Never expecting to be 20, Holocaust survivor still telling his story at 93
WASHINGTON • For most Americans, Monday is national Holocaust Remembrance Day. For Charles Stein of Springfield, Va., who escaped Nazi-occupied Austria as a college student in 1938, that day is also Feb. 28. That day, in 1942, his parents were killed by the Nazis.
"Every Feb. 28, I light a candle," Stein said.
The rest of the year, he works as a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and, at age 93, still travels the country telling his dramatic story. That story not only involves frequent run-ins with Nazi occupiers in Austria, but also his journey to America, his entry into the Army shortly before the United States joined World War II and his role at Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
"It's been a good life," Stein said the other day as he relaxed at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield. "But also a sad life. There isn't a day goes by that I don't think about my parents and the rest of my family. But considering that when I was 19 I didn't think I would make it to 20, and now I'm 93 and I'm still talking? Unbelievable."
Stein's memory is undimmed, his vision of watching Adolf Hitler ride down Vienna's Ringstrasse as the Germans marched into Austria as clear as it was in March 1938. His unspooling of the details of that dark time is the only way his implausible tale makes sense.
Stein's parents, Eugene and Cecilia Stein, were born in Romania. They settled in Austria after World War I but never bothered to obtain citizenship documents. In the fall of 1937, when Charles Stein was 17 and wanted to attend the University of Vienna to study medicine, he had no family papers to prove his Austrian residency. He would have to pay a far higher tuition.
"I thought I was an Austrian," he said, "but at this point I was stateless."
He applied for Austrian documents, but because of his parents' heritage, he was given an identification booklet that marked him as an "Auslander" - a foreigner. This turned out to be his lifeline around Nazi persecution and out of Austria.
After the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Stein witnessed numerous episodes of Jews being harassed or humiliated or having their businesses seized. When confronted by storm troopers, he was able to produce his auslander identification and would be released.
"It's time to start packing," he told his parents after watching crowds with raised arms saluting Hitler. "We've got to get out of here."
But the impending horror wasn't clear to his parents. "In their minds, a family was settled," Stein said. "They were not going to move out. 'We'll see what happens,' they said."
Stein and his friends began visiting foreign embassies in hopes of getting visas. "They all told us where to go," he recalled. He said the U.S. Embassy was different, but people there explained that the boys needed a sponsor in America in order to immigrate.
When Stein returned home one day, his mother told him that two of his former classmates, now in brown Nazi uniforms, had come looking for him.
"I went into hiding," he said. "I didn't go home anymore."
Through friends, Stein heard that Luxembourg was granting students 14-day transit visas. Stein said that he ran all the way to the Luxembourgian Embassy and soon had a visa. He sent word to his parents to bring a gym bag of his clothes and meet him at the train station.
When he saw his parents, his mother had brought his gym bag and his violin, which he had played since he was 6. "I couldn't take that with me," he said. "But I couldn't argue with my mother. We were in tears anyway. So I said, 'OK, I'll take it.' "
The 18-year-old Stein boarded the train. He never saw his parents again.
In a scene straight out of the movies, Nazi soldiers boarded the train as it neared Luxembourg's border and demanded, "All Jews out!"
Stein said that he and a friend were the only two. They were taken to a separate car and interviewed. After telling a soldier that he intended to continue studying medicine, he was released. Two minutes later, he was out of Austria.
Stein supported himself as a musician. He maintained contact with his parents through postcards. But in 1939, his parents were removed from their Vienna home, and the postcards stopped.
Meanwhile, Stein made contact with a distant cousin of his mother in New York. He was granted a visa and, in December 1939, rode a cruise ship to America. He lived in the Bronx, worked in the textile business and filed notice of his intention to obtain U.S. citizenship.
In September 1941, Stein received a draft notice from the Army, and within weeks he was enlisted in the artillery. He received his U.S. citizenship in 1942. And in 1943, when the Army realized he spoke the enemy's language, he was sent to intelligence training. By early 1944, Stein was working in Europe as an interrogator of German prisoners.
On June 6, 1944, Stein's intelligence team sat on a boat off the coast as Allied infantry landed in Normandy, France. By that afternoon, he had made the shore. He soon was doing field interrogations.
"I was up with the infantry," Stein said. "I squeezed â the prisonersâ for everything they knew. The only ones who resisted were the young officers."
By 1945, Stein was with the 9th Infantry Division in Bavaria and asked for permission to go to Vienna to search for his parents. But he was told Vienna was under Russian control. Permission denied.
The following year, after the war's end, Stein connected with a Jewish organization that had tried to track Jewish prisoners. He learned that his parents had been deported to Lodz, Poland, in October 1941. "They do not appear on any survivor lists," a letter informed Stein.
Stein stayed in the Army, translating documents for the Nuremberg war crimes commission and then doing a stint in Korea during the Korean War. He met his wife, Barbara, an Air Force member from Iowa, at a base in Japan in 1953. They were married in 1954 and had three sons and seven grandchildren, all of whom live in Northern Virginia.
The Steins moved to Vienna, Va., in 1963, and Stein joined the State Department in 1965. He retired in 1978. His wife passed away in 2003.
In the summer of 1993, Stein read that the Holocaust Museum was looking for volunteers. He has worked in visitor services ever since and is at the donations desk every Friday.
In 1995, Stein made an appointment with the museum's archivist. He asked whether the museum had any information about the Lodz ghetto. He learned that investigators had recently recovered German records from the Polish army. Stein was given five large volumes to pore through.
In there, a son discovered the fate of his parents. In January 1942, Austrians in Lodz were being selected for "work" and placed in large windowless vans. Stein learned that his parents were placed in such a van and taken to the Chelmno extermination camp, where they were gassed on Feb. 28, 1942. The Holocaust Museum states that Chelmno was the first stationary facility where poison gas was used for mass murder of Jews.
"My mother was 48, my father was 58," Stein said. "Now I know what to do every Feb. 28."