When signing his name, Ben Stern often adds this: Prisoner 129592.
That’s the number tattooed on his arm. That’s the number he will never forget. That’s the number he will not permit the world to forget.
Stern is a survivor’s survivor. The Polish native suffered the worst of the Holocaust, including the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the death march out of Buchenwald as the Allies closed in.
He’s still standing.
At 88, the Berkeley resident remains true to his life’s calling, to bear witness to history’s greatest crime. He can tell you the exact date of every roundup, transport and near-death experience he endured.
He also remembers May 8, 1945, the day American forces liberated him, one of only 156 left alive out of 7,000 who started the death march. That was the day, he says, he was “sentenced to life as a Holocaust survivor.”
That life sentence took him to America after the war, to happy years raising a family in Chicago, and to a momentous confrontation with neo-Nazis on the streets of Skokie, Ill. Stern never misses an opportunity to recount his story and teach its lessons.
“As my years are winding down, it’s so much more important to me to share the Holocaust,” Stern says. “Not only for me, my children and grandchildren, but I want as many people as possible to know what happened to our people while the world was standing by indifferent.”
A month prior to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Stern spoke to a hometown crowd at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay; over the years he has lectured at Northwestern University, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and at many other venues. He says he is “designated to speak on their behalf,” referring to the 6 million, among them many members of his own family.
That family was a large and happy one, as Stern grew up Orthodox in a village near Warsaw. After Germany invaded in 1939, he and his family were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, where his father died in 1942. The same year the teenage Stern was sent to Majdanek. He would never see most of his family again.
The remaining war years were a relentless horror, though not without miracles.
He got transferred out of Majdanek only days before the entire camp population was massacred. He then survived one of Josef Mengele’s notorious “selections” at Auschwitz by giving the kapo a false prisoner number after being marked for death. He survived a life-threatening infection when an SS guard allowed him to receive basic medical treatment (after the guard was bribed).
And with the war’s end in sight, he survived certain death when an inept Nazi guard failed to ignite a bomb planted in a barracks packed with huddled, starving Jews.
After the war, Stern met his future wife, Helen, in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, where they married after a six-week courtship. The couple made their way to Chicago in 1946, and soon enough Stern was working, first as a carpenter and later as the founder of a laundry business successful enough to put four children through college.
During those first postwar years, Stern says he and other survivors were “licking their wounds.” For Stern, everything changed in 1977 when the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group, decided to march down the streets of Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a sizeable Jewish and Holocaust survivor population, which included the Sterns.
Stern took it on himself to stop the Nazis however he could. “I was not nervous,” he says. “I was outspoken, wrote to the [Chicago] Sun-Times. After what I went through, nothing could shake me.”
The battle lines fell along the intersection of the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly, and a community’s right to protect itself from hate.
After a protracted court fight, during which the ACLU took the side of the marchers, the Nazis won the right to march, though they decided not to hold a rally in Skokie. He couldn’t quite stop the Nazis altogether, but Stern feels the battle was well worth waging.
“It’s not legal to cry fire in a crowded room,” he says. “You create upheaval, people get killed. We knew the Holocaust happened. We got liberated with the pain of the loss. We just couldn’t stand to have them trample on that.”
After 42 years in Skokie, the Sterns moved to Berkeley to be close to their two daughters and grandchildren (they have a son in Georgia and one great-grandchild as well).
But every chance he gets, Stern speaks to audiences to tell the story again and again.
“My mind is clear,” Stern says. “I want to share, not on my behalf, but to prove to people what happened to 6 million Jews, how much talent, how much love they had that was robbed from them. I’m still not liberated. I don’t want it. The few years I got left, I want to be talking about it.”