A Tribute to Helga Stein Dead at 75, Holocaust Survivor

Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 19, 2002



Helga Stein, 75, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who remained in Germany throughout World War II and lived by her wits on the streets of Berlin in the final chaotic year before the Nazi surrender, died of cardiopulmonary disease Dec. 11 at her home in Adelphi.

Mrs. Stein immigrated to the United States as a single mother with two young children in 1950. For the past 11 years, she had lived in this area, where she was known in the Hillandale community as an unofficial "neighborhood granny." She spoke about her Holocaust experiences at Girl Scout meetings and talked to children at such gathering places as the community swimming pool about what it was like to be a Jew in the Nazi capital during the war.

She participated in cinema director Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation project to videotape and preserve firsthand personal testimony about the Holocaust, and gave a four-hour interview to Spielberg's representatives. Videotapes of this interview are at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and at the Yad Vashem archives in Israel.

A year to the day before her death, Mrs. Stein completed a written autobiography, titled "My Story."

She wrote: "I heard so many times from people in Germany that they had no idea what was going on and never would have stood silently by while the Jews were thrown on trucks and shipped to concentration camps. Unless you were a mole, without eyes and ears, you had to see the beatings, you had to hear the curse words, you had to feel the hatred. Too many bystanders joined in these attacks and thought them very amusing and entertaining."

Mrs. Stein was born in Berlin in 1927. Her father died when she was 3. She was 6 when the Nazis took power, and life for Jews in Germany got bad very quickly. She was allowed to attend German public schools but was barred from certain programs. In her final year of secondary school, she was expelled and forced to work in an electronics assembly factory. By then, the Holocaust was proceeding apace.

"The Nazis had painted one bench in all the parks yellow and designated it 'For Jews Only'" she wrote in her autobiography. "In the beginning some sat down, but they soon discovered that it became the favorite sport of teens and even younger children to abuse them. It could also happen on some days, when the quota for bringing in Jews was too low, that they just picked one up right off the bench. So, needless to say, the benches remained empty most of the time."

In 1943, Mrs. Stein's mother was seized by the Gestapo at their home and taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. A friendly neighbor watched this happen and warned Mrs. Stein -- who had not been at home -- to stay away.

With a friend, a deserter from the German army named Gerd Kamnitzer, she went into hiding, living on the streets and in vacant rooms of bomb-damaged buildings. "I now had the same routine all the hidden people had. No shoes, no noise whatsoever during the day when people were not supposed to be at home. Also no air-raid shelters for us. But all that changed eventually. With so many refugees from the Eastern Front and the ever-increasing bombings over the cities and especially Berlin, the streets were teeming with people who had no home. . . . I decided to take my chance on the street, joining the army of refugees."

The winter of 1945 in Germany was one of the coldest and snowiest in Mrs. Stein's memory, but she survived. The last few months of the war were especially perilous. "Russians were close to Berlin on the Eastern Front. We became very careful and rarely ever ventured on to the streets any more. The Nazis had taken teenagers and very old men and provided them with weapons to shoot at the Russians." The war in Europe ended May 8. In October, Mrs. Stein was reunited with her mother, who had survived Theresienstadt.

Before coming to the United States in 1950, Mrs. Stein would marry Kamnitzer, have two children with him and then divorce. She would live for a period in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. Arriving in New York with two young children, she met Herbert H. Stein, a former Berliner and another Holocaust survivor, whose parents and younger brother had all been killed. They married in 1953.

For most of her life in the United States, Mrs. Stein lived on Long Island, where she was active in the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training and president of the Long Island chapter. She was a breeder and a licensed American Kennel Club judge of German shepherd dogs.

In the Washington area, she did quilting and made clay figurine sculptures, and she taught these skills to neighborhood children.

In addition to her husband, of Adelphi, survivors include their daughter, Claudia Stein Donnelly of Silver Spring; two children from her first marriage who were adopted by Mr. Stein, Lona Stein of New York and Tom Stein of Potomac; and five grandchildren.



Courtesy of The Washington Post Company