Holocaust survivor Stephen M. Berger speaks to Tech Center and Fox Meadow Campus students Jan. 13, 2012
YORKTOWN — Stephen Berger counts no fewer than four strokes of luck that spared not only his own life but that of his mother and 4-year-old sister in the year between the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and the end of World War II.
From choosing the one deportation train not bound for Auschwitz to defying an SS officer’s order only to have a civilian intervene on his behalf, chance was on his side. Berger’s final lucky break came near the end of the war, hiding in a basement with a German soldier at the door. He was sure they’d be discovered. A soldier in an approaching Soviet tank eliminated the threat.
“My friends, you don’t know how freedom feels until you lose it,” the Floral Park resident told about 100 students at Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES on Friday. “How did I keep my faith alive? Because I knew I was right, and they were wrong. I never doubted myself.”
Berger, who is in his early 80s, said afterward that he didn’t allow hatred to consume him — his parents and sister survived, but 26 immediate relatives, some as young as 5, perished. Despite his outward appearance, though, he said he is like a volcano inside.
And while he’s lost count of how many times he’s told his story, he is more concerned about when he no longer can.
“I worry a lot,” he said, “because the Holocaust isn’t unique in human history and genocides are happening today while we speak. Of course it’s not the Jews. It’s the Christians’ turn now.”
Berger asked how many students knew more than 100,000 African Christians had been killed in the last two years. A few hands went up.
Many missed the warning signs of the Holocaust, what he called industrialized mass murder by the 20th century’s barbarians.
Following deportation, he w as a slave laborer. Hunger was constant. Berger vividly recalls a sandwich from a housemaid and a meal from the guilt-ridden mother of a German soldier.
He spent a day pulling bodies from the rubble of a train station, beaten bloody in the process by his guards. His mother fainted at the sight of him that night.
He gave gruesome details of the three-and-a-half day ride to Austria crammed in a cattle car with 80 to 100 others but spared students the story of the week prior spent waiting in a brickyard, “because I want you to sleep at night.” He left little out in describing the gas chambers: poison dropped from hatches in the roof, mothers holding babies overhead in the hope of a few more seconds of breath before the gas rose from the floor.
Kaya Birch, a senior at Ossining High School, called Berger’s story of a childhood friend who didn’t survive the war devastating.
“You realize from his experience that he was the lucky one,” said Birch.
Brewster senior Jessica Lehtonen heard a similar talk while visiting Vienna last year.
“I feel like you learn so much from their stories,” she said.