The Defense Logistics Agency held a virtual Holocaust observance program Sept. 16 in remembrance of the atrocities that took place during WWII and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of multiple concentration camps with the ending of the war.
The keynote speaker, Peter Stern, was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1936. He was only six years old when his family was taken from their home and deported to a holding camp, and then to the Riga Ghetto in Latvia in 1942.
While there, his father, who was an auto mechanic and vocational school instructor, worked on vehicles for the Germans. His mother took care of him and his brother.
Because of his father’s occupation, the Stern family was transferred to a German camp in a small farming village near the Eastern Front of the war. There, Stern’s father worked as a mechanic as the Germans battled with resistance forces.
“I remember waking up to gunfire one night. My mother told me that this happens almost every night, except my brother and I usually slept through it,” Stern said.
One day Russian forces attacked the camp, and his father saved the life of a higher ranking German officer. The officer returned the favor by hiding the Stern family in a Riga prison instead of bringing them back to the Ghetto.
“For three months my mother never left the cell we were in,” Stern said. “My father, brother and I were occasionally allowed to walk in the exercise yard.”
After three months they were transferred to a smaller cell in the prison.
“It was dark and dismal and there were names carved all over the walls,” he said. “It was the first time during the war that I truly saw my parents scared. They must have been scared silly all of the time, but this was the first time I noticed.”
Stern and his family were then put on a truck and snuck back into Germany by the German forces from the camp.
“The trucks were full of the clothing of the dead,” he said. “The Germans would hide us under the clothing every time we came to a guard station as we crossed the various borders on our way to Germany. I remember the ride being an amazing thing, and looking up at the clear sky while driving at night.”
When they arrived in Germany, they were handed over to the civil authorities and put on trial.
“I remember being in a courtroom,” Stern said. “I don’t know what story the judge was told, but he was yelling at my parents.”
The Stern family was separated, and his father imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp where he died. Stern, his mother and brother were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and then, in the face of an Allied advance, moved to Bergen-Belsen.
On April 15, 1945, they were liberated by British forces.
“I consider it my second birthday,” he said.
The family immigrated to the United States in 1947, where Stern began attending school for the first time at age 11. He went on to receive a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Missouri and taught middle school science for 30 years.
Today, Stern shares his story of surviving the Holocaust with students and interested adults through the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center’s Witness to History Project. The project aims to increase awareness and lessons learned from the Holocaust through direct contact with individuals who lived through it.
“Ken Burns said that ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but human nature doesn’t change,’” he said. “But it is my view, as a teacher and a lecturer, that we can influence human nature. My purpose is to get people to think about where they are and what they have to do in their lives to make sure this doesn’t happen to their children for any reason, to any degree.”