Herbert Hugo Stein is one of the few to have survived various Nazi camps and the only survivor of his family. In an interview for the Shoah Foundation in 1998, he remembered his childhood and youth and the various places and circumstances in which he was detained.
Herbert Stein was born on 27 June 1925 in Bremen, the first child of Willy and Charlotte Stein, a Reformed Jewish, conservative couple. Herbert’s father ran a successful business dealing in animal feed. His mother was affectionate and full of ideas for outdoor activities with Herbert and his younger brother by five years, Kurt Gustav. The Steins lived in a large apartment with a balcony and Herbert had his own room. After four years at the local primary school in Bremen, he began attending the city grammar school. His schooling there came to an abrupt end in 1935 when he was expelled along with many other Jewish pupils. His parents then enrolled him in a private Jewish school.
Around 1937 the family moved to Berlin. Herbert’s father had lost his business due to “Aryanization” in 1934 and could see no other professional prospects in Bremen. In Berlin the Steins lived on the second floor of a house at Gossow Strasse 1 in Schöneberg that belonged to Herbert’s mother. The apartment here was considerably smaller than their previous home in Bremen and did not have a balcony. Herbert now had to share a room with his younger brother Kurt. Both boys attended a private Jewish school. The family went regularly to the synagogue, which was a short walk away in Münchener Strasse. Herbert loved sport at school and was a keen football player. He remembered a school-friend, Paul Bernstein, with whom he also spent much of his free time.
In late summer 1939, the family’s attempt to emigrate to Shanghai was frustrated when they were sent back from the border due to the imminent outbreak of war. In late 1939 Herbert’s school was closed. Aged 14, he attended a synagogue school for a short time. He vividly remembered the mounting penalties such as having to hand in gold and silverware and radios in 1939 and cameras and other equipment in spring 1942. The latter was especially hard for him since he already had his own camera, which he was forced to hand in at the collecting point in the synagogue in Münchener Strasse. On his way to school one day, some children snatched his bicycle from him, saying that Jews didn’t need bicycles.
From spring 1941, Herbert Stein was made to perform forced labour. He was assigned to a private construction company and fitted steel doors in the underground cellars and bunkers of a state administration building.
On 19 October 1942, Herbert Stein was deported along with his parents and brother, Kurt, to Riga in the 21st ‘transport to the east’. The journey in an overcrowded carriage without a toilet took nearly 4 days, arriving on 22 October 1942. The family was immediately separated. Herbert Stein, who had been entered in the transport list as “fit for work”, was sent to join a group of about 20 other people after his mother, brother and father had been driven on to trucks. They had not had another chance to speak to each other. Herbert Stein and about two or three hundred other prisoners were taken by truck to the Riga ghetto, where they were split up into groups and allocated to different buildings. The next morning, they were ordered to line up in front of their building. Then they were crammed into a truck and driven to grounds outside the ghetto that they were to clear and level. Herbert Stein performed this work for about six to eight weeks. He presumed that it was in preparation for building an airfield. He received a piece of bread and a cup of coffee substitute before work and a bowl of soup during the day. At night, about 30 people shared the very confined space of the building. There were not enough straw mattresses or blankets for everyone. All the inmates were still wearing the clothes they had been deported in.
In spring 1943 Herbert Stein was transferred to the newly established Kaiserwald concentration camp in north Riga. This was not a death camp but a work camp, the inmates of which sometimes performed forced labour outside the camp for major companies. In Kaiserwald Herbert and his fellow inmates received numbered prison uniforms. They were no longer supervised by ghetto staff but by SS guards and Latvian staff. Herbert was allocated the job of operating a cement mixer. He also repaired and cleaned railway trains returning from the Russian front.
As the Germans retreated from the eastern front in summer 1944, the ghettos and camps in the Baltic States were dissolved and the inmates transferred to Stutthof concentration camp not far from Danzig (Gdańsk). Herbert Stein was among them. He vaguely remembered being transferred from Stutthof to Stolp/Słupsk in Pomerania in late 1943, he thought. This sub-camp of Stutthof for Jewish prisoners performing maintenance work for the Reich railways was not opened until August 1944. It was August 1944, then, when Herbert was taken here along with 620 other men and women. The accommodation was cold and draughty, consisting of straw mattresses laid out on a platform in a railway carriage shed. Only the younger, strong men worked in the following months repairing and cleaning train carriages entirely by hand, without the help of any machines or hydraulic devices.
In January and February 1945 the prisoners were made to dig anti-tank defence ditches around the city. In late February, the first inmates of the camp were evacuated. They were initially to be taken to an abandoned camp in Danzig-Kokoschken and from there to Stutthof. Herbert Stein clearly remembered that he was now given blankets for the first time. He did not know anything certain about the course of the war – when he began hearing shots and exploding bombs, he did not know what to make of it. By this time he was seriously ill. He could not move one arm and was growing steadily weaker. As far as he remembered, the camp was due to be vacated on 12 or 13 March 1945, on which date the guard deliberately or mistakenly overlooked the young man lying, seriously ill, in his bunk. He clearly remembered his liberation by the Russians on 14 or 15 March 1945. He was absolutely certain of the date, which indicates that he cannot have been in Stutthof, which the Russians did not reach until 9 May 1945. Presumably he had been left behind in Danzig-Kokoschken. While the place of his liberation and rescue remains uncertain, then, it is known that the Russians admitted him to hospital in Danzig. Here the doctors diagnosed polio and he remained in hospital for three months’ treatment. One of his legs was permanently paralysed as a result of his illness and he could only walk with the help of a stick for many years.
When it was possible to travel again, Herbert Stein returned to Berlin. He looked for the house at Gossow Strasse 1 but it was no longer standing. The streets and familiar surroundings of his youth had been largely destroyed by bombing. He tried to find his parents and brother but with no success.
After a hard struggle to gain an entry permit, he was finally able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1950. Here he married in 1955 and became father to a daughter, Claudia. He did not tell his family anything about his experiences of persecution and survival until he had reached an advanced age. Then, at 72, he broke his silence and gave an interview to an American journalist. He never managed to find out any details of the fate of his family.
Herbert Stein died in 2004. His daughter actively attended the laying of the Stolperstein for him and his family.