Charles Stein hid in a stranger’s basement the first time he evaded the Nazis. He’d just finished his first day of medical school in Vienna and was walking home when he heard scuffling from behind. Turning around, Stein saw someone in a Nazi uniform chasing another student, shouting “Kill the Jews.” He ran to the next corner and found an open door to an apartment building.
“I went down into the basement and sat for what felt like hours, but was probably only 10 minutes,” he said during a Holocaust Days of Remembrance Observance at McNamara Headquarters Complex April 22.
It was the second time that day the then-17-year-old began to question the easy, quiet life he and his family enjoyed in Austria. That morning, upon entering the university’s lecture hall, Stein saw students in Nazi uniforms lining the back row, stoically staring ahead with pistols sticking out of their belts. It was strange, Stein said, because there were no Nazis in Austria then.
He noted that the Nazi party had been outlawed in Austria several years before.
But Nazi tyranny was spreading, and between 1933 and 1945 6 million Jews were murdered or died of starvation, disease or maltreatment because they were deemed “inferior” by the regime. Stein and countless other victims managed to escape death during the Holocaust. Many of them have shared their stories of survival at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where Stein has volunteered since 1993. And during the Days of Remembrance, which take place this year from April 27 through May 4, victims and survivors help others remember the horrific events of the Holocaust in hopes of preventing them from happening again.
The German army crossed the Austrian border at midnight the day after Stein’s first encounter with the Nazis. It arrived in Vienna in March 1938; Stein said a parade was attended by a crowd of what seemed like millions of Austrians, every one of them with arms raised in a Nazi salute. It was the first time he ever saw Hitler.
“And it was the last,” he said. “I didn’t wait for the rest of the parade after seeing him, because then I knew what was happening, and I saw what the Austrian people were really like. Up until then there was no problem,” Stein said.
Change was swift. Nazi occupiers started dragging Austrian Jews out of their homes, ordering them to their knees to scrub sidewalks with buckets of water and toothbrushes.
“People gathered around and spit at them, kicked them, all kinds of things,” Stein added.
His parents were reluctant to leave, but Stein and his friends canvased foreign embassies in pursuit of an escape. Although he was born and raised in Austria, Stein had no documents identifying him as a resident, because his parents were born in Romania and never sought citizenship documents. But before attending medical school he was given a “stateless” passport, which, though “useless,” eventually became his ticket out.
Until then, Stein continued to live at home and meet downtown with friends. Then two of his former grade-school classmates appeared at his parents’ home in Nazi uniform looking for him. Stein remembered the pair well. As boys, before the Nazi party was outlawed in Austria, they were vigorous members of the Hitler Youth and enjoyed flaunting their uniforms in class.
“I knew they hadn’t come to wish me well, so from then on I went into hiding,” he said.
He spent nights at the homes of friends or dozing in bushes at a park. Sometimes he snuck home in the dark to change clothes. Finally, he learned that Luxembourg was giving 14-day transit visas to individuals with stateless passports, and on Aug. 12, 1938, he said goodbye to his parents and boarded a train. He never saw them again.
In Luxembourg, Stein received temporary asylum with the help of a Jewish aid organization that put him up in a small room with one bed and several other men.
“Every fourth day one of us would sleep on the bed; the rest slept on the floor. But it didn’t matter; I was out of Germany,” he said.
He supported himself as a musician, singing the songs of Fred Astaire and jazz star Hoagy Carmichael in downtown cafes. He also sent postcards to his parents, and his mother soon sent news that she’d discovered a distant cousin who lived in New York. Stein wrote to him, and a few weeks later he received an affidavit of support indicating that a friend of the cousin would accept financial responsibility for Stein if he moved to the United States. It was exactly what he needed to qualify for a visa to America.
Stein didn’t know it at the time, but the U.S. State Department had issued orders to stall all Jewish applicants. For almost a year, U.S. embassy officials held up his visa, asking for additional documents four or five times. Then on Oct. 7, 1939, Stein got his visa to the “land of the free.” He landed in New York two months later. He said the memory of flying over the Statue of Liberty is still fresh in his 94-year-old mind.
Stein lived in the Bronx and worked at a textile firm until he was drafted into the U.S. Army, exactly two years after the day he received his visa. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery in 1943, but the Army quickly transferred him to military intelligence after discovering he spoke German and could help interrogate German prisoners.
On June 6, 1944, the young American Soldier found himself among 160,000 Allied troops ready to storm the beaches of Normandy, France, with one goal: to liberate Western Europe from the Nazi control Stein had already escaped.
Stein was still interrogating prisoners and translating documents in Bavaria when he learned that his parents were taken to a ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941. It wasn’t until 1995 that he discovered their fate. One year after arriving in Lodz, they were gassed to death at the Chelmno extermination camp.
For more information on the Holocaust, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at: http://www.ushmm.org/.
Charles Stein tells how he escaped the hands of the Nazis and eventually became an American Soldier, during a Holocaust Days of Remembrance Observance at McNamara Headquarters Complex April 22. Photo by Sharon Goodman