“‘You see those flames? Those are your parents, your husbands, your children burning.”’
Stern also remembers the anguish when the pregnant young widow, newly freed, arrived at a Prague hospital. The staff, seeing a scrawny woman with a shaved head, thought she was a prostitute and the baby’s father a Nazi. Stern says she was treated roughly at first. After three grueling days of labor, her son, Peter, was born. He had blood in his skull. He died three days later.
“He was,” she says, “a beautiful baby.”
Stern moved to Chicago in 1965 and joined the staff of Selfhelp, developing an instant rapport with the other refugees. “The reason I wanted to work there was I could never do anything for my parents because they were killed,” she says. “These people could have been my parents ... I loved them and they loved me.”
Now a stylish, lively 92-year-old grandmother, Stern says she always knew she’d return. Moving in 14 years ago, she says, was “like coming home.” Her younger sister, Marietta, who spent the war with a foster family in England as part of Kindertransport, a rescue mission for Jewish children, lives across the hall.
Stern says she and other survivors are forever bound by experiences few can comprehend.
“We had these terrible mutual memories,” she says. “When I tell you about my life, you cannot imagine it. But these people can. For you, my story is like a novel. For them, it’s real life.”
Every one of their stories has been recorded on DVDs.
Bensinger, the documentary maker, conducted 30 interviews five years ago. Since then, more than two-thirds have died.
But on any evening, there are silver-haired, slightly stooped survivors, profiles of sheer will, determination and fate, who gather for dinner and end another day.