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Dialogue: Horst Stein

Horst Stein

Horst Stein is a Jewish man originally from Frankfurt, Germany. After his father was targeted by the Gestapo, he moved to Milan, Italy, followed by Stein and his mother six months later. Under the Fascist regime Stein managed to live a relatively normal life until he was forced into Civitella del Tronto, an interment camp in central-southern Italy. Below is a phone conversation with Horst Stein, conducted by Elizabeth Bettina for her book It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust. [1]
Please note: All of Bettina’s comments and questions are in italics.

I Am 86 Years Old Thanks to Italy

How can I begin to tell you how grateful I am to Italy and the Italians? I would not be here today if it were not for them.

That’s what Walter says all the time.

I’m glad you and Vince are going to film us so that the world will know what happened. People need to know, and they need to know from us, the people who were there. Otherwise, I am afraid people will not believe it really took place.

Can I ask you some questions?

Absolutely.

Then let’s start from the beginning, from Germany. Tell me how you got to Italy, and we’ll go from there.

I was born in Germany in 1920, an only child. We lived a comfortable life in Frankfurt. My father was a traveling salesman who sold fabric. Believe it or not, much of what he sold was the black cloth that Catholic priests wore. One day my father made a political remark that was contrary to the Nazi regime, and the remark was reported to the Gestapo. It was 1935, there was already anti-Semitism in German, and the Gestapo came to our home looking for my father. Fortunately, he was traveling and had called my mother as he usually did once or twice a week to check in. That call saved his life. If the Gestapo was looking for you in 1935, you didn’t come home if you wanted to live. We knew that even then.

So, what did your father do?

To enter other European countries, you needed a visa. The only country that did not require a visa was Italy, so that is where my father went. He went to Milano, and six months later my mother and I followed.

What did he do for work during that time?

He was sort of in the same business. He sold fur pieces that could be made into fur coats. In fact, he knew Herta Pollak’s father, who was also in the same business.

Did either of you speak Italian?

Not in the beginning. No. But we learned. My mother spoke the least of all of us. I spent hours in the movie theaters learning the language—a language I love and speak to this day.

So, what was life like in Milano?

Until World War II began, June 1940, we lived a nice life. Initially I worked as an office employee and then became a salesman, of all things, for a German company. The company needed someone who spoke both German and Italian. We had friends, both Italian and Jewish. We would meet our Jewish friends at a café in Piazzale Susa in the evenings and on weekends. My family got together with Herta’s family and Marina Lowi’s family. Marina was another girl we knew in Italy. And I met Max Kempin. What can I tell you? Life was normal.

Then the war began, and it all changed. Foreign Jews were placed in internment camps. I refuse to use the term “concentration camp” for any place in Italy because in concentration camps, people were killed, and almost no one was harmed in Italy.

One day, while walking to Milano, a few of us were arrested and taken to San Vittore prison. When I entered the jail, I saw I familiar face—Herta’s father. My father was not taken that day; his time would come a few months later. I was held in that prison for 33 days and then transferred to a camp in the Abruzzo region, in the province of Teramo. The first camp was in Tossicia, and after a few months, our group was transferred to a camp, a libero internamento camp, in the very small town of Civitella del Tronto. Both camps were situated in the village itself, and we had contact with the local people, who were extremely cordial, helpful, and respectful, as were the carabineri, the police.

Where was your mother during this time?

For some reason—I do not know why—my mother was not taken to a camp. Neither was Herta or her mother.

Where did she stay?

She stayed with Italian friend, both in Milano and in a little town in the countryside. Then, as I mentioned, my father was arrested, and he was sent Ferramonti. I made a domanda, an official request, and after a few months, he was transferred to Civitella to be with me, where we spent the rest of our time as internees. At first we lived in an apartment, and then in an old hospital. We lived in the town, amongst the people.

What did you do with your time?

I read, played cards, taught English, played the saxophone, and played with my dog Tossi, who was named for my time in Tossicia. At one point my father wasn’t feeling very well, and he was sent to a spa, San Pellegrino.

What? I can’t imagine any internee being sent to a spa.

Well, it’s true. It wasn’t like the German camps where if you weren’t feeling well, it was over. Not only that, my mother was invited to join him at San Pellegrino during his stay.

You’re kidding, right?

It’s the honest truth—and I have pictures.

What was being interned like?

Sometimes it was difficult to know that you were not free, and your spirits would get down. The people who gave us the most hope were representatives from the Vatican. They visited us in Civitella. They kept our spirits up. In fact, many times I have been asked about what the Church did. I know that they visited me and helped us. I also know that the Swiss guards and their swords were definitely no match to Hitler and his military machine. Remember, it took two world powers at the time, England and the United States, along with the rest of the world, almost five years to beat Hitler and Germany, a country the size of Pennsylvania. And they almost lost.

Did you ever feel you were in danger while you were in Civitella del Tronto?

No, not in the beginning. It’s difficult to comprehend that during the time Mussolini controlled Italy, I felt safe and lived as normal a life as I could, given the circumstances. There was a war going on, and time were difficult for everyone in Italy, not just the Jews. We had what they had, the same rations. Before September 8, 1943, we were safe. After that it changed.

How?

Well, Italy became Germany’s enemy. We had to hide, and the people of Abruzzo helped us hide… Not too long ago I enjoyed my 86th birthday with my family, and as always, I received various gifts. But lately I have recognized that the best and most significant gift I ever received and have not given thanks for was the open arms of Italy. Italy saved my parents and me. Without Italy, I would not have been able to enjoy the last sixty-plus years, my marriage, my children, and my grandchildren. [2]


[1] Bettina, Elizabeth. “Chapter 19: I Am 86 Years Old Thanks to Italy.” It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011. 92-100. Print.

[2] Ibid.

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