on Tuesday comes just three weeks before Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 21. The day set aside to reflect and remember a time of devastating loss.

As he concluded, Stein urged the audience never to forget the tragic events of the past and to pay keen attention to similar events happening today in parts of the world like Darfur, Sudan.

“Please speak up. Speak up when you see something and stop them before it gets out of hand,” Stein said.