Obituary: Holocaust survivor Klaus Stern shared his story
Klaus Stern, who educated students about the Holocaust for decades, died Sunday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Klaus Stern arrived in Seattle in 1946, his concentration-camp number, a ragged 1-1-7-0-3-3, still clearly visible on his forearm.
Some told him it was time to forget, even forgive, but he didn’t listen.
Almost immediately, he started talking about the horrors he experienced during the Holocaust and he didn’t stop until about a month ago, when health problems made it too difficult.
Over all those decades, he spoke to tens of thousands of students and adults at schools, community centers and churches. He hoped that sharing his stories would help prevent anything similar from happening again, and he saw it as a way to honor all the people who didn’t survive.
Mr. Stern died Sunday of complications from pneumonia. He was 92.
He grew up in Berlin, where his father worked for a raincoat company. The family became increasingly isolated after Hitler came to power, which surprised them because Mr. Stern’s father fought for Germany in World War I and they thought that service would protect them. To the young Mr. Stern, one of the biggest shocks was when his best friend, a non-Jewish boy named Walter, called to say he couldn’t see Mr. Stern anymore.
Mr. Stern went to technical school in Aurich, Germany, to learn window trimming and salesmanship, but later was expelled with all the other Jews. He then returned to Berlin, but as soldiers started rounding up Jews, he traveled to a rural area about 80 miles away to learn farming skills, which he had heard could earn him a visa to England.
But World War II started one month before his visa went into effect and in April 1943, Mr. Stern, along with Paula Stern, whom he’d recently wed, were ordered by the Gestapo into a cattle car headed to Auschwitz. When they arrived they were separated and Mr. Stern spent the next two years at six different concentration camps.
He survived several death marches, and nearly lost his life several times, once surviving only because a guard thought he looked healthy when, in reality, his face was swollen because of malnutrition.
When American troops finally arrived at Muehldorf, where Mr. Stern was in May 1945, he lay in that concentration camp’s infirmary, sick with typhoid, sharing a bed with three other starving, weak prisoners.
But he and his wife both survived and were reunited in Germany, then left for the United States.
They considered moving to Australia, where Paula Stern had a brother, but Mr. Stern’s uncle, a physician in Seattle, persuaded them to stay here, where they became the first Holocaust survivors to resettle in the city.
Mr. Stern found a job at Langendorf Bakeries, where he worked for 36 years, and the couple lived in the Montlake neighborhood, where they raised two children.
Mr. Stern collected stamps, worked in the garden, walked the family dogs, watched tennis on TV. He loved to tell jokes. But his main passion was keeping the memories of the Holocaust alive.
“There are some people who wanted to say — well, that was then and there. That couldn’t happen in this country,” said Mr. Stern’s son, Marvin Stern. “But of course they said that about Germany, too.”
In 1989, Mr. Stern and a number of other Holocaust survivors helped found the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, a Seattle nonprofit that supports teachers who want to teach about the Holocaust.
Mr. Stern returned to Germany for the first time in 1959, but he was anxious about going. The German government had asked him to testify in the trial of an Auschwitz officer.
“He had some doubts,” his son said. “My mother had even stronger doubts.”
Mr. Stern insisted on a round-trip ticket.
After he retired from Langendorf Bakeries, Mr. Stern spent even more of his time speaking. When he went to Sitka, Alaska, nearly the entire town turned out to hear his stories of persecution, imprisonment and rescue.
Sometimes his audiences included people who questioned whether the Holocaust really happened, and some of them would confront him afterward. But his son said Mr. Stern never got angry, just calmly shared his experiences.
“I think he actually changed some minds through his humility and the truthfulness of his story,” his son said.
Mr. Stern never turned down a speaking invitation, even when his health started to fail, said Dee Simon, executive director of the Holocaust Education Resource Center.
Mr. Stern was a gentle man, she said, and a quiet leader.
“Sometimes I think we tend to intellectualize history,” she said. “He kept it personal. He kept it real.”
Along with his wife and son, Mr. Stern is survived by a daughter, Marion Kitz, of Seattle, and four grandchildren.
Services have been held. Remembrances can be sent to the Klaus Stern Holocaust Education Fund at the Holocaust Education Resource Center, the Emanuel Congregation, or the Jewish Family Service Food Bank.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST