Steven Hess, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and frequent lecturer on the Holocaust, spoke yesterday in Myron Taylor Hall. Hess explained how he, his twin sister, and their parents survived the horrors of the concentration camp and how the Nazi regime “used all of the tools and freedoms of a democracy” to come to power.
Hess’s talk was sponsored by the Jewish Law Student Association.
Sharing his family’s experiences with the audience, Hess combined personal and actual history. Of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, Hess said, “You can’t possibly in your mind’s eye imagine 6 million people.”
Two-thirds of the European Jewry was wiped out — about 4,000 people a day — between 1939-1941. The reason that people “didn’t run or fight,” was that it could not be imagined. “Down with Jews” ideas were not new, Hess said, but rather something Jews had always dealt with; but they could not imagine the Holocaust, with its “industrialized murder.”
Moreover, many people did not actively participate in the systematic murder of Jews, but took a passive stance on the matter. “Millions of people turned their backs, did not reach out, because Jews were different, and they felt, it’s not my problem,” Hess said.
Hess came from an upper-middle class family in Germany, where his father worked as a vice-president at a silk factory. In 1935-36, with the enforcement of the Nuremberg Laws, Hess’s father’s boss told them to leave the country and arranged for him to switch jobs with a manager in Holland. The family left Germany legally, which meant that they could take their possessions.
Hess said that he once asked his parents why they stayed in Holland, and did not continue to move away from the growing conflict. Holland had seemed perfect, they explained. “It was neutral in WWI, and had every intention of being neutral” again. “By 1938, though,” Hess said, “it was obvious that war was coming. We didn’t know when, but it was.”
At that time, however, “there was no moving further.” Hess’s father paid for citizenship in Paraguay, but the papers did not arrive until after the war. In May 1940, the Nazis invaded, and “the door was shut.”
Though the Dutch are not often seen as guilty in the Holocaust, Hess noted, this is not actually the case. “Holland was the worst death trap,” he said, noting that the small country, a neighbor to Germany, provided no place to hide, and that though they did not welcome the Nazis, “they did not want to make waves,” Hess said.
Every week, trains left from the transit center to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and two other camps. Death surrounded them, and the starvation was brutal. For his birthday, Hess’s mother sold her wedding band, her last piece of jewelry, to buy him a piece of bread with a sugar mix.
When the Russians invaded Auschwitz, those remaining were moved to Bergen-Belsen, which then became “the Bergen-Belsen of infamy,” Hess said.
The family was put on a train to a death camp. When the train would stop to take bodies off of those that had died, Hess’s father would struggle off and look for food, sometimes finding a potato or two. One day, the Nazis ordered everyone back on the train before his father was back yet, a moment that Hess said his mother called the “worst moment of her life.”
When his father came back to find the train gone, he waited for the next train, hopped on, and managed to hide under a railroad platform at a station and find his family. They were eventually freed by the Russians.
Later, the family was able to return to where they had lived in Holland. Possessions they had left with “well-to-do-friends had somehow disappeared,” Hess said, “but the cleaning girl still had everything we had left with her.”
Hess finished his presentation with a question-answer session with the audience. Michelle Katz ’04 asked Hess when his parents discussed the experiences with him, to which he answered that they never really did. Anytime he would complain as a teenager, though, he said his father would say, “You’ve been through worse, it will only make you stronger.”
Matt Walker law ’06 asked how much the Roosevelt administration might have known at the time about the situation in Europe. Hess said that “the Brits did know by 1942 of gas chambers,” but the camps and systematic murder were seen as a “side issue, and that the best thing for the Jews would be to win the war.” He added that governments, and even other Jews not comfortable with their own status, did not want information getting out, though they probably did not know the full scope of the horrors.
Audience responses to Hess’s lecture were positive.
“He was a great speaker and it was an amazing lecture,” said Ed Aronowitz law ’05.
Hess shared one last anecdote of how his experiences during the war affected him: one time, moving a broken microwave, he found an old, stale piece of bread that his wife reached for to throw away. “I didn’t let her throw it away,” he said. “I ate it. I still cannot see bread thrown away.”
Archived article by Lauryn Slotnick
Sun Staff Writer