Education

Holocaust Survivor tells Life Story as 106th Birthday Draws Near

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Kurt Steiner will turn 106 on Wednesday, April 25. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
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CRANFORD, NJ – In a quaint white house near the border of Cranford and Garwood, 105-year-old Kurt Steiner sat at his dining room table, surrounded by cabinets that held his collection of Viennese glass and antique Limoge plates. At his table, he had his carefully taped together passport and exit papers from Vienna, Austria, stamped with a large “J” and “Jude,” the German word for “Jew.”

Steiner, who will turn 106 on Wednesday, is one of the remaining survivors of the Holocaust. He and his late wife, Nora, moved from Vienna to New Jersey about one year after Hitler invaded their home city.

Steiner was born on April 25, 1912. His mother, Emma, died twelve weeks after his birth. Steiner and his half-sister, Geraldine, were raised by his father and step-mother.

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“Times were very bad after World War I,” he said, speaking with a soft accent. “The United States helped Germany and Japan after World War I, but nobody wanted to help Austria because we started the war. Times were very hard.”

Steiner’s step-mother died in 1931, following complications from surgery. Money was tight and times were difficult, he said. After finishing high school, he worked in a factory and later took over his father’s sales position. He held that job for one year before he was forced to give up his job by the Nazis.

“Austria was the first country that the Nazis came into,” Steiner said, speaking with the ability to recall exact dates, amounts and details. “Vienna had more Jews than any other city in Europe. Nobody believed that it could be possible. It was our country, our language, and you don’t just pick up and run.”

Steiner, his father and his wife, Nora, were forced to give up their jobs, their home and their bank accounts under Hitler’s regime, he said.

“The Nazis claimed that whatever a Jew had was taken away from a gentile person anyway,” he said. “We didn’t have much in the bank anyway. My wife and I had saved for two years before we were married to buy furniture for our apartment.”

While Steiner and his wife sent unanswered letters to Nora’s distant relatives in America, hoping they could send affidavits pledging to sponsor the couple if they came to New Jersey, Geraldine found a job as a governess in London.

“She was more resolute than I am,” he said. “She immediately felt that there was no way she could stay in Vienna.”

Looking for any way to connect with her relatives, Nora wrote to the chief rabbi at a synagogue in Newark. Unfortunately, her elderly relatives could not secure affidavits to sponsor the Steiner’s because they didn’t pay taxes at the time. However, with support from the rabbi and the National Council of Jewish Women, the family secured the necessary documents to sponsor the Steiner’s move to America.

“We were notified by the American Consulate that the affidavits were there, and told to come there on April 14, 1938 to pick them up,” Steiner said.

However, before the couple could pick up their affidavits, they needed to have their passports and exit papers signed by many different tax offices, which were overrun by Jewish citizens trying to secure signatures. The people waiting outside the offices were chased away by Nazis, forced to leave the office and return over and over again, Steiner said.

“The Nazis made sure you had nothing,” he said. “You had to go from one tax office to another to get the papers signed. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with them, you still had to go with every one of those tax offices and make sure you didn’t owe any taxes to them. It took an awful long time. They made a sport of it.”

To pay for the trip, Nora taught lessons in English and French and Steiner took photos for other families preparing to leave. However, that wasn’t enough to support the costs of the trip, rent, food and other necessities. To fund the trip, Steiner and his wife received money from Jewish communities in free countries. By the time they left Vienna, both Steiner and his wife had lost significant amounts of weight, he said.

Eventually, Steiner collected the necessary signatures, but two days before they were scheduled to leave, Nora collapsed under the stress of their situation and was told she could not travel. A few weeks later, she was cleared for travel and they obtained new tickets for a ship from Liverpool, England to Newark.

The couple took a train from Vienna to Liverpool, a long, grueling route, Steiner said. At a station in Switzerland, he was ordered by a Nazi to exit the car and be strip-searched on the platform.

“The guard told me, ‘I know that you’re hiding something. You better give it to me because if I find it, you’re going to the concentration camp,’” Steiner recalled, mentioning that the guard checked in his mouth, his rear and behind his knees.

When the guard was satisfied that Steiner and several other passengers had no money or anything of value, they continued on their way to Liverpool, stopping in Paris, where they received some money from the Jewish community there.

“In France, they were dancing,” he said. “They said, ‘The Nazis can’t do anything to us, we have the Maginot Line.’ In England, it was very different. They had machine guns in the parks and were prepared for the war that was coming to England.”

Finally, the Steiners boarded the ship to Newark on May 12, 1939, 14 months after the Nazis entered Vienna.

“It was the best vacation we ever had in our life,” Steiner said, with a smile that can only be described as youthful. “The food was unbelievable. There was more food for breakfast than we could eat in two days.  We thought we were in heaven.”

Upon arrival in Newark, Nora’s uncle and cousin were waiting for the Steiners at the dock. They brought them to their apartment, where the couple looked for work. Steiner began working in a box factory for 25 cents per hour. Nora wrote letters for people who could not write in English.

“I was determined that we would not be a burden,” Steiner said.

However, they hadn’t been staying there for long when National Council for Jewish Women informed Nora that the family requested that they move out of their apartment.

“I went out the same evening and took a furnished room,” Steiner said. “We had $4.50 left of my income to live on. We bought a small electric hotplate and made tea, eggs, sandwiches and that’s how we lived for a few months.”

Within the next few years, the couple worked various jobs. Steiner found a job delivering diapers, but was later fired at the request of the other employees, after he brought in significantly more employees than they did by asking for the names of pregnant women from doctors, he said.

“The boss said, ‘look, that greenhorn hardly speaks English and he brings me 10 customers a week,’” Steiner said. “’You bring in one or two a week.’ So the drivers got together and said ‘we are quitting the job or you let that man go. We don’t want him here.’”

Meanwhile, Steiner had exchanged letters with his father, although they were censored by the Nazis before they were sent. His father, in his 70’s, stopped sending letters in 1944, when he was sent to a concentration camp in Poland.

After sending letters to officials in Austria and Poland, Steiner learned that his father was killed at the end of the war, when the Russian army set out to liberate the camp. The Nazis increased their mass killings and destroyed all records for people in the camp, Steiner said.

“They were killing people in the camps in small groups,” Steiner said. “Once they heard the Russian army was on the way, they killed everyone.”

As time went on, Steiner was forced to go into war production and eventually became a full-fledged toolmaker. He was later promoted to supervisor for two production departments, a position he held for more than 15 years. Nora worked as a bookkeeper.

After the war ended, they decided to try for a baby, but struggled with infertility. Although Nora became pregnant in 1947, the same year they moved to their first house in Clifton, she miscarried in her third month of pregnancy.

“We got in touch with a Jewish agency in New York and they started to investigate us about adopting a child,” Steiner said. “It was a long process, but in the end, they told us they were going to give us a child. They wouldn’t give us a baby because we were too old at 40-years-old.”

In Central Park, the Steiners met their son, Joe.

“I had taken along a small truck to play with him, and he was a very pleasant boy,” Steiner recalled. “He was wearing glasses and was very friendly.”

A few years later, in December 1953, the family moved to Cranford. Steiner still lives in that home today.

“I paid $15,400 for it,” he said, noting that the taxes on the property were much lower then.

Throughout the years, Steiner kept in close touch with his sister, with both of them traveling to visit the other. He and Nora became grandparents to a grandson, Bryan, and a granddaughter, Karen.

In 1999, Nora passed away. Although Steiner spoke stoically, he mentioned that he visits Nora at her grave every month, describing her as the “love of his life.”

“I met her at a party,” he said. “Within six weeks, we were engaged.”

In 2001, Steiner became a great-grandparent to a boy, Donovan, who will graduate high school this year. Although he’s not up to attending the ceremony, it will be a high point in the year for Steiner, who faced sudden loss twice since the start of 2018. In January, Steiner’s sister died at the age of 102, a loss that hit him very hard.

“Evidently, we had very good genes from my father,” he said. “But we wouldn’t know because he died in a concentration camp.”

In February, Steiner’s granddaughter died at age 47, which he spoke about with tears in his eyes, bringing out an envelope full of photos of Karen throughout her life.

“She worked seven days a week and went three days a week to college,” he said. “She was an excellent student. She would have had a master’s degree in business. There were 200 people at her funeral. That’s how important my granddaughter was.”

Now, Steiner lives alone, remaining mostly independent. Although he uses a walker for a recent hip injury, he cooks for himself, does his laundry, reads and enjoys listening to the radio.

“I try to be as self-sufficient as I possibly can,” Steiner said, pointing out the wallpaper, paint and gardening that he had put up in his earlier years.

Additionally, he is an active member of Temple Beth—El Mekor Chayim and belongs to two Holocaust survivor groups. 

“Kurt is an integral part of our TBEMC family,” Rabbi Rachel Schwartz said. “We really value his kindness and strength of spirit. Kurt is not only an amazing person but he is a symbol of our survival and perseverance as a people. It is one thing to read about a part of history. It is a completely different thing to sit with him at his dining room table, to see the documents he and his wife used to flee the Nazis. To hear him share his story of survival truly brings history to life."

Schwartz is not the only one in admiration of Steiner’s spirit. At the end of his three-hour interview, a neighbor stopped by to make sure he was OK.

“Kurt’s an amazing guy,” he said with a smile. “We all look out for him. About four or five years ago, he was still going up the ladder to clean out his gutters. He did his garden and trees until a year ago, too.”

So after 106 years, what advice would Steiner give to the younger generation?

“Get an education,” he said. “Everything else can be taken away from you but your knowledge cannot.”

On Wednesday, Steiner will celebrate his 106th birthday with his son and daughter-in-law. The milestone is also marked by a proclamation from the Cranford Township Committee, presented to him by Schwartz and Mayor Thomas Hannen, Jr., and an avalanche of birthday cards from members of the congregation.

Upon reflection, Steiner said 106 years is too long, having outlived some of his family and all of his friends.

“I never thought I’d see the end of the century,” he said. “It wasn't my choice. My sister and I used to say that we are ready to go. We just hope our end is quick, which hers was. If it happens tomorrow, it’s alright with me.”

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