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'I can't take it out on her because her grandparents were Nazis'

Odd couple: The Holocaust survivor who shares a flat with the granddaughter of Nazis

When 95-year-old Ben Stern got a call from 31-year-old Lea Heitfeld about becoming flatmates, he kept an open mind. After all, she is a Jewish Studies grad student

31-year-old Lea Heitfeld shares an apartment with 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern. (Courtesy)
31-year-old Lea Heitfeld shares an apartment with 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern. (Courtesy)

BERKELEY, California — A 95-year-old Holocaust survivor’s choice of roommate is making headlines. Not because she is 64 years his junior; rather it is because of his willingness to welcome the granddaughter of unrepentant Nazis.

They are an odd couple indeed. Ben Stern withstood two ghettos, nine concentration camps, selection by the notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele, two death marches, and the historic conflict in Skokie, Illinois. German-born Lea Heitfeld, 31, is a graduate student in Jewish Studies.

“I told myself I cannot take it out on her because her grandparents were Nazis,” Stern says, chatting via a Bluetooth-enabled system to enhance his hearing. “A girl like that, a lady, should not have to pay the price for her grandparents.”

During World War II, the Nazis killed Stern’s parents as well as seven brothers and one sister. Stern’s arm is tattooed both with the number “129592” as well as an inverted triangle to distinguish his status as one of the “dangerous Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.” His resilience is a recurring theme throughout his life.

When he met Heitfeld, who is completing her master’s degree at the nearby Graduate Theological Union this spring, she revealed her ancestors were active members of the Nazi party. That did not hinder Stern from accepting Heitfeld as a roommate in his spacious two-bedroom, two-bath Berkeley condominium.

Their unusual friendship has attracted international media attention.

Stern’s determination during WWII as well as his efforts to combat hate speech in Skokie is depicted in a film produced, written and directed by his daughter, Charlene Stern, called “Near Normal Man.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUcZpDpMyX4

“Being in Auschwitz and coming out of Auschwitz, you cannot be normal,” says Stern. “God created angels, and in between, he created survivors. It’s a losing battle and a winning battle. When I share it with other people, I’m winning… I can laugh and cry at the same time.”

At the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the project landed the award for Best Documentary Short. Among showings at schools and other institutions, “Near Normal Man” recently screened at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Father and daughter engaged with a high school audience following the screening in a taped event. The film will also be screened at Grace Cathedral on May 21.

“Near Normal Man” features Stern’s resistance to the historic proposal of a neo-Nazi march in Skokie, where he was living at the time. As if it were scripted, activist Ira Glasser, who was among the leaders who fought to permit the march, came upon the film and reviewed it for the Huffington Post.

‘His remedy — a massive counter demonstration, a response of speech to speech — was exactly right’

“I have seen many similar films, but found this one especially moving, largely because of Ben Stern’s extraordinary articulation, from beginning to end. As soon as I saw that he had resettled in Skokie, I knew where this was going,” writes Glasser, who served as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001.

“Early on in that dispute, despite being a leading defender of the ACLU’s decision to take the case, I resolved never to lecture those who had endured, and still endure, incalculable pain and anguish, on why the First Amendment compelled the result it did. I thought this wonderful film handled the Skokie matter superbly, and that Stern’s narrative about it was marvelous, and his remedy — a massive counter demonstration, a response of speech to speech — exactly right.”

‘I didn’t see bread for 35 days’

Ben Stern, front right, as a child in Europe, holding a mandolin. (Courtesy)
Ben Stern, front right, as a child in Europe, holding a mandolin. (Courtesy)

At a recent private screening of the 30-minute film in their living room, both Sterns and Heitfeld shared their story with The Times of Israel.

“I’m always so speechless,” says Heitfeld, who watched the screening although she had already seen the film “four or five times.”

Watching it and conversing with the Sterns continues to impact her.

“Growing up in Germany, it was always facts and numbers. And getting to know this personal story, I feel like I understand more,” Heitfeld says.

The film is Charlene Stern’s answer for the complex legacy she inherited.

“I wish it wasn’t relevant, but it is so relevant,” she says, adding that she aimed to preserve her father’s voice for younger audiences.

“They are entering a country and a world shuddering from hate speech and racism unchecked,” she says. “My biggest fear is hate speech unchecked that moves into action.”

‘My biggest fear is hate speech unchecked that moves into action’

The film is also a way of sustaining hope “that there can be a better future for all of us,” Stern says. “We all have the potential, both ways. We all do.”

Both the filmmaker and her father are involved in a local Conservative synagogue.

Heitfeld, too, has a history of engagement with the Jewish community. She previously volunteered at an assisted living facility and attended a public presentation honoring this reporter’s father, a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. While this reporter’s father was left for dead in Buchenwald, Ben Stern was forced on a death march few survived.

“I didn’t see bread for 35 days,” he recalls.

Ben Stern re-experiencing his entry to Maidanek death camp. (Screenshot/courtesy)
Ben Stern re-experiencing his entry to Maidanek death camp. (Screenshot/courtesy)

Decades later, Charlene Stern sought a roommate for her father after her mother Helen, a fellow survivor Stern met in a displaced persons camp, moved into an assisted living facility. Eager to find appropriate live-in company for her father, Charlene Stern contacted a local Jewish academic, GTU Professor Naomi Seidman.

“My professor wrote me that Ben is the ‘coolest, funniest, most handsome old dude I know,’” Heitfeld says.

At some point in their early conversations, Stern asked her about her grandfather.

“I just said he was a soldier,” she says.

‘My grandmother would say things like, the war was the greatest time in my life because I was in the unit of the German girls’

Heitfeld says her parents distanced her from her grandparents, rejecting them and their bigotry, which they espoused with fond nostalgia for the Nazi regime.

“My grandmother, whom I met three times, would say things like, ‘The war was the greatest time in my life because I was in the unit of the German girls,'” says Heitfeld.

The conflicts Stern and Heitfeld face are hardly ideological, but typical roommate fare.

“I must say that there are a few points I’m working on,” he says. “But she’s improving. At my age, I know this apartment in the dark and everything has got to be in the same place that it was so I can handle it.”

Ben Stern strolls through Berkeley, California in his neon vest. (Courtesy)
Ben Stern strolls through Berkeley, California in his neon vest. (Courtesy)

Although Stern is highly functional and takes daily walks to visit his wife, whose health requires more care, the Holocaust is never far away.

“No matter how ‘near normal’ I’m acting, the memory does not fade,” he says. “Anyone who goes through the Holocaust cannot say he is normal. That’s the price I pay for being a survivor.”

‘Anyone who goes through the Holocaust cannot say he is normal. That’s the price I pay for being a survivor’

His nightmares continue. How God could permit the Holocaust is an inquiry Stern plans to address beyond the grave.

“I’m going to have that question with me when I get to heaven and have court with God,” he says.

Meanwhile, witnessing the interaction of her father with this receptive young German is healing for Charlene Stern.

“Lea’s parents are survivors of a terrible inheritance,” says the filmmaker, who feels compelled to honor her father’s openhearted hope of a better world.

“That is astounding to me,” she says. “I’m a student of his life. And he continues to teach me. And now Lea is a teacher to me, too… the two of them.”

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