He survived the Holocaust, now he lives with the granddaughter of Nazi Party members

Ben Stern recalling his life story and the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. From “Near Normal Man.”
Ben Stern recalling his life story and the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. From “Near Normal Man.” Stern Family Photos

The story of a Holocaust survivor who today shares his Berkeley home with the granddaughter of unrepentant members of the Nazi Party will be told next week during a screening of the film “Near Normal Man” at Modesto’s Congregation Beth Shalom.

The CBS screening will be held on June 25; the event is open to the public.

Near Normal Man” is the story of now-95-year old Ben Stern, who lived through nine concentration camps, the Warsaw Ghetto and two death marches, according to a press release from Rabbi Shalom Bochner of CBS. The half-hour documentary was produced and directed by his daughter, Charlene Stern. After the screening, Ben and Charlene will speak during a program with audience members.

A Polish Jew, Ben Stern survived the horror of the Holocaust, only to face Nazis again in the 1970s on American soil when they planned a march in his adopted home of Skokie, Ill. And today he has chosen to open his home and befriend a descendant of Nazi Party members.

Charlene Stern decided her father’s story needed to be told, so she produced and directed the film. The title “Near Normal Man” comes from Ben Stern’s own admission to his daughter that no one could spend a day in Auschwitz and ever again call themselves normal.

After being liberated from captivity, Stern and his wife Helen, a fellow Holocaust survivor he met at in a displaced prisoners camp, arrived in the United States as refugees in 1946, living in Skokie. It was there in that he led an effort to confront neo-Nazis planning a march in the area highly populated by Jews. According to a story earlier this month in the The Cupertino Courier, the march was planned for 1978 but never happened.

Several months ago – after Stern’s wife moved to a nursing facility – he opened his home in Berkeley to Lea Heitfeld, a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in that city, according to a March story in The Washington Post. Her grandparents were active members of the Nazi Party, making their friendship an unlikely pairing.

“This act of his opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me. That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain,” Heitfeld said in The Post.

“Stern is a compelling and articulate speaker with an important message about hate, hope, and survival,” Bochner said in the CBS press release. He urges people to purchase tickets in advance to the event; students can attend for free. Proceeds from the $10 tickets will go to the future distribution of the film; it is not recommended for people under the age of 13.

“Near Normal Man”

When: 1 p.m. Sunday, June 25

Where: Congregation Beth Shalom, 1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto

Tickets: $10, free for students

Call: 209-571-6062