by Public Affairs Office
Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport
As Holocaust survivor Peter Stern finished his talk on April 26, he posed a question to the nearly 200 Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport employees who tuned in on Microsoft Teams for the Holocaust Days of Remembrance livestream event: “Why is it that we, the survivors, come and talk to you?”
“So that we will never forget,” Laurie Dutra, executive analyst to the technical director, said.
Stern, a survivor of the Ravensbrűck and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, agreed with that sentiment and took it a step further.
“There is a belief among Jews that we all die twice: Once when our body no longer functions and again when no one remembers us,” Stern said. “We have to remember all those people who have died — it’s 50-60 million worldwide.”
Stern started his story at his beginning, with his birth in 1936 as Peter Gunther Stern. He emphasized that his middle name of Gunther was significant, as in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed with the intent of circumscribing the lives of Jews.
This included that all Jewish children had to have Jewish names — like Abraham or Noah — and is why Stern’s brother, born in 1939, was named Samuel. However, these laws were not publicized until after the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin to prevent any public recoil while Germany was on the world’s stage.
“At this point, Jews could no longer work for the public — teachers, doctors, lawyers. These laws got to be more and more restrictive to the point that my father, Artur, who was a mechanic, and every other Jew could no longer own a business,” Stern explained. “He had to sell his business and went to teach at the Jewish school. He wanted to give everyone a trade for when they got out of Germany, because that was the goal.”
That trade, while it ultimately did not save Artur’s life, may have saved his family’s.
By 1939, Stern’s family was living in what was known as a Jew house in Nuremberg, Germany. Four families shared the home, which had just one kitchen and plywood walls to divide the larger rooms.
Two years later an edict ordered 1,000 people out of Nuremberg as Germany led the European Axis powers in an invasion of the Soviet Union, opening the Eastern Front. Stern and his family were put on a second-class train and shipped — at their own expense — to Riga, Latvia, in November 1941.
“We were deposited in a holding house and this is where, in essence, people started to die. This is where I saw my first person die — she just collapsed,” Stern said. “We were put in cold, ransacked sheds.”
What felt like weeks in the holding camp to the six-year-old Stern was in fact only days, as they were then sent to the ghetto in Riga.
“The house in the ghetto we were sent to was right by the fence — I remember seeing the barbed wire fence,” Stern said. “We were in two rooms with multiple families, sleeping on the floor and I truly had no memory of how long we were there.
“From there, we were taken out of the ghetto and taken to a small housing development, which was loaded with German military personnel, except this one house where we were with other Jews.”
There, Jewish prisoners had particular assignments. Artur and his students traveled to different sites to fix German military vehicles, while those at the development sorted clothing — most of which came from people killed in the ghetto. Stern and his family remained there until the beginning of 1943, when they were taken to the Russian front so his father and his students could fix vehicles.
“We lived in a farmhouse,” Stern said. “There were no fences, but the rule — which I didn’t know at the time — was if any of the boys tried to escape, we would be shot.”
One day while working on a damaged electricity transformer, the Russian army attacked the camp and Artur saved a German officer’s life. This changed the course of the family’s experience. The officer arranged for the Stern family to be hidden in the Riga prison — rather than be returned to the ghetto — as the German forces retreated after catastrophic losses in the Battle of Stalingrad.
“We were on the second or third floor of that prison in a cell for about three months. My mother, Karolina, never left that cell; my father was able to take my brother and I on walks in the prison yard occasionally,” Stern said. “In late 1943, we were taken out of that cell and put into another cell. This was the first time I remember my parents being scared. I’m sure they must have been before that, but I wasn’t aware of it. The cell had names carved all over it and we had no idea what was going to happen.”
In January 1944, the family was put on a truck, deported back to Germany and separated. Artur was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died, while Karolina, Sam and Peter were transferred to Ravensbrűck concentration camp.
Here, the women were used for slave labor in the factories, Stern said, while the children were largely left to their own devices, locked up in the barracks. Stern recalled seeing all the different types of prisoners in Ravensbrűck — Jews with yellow stars on their prison garb, homosexuals with pink triangles and red triangles for political prisoners, among them.
“By February of 1945, Ravensbrűck had to be emptied and we were put onto cattle cars and taken to Bergen-Belsen,” Stern said. “There were two holes in the floor of the car, no sanitation, no food or water. A lot of people died on that ride; the stench was unbelievable. That doesn’t get talked about that much, but the Allied soldiers were aware of a camp’s location because of the smell.”
Bergen-Belsen was much worse, Stern said, as everyone slept on the floor in cramped conditions. To move around you had to walk over people or, in some cases, corpses as they did not remove any of the bodies after people died. Stern and his family were there for about two months until finally, on April 15, 1945, the camp was liberated by British forces.
“It’s the day I think of as my second birthday,” Stern said. “For a few weeks after the rescue, we stayed in the camp. Then we were taken out and the British burned the camp.
“My mother, brother and I were put into what had been a training facility for tank soldiers. I remember playing in the tanks while we were there for three or four months. While we were there, my mother had a nervous breakdown and it took quite a while for her to get her strength back.”
Peter, Sam, and Karolina were moved back to Nuremberg in the fall of 1945 and lived in a building that was once a home for the Jewish elderly. From there, they moved to a displaced persons camp in Munich and then another camp in Bremen. On Jan. 7, 1947, they emigrated to the United States with the help of distant relatives who lived in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stern went on to graduate high school in New York City 1954 and — after a few years at a community college and working for the Navy at its materials laboratory in Brooklyn — attended the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology).
After graduating, he worked as a metallurgical engineer for 10 years before switching careers to teach high school science in Connecticut, which he did for the next 30 years. He has a wife, who currently lives with him in Pennsylvania, two sons and three grandchildren.
“Thank you for this excellent snapshot of your life,” Susan Rembijas, an employee in Division Newport’s Ranges, Engineering and Analysis Department, said. “I am very grateful that you and other survivors speak out about this harrowing time. We must never forget what happened and cannot let history repeat itself.”
Stern’s family history is preserved as part of the “Witness To History Project,” sponsored by the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. For more information visit www.hamec.org
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