Ben Stern, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland, and Lea Heitfeld, a 31-year-old German graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley are the unlikeliest of roommates.
Stern survived two ghettos, nine concentration camps and two death marches. Heitfeld is the granddaughter of Nazis.
“My grandparents were Nazis,” Heitfeld said. “They were very active. They were really into the system.” Fortunately, Hetfield’s parents took a different approach. They raised her to ask questions about the responsibility of German gentiles for the Holocaust and to continue to keep this part of German history alive.
“My grandparents’ generation is not there anymore, so how do you keep memory alive? What is important to be preserved? How is it supposed to be remembered?” she said. “I found that very meaningful. I suddenly realized this generation, the survivors, are still around, and how can I say I have nothing to do if I can contribute something?”
That upbringing is what led Hetfield to come to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in Jewish studies, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and to her housemate. “They were looking for a live-in companion for Ben,” Heitfeld said, “and my professor wrote me that Ben is the ‘coolest, funniest, most handsome old dude I know.’”
When Stern’s wife was moved into an assisted living facility, Heitfeld became a welcome companion to curb Stern’s loneliness so he would have someone to share meals and ideas with. “I’m open-minded to get along with people,” Stern said. “I want to prove it that it can be done.”
Even before they met, Stern felt a connection with Heitfeld.
“The name Lea meant so much to me,” he said. “My grandmother’s name was Lea, and I carried her on my arms from the train to the Warsaw Ghetto. She passed away in the ghetto from starvation, but she was such a dear, warm individual. The name Lea is just dear to me in my head.”
Ben Stern holds up a copy of a newspaper clipping showing him and his wife after they came to the United States as Jewish refugees after World War II. Credit: Sasha Khokha
Heitfeld and Stern are friends as Stern does not need her to be his caretaker. He is active, walks at least an hour a day on his treadmill, reads books and checks his email. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live nearby as well.
“He continues to surprise us,” said his daughter, Charlene Stern, “walking a mile and a half to visit my mom almost every day, insisting on doing everything he can still do and finding new ways to do it, despite blindness and deafness. He’s a force for life.”
Stern secret to longevity? “Being positive in life. Very simple. Optimistic. Positive,” he said. “Go forward. Don’t look back. I got a lot to look back [on], and I live with that. I live with both.”
“I thought you were going to tell her about your vodka,” Charlene added with a laugh.
When Stern and Heitfeld talk about his history, their conversations are very serious.
When the Nazis invaded Poland when Stern was 17, his neighborhood became a prison for Jews. His parents and eight brothers and one sister were all killed. He survived multiple concentration camps and was one of only a tiny percentage to survive a death march from Buchenwald in 1945.
“Seven thousand boys left Buchenwald on April 3,” Stern said. “We walked 35 days without a piece of bread. Four boiled potatoes every afternoon. Thirty-five days, from 7,000, we were 156 who survived.”
After seven decades later, Heitfeld is trying to right the wrongs of her family’s past.
“You find yourself on the side of the perpetrators because you know it’s the history of the nation, and it’s your family history, too,” she said of being German. “How can I say I wouldn’t have participated if so many people participated?”
This sense of perspective has led Hetfield to become an activist for other mistreated groups today.
“Where am I contributing? Where am I standing up? Where am I raising my voice?” she said. “As long as I’m not doing anything, I will always stay a perpetrator in a way. I will stay someone who hasn’t learned from history.”
‘Near Normal Man’
Charlene produced a 30-minute documentary called “Near Normal Man” about her father’s life, which will be distributed primarily to schools and universities so that young people like Hetfield will learn from history.
“I couldn’t stand the thought that as the survivors pass on, the history becomes documents by third-party people,” Charlene said. “I’ve grown up standing next to my parents and their pain. It’s very real to me. I was worried that it would become arm’s-length, ancient history so very quickly. It became important to me, critical that his voice go out, that he tells his own story.”
The film follows Stern’s life through surviving Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, being liberated by the Americans and finding his way to the United States with his new bride.
“My father’s always said he’s ‘near-normal’ for a man who was a fugitive, was enslaved, was beaten, whipped, shot at, starved, marched almost to death twice,” Charlene said.
“The most astounding fact of having him for a father is where does his courage and kindness and hope come from?” Charlene said. “I have been a witness to it every day. He continues to surprise me.”
The film also shows Stern’s controversial stance as the leader of a movement to prevent neo-Nazis from marching in what was then his newly adopted hometown of Skokie, Illinois, in 1978. Charlene said other Jewish Americans tolf Stern to “let it pass” as they didn’t take the hate group seriously.
“My dad would not let it pass,” she said.
Despite Stern having collected more than 750,000 signatures opposing the march, the ACLU helped the neo-Nazis win the right to demonstrate.
Stern’s takes a controversial stance when it comes to President Donald Trump’s administration, saying he sees an echo of Nazi Germany in what’s already happening to civil rights now.
“I learned a long time ago that history repeats itself,” he said. “The European people were mostly indifferent to the Jewish destruction. Many of them were sympathizers. Many took active part in it.”
Stern said he was shocked that Trump failed to mention Jews in his statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“How can you ignore it and not mention the people of the Holocaust?” he said. “It’s hitting right into the heart telling you, ‘I don’t care.’ They don’t exist for him. And that’s what’s frightening. And that’s why we’ve got to say, ‘Not here, not now.'”
Stern says that an indifferent bystander to the suffering of others is just as bad as an active collaborator.
“That’s what I’m applying today to the youth,” he said. “You cannot stand by and be indifferent. That is a sin. A colossal sin that will catch up with you later on.”
That is what Charlene hopes young people will take away from “Near Normal Man.”
“This film is not another Holocaust film. This is a film with the tools for the next generation for America today,” she said.
Stern remains defiant but also hopeful.
“We as American people must say not now, not here. We need to help the people when they reach for a handout,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’m hopeful that we as Americans continue to live and enjoy the freedom that this country offers.”
Watch the trailer for “Near Normal Man” here: