FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE April 24, 2023
Release #2320 Point of Contact—Jeffrey Prater: (401) 832-2039
Holocaust survivor shares his family’s story with NUWC Division Newport, NAVSEA audience
In advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Days of Remembrance, held April 16-23, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport hosted a presentation with 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Peter Stern that was broadcast throughout the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) enterprise on April 10.
The event included a pre-recorded presentation by Stern prepared by Division Newport in December 2022, followed by a live question-and-answer session.
In the video, Stern recalled his family’s experiences after having been moved to a Jewish ghetto in Riga, Latvia, in November 1941. One day, the Russian army attacked the camp and Artur, Stern’s father, saved a German officer's life. 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 in a cell on the second or third floor of that prison for about three months. My mother never left the cell; my brother and I and our father would occasionally be taken to the exercise yard and walk there," Stern said. “While living in that cell, the trustees would sometimes let my brother and me help them distribute food to the prisoners. I remember crawling on the suicide screen of that prison. Near the end of 1943, we were taken out of that cell and this was the first time that I was aware that my parents were scared. We were taken to a cell in the basement or on the first floor."
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 his mother, Karolina, younger brother, 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 Ravensbrück — Jews with yellow stars on their prison garb, homosexuals with pink triangles and red triangles for political prisoners, among them.
In February of 1945, Ravensbrück had to be emptied and the prisoners were put onto cattle cars and taken to Bergen-Belsen, which 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.
After the video presentation, Stern signed in online from the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to answer questions by employees in Chafee Auditorium and those online throughout NAVSEA’s 10 warfare centers.
Jasmyn Prince, a security engineer from Naval Surface Warfare Center Corona Division, was one of the 415 people watching the broadcast. She asked Stern why it’s important for him to tell his story.
“I want people to feel empathy for everyone that isn’t them, because when you stop being empathetic to an individual, you can then easily go to the group and say, ‘they are the other,’ and then you’re on that slippery slope,” Stern said.
Stern emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1947 with his mother and brother. He was reluctant to speak about his Holocaust experience for a long time.
“I tended to hide that background early on. I just did not want to be different,” Stern said. “I didn’t say anything for years. I’m sure there are people still out there who may remember me for many reasons, but not know that that was my background.”
After living with an uncle in Florida, Stern moved to New York City, where he graduated high school in 1954. He spent a few years attending a community college and working for the Navy at its materials laboratory in Brooklyn. Stern attended the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology).
After graduating, Stern worked as a metallurgical engineer for 10 years. He then switched careers to teach middle school science in Connecticut for the next 30 years. He never mentioned the Holocaust to his students until his final year as a teacher.
“In my last year of teaching, the school put on a play about the concentration camps,” Stern said. “It was a good play, but for some reason, I was struck by the fact that they never mentioned the odor. These places were not great on sanitation, and certainly when it came to place like Bergen-Belsen, there was also the stench of death. The soldiers who freed the camps were aware of the odor before they saw the place.”
After Stern retired, he was contacted by an organization called Child Survivors. The organization arranges for Holocaust survivors to share their stories of loss, resilience, and heroism with audiences at schools and to groups around the country.
Stern has been sharing his emotional story ever since.
Stern’s 2021 appearance at Division Newport is described in the article, “Holocaust survivor recounts experience to NUWC Division Newport employees,” and can be read at: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/396026/holocaust-survivor-recounts-experience-nuwc-division-newport-employees
Holocaust Days of Remembrance was established by the U.S. Congress as an annual week-long commemoration of the Holocaust. The Department of Defense’s theme for this year’s observance is “Behind Every Name a Story: The Women.” Read more about Holocaust Remembrance Days at:
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