By Taylor Halle and Joseph Crevier
In the spring of 1942, German Nazis raided Ben Sterns’ home, in Kielce, Poland, selecting who would be sent to work camps and who would not. He was separated from his sister, who witnessed the gruesome murder of her child.
As other family members were taken to the Treblinka concentration camp, Ben Stern was sent to a shoe factory. He would later endure six more concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Kausering, Dachau and Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau.
After the end of World War II, he met his future wife, Jadzia, a survivor of Auschwitz. They married, had a daughter and immigrated to Columbia, where he started his own construction company.
Ben Stern died in 1999, but his harrowing story is told is told in a new exhibition, "Holocaust Remembered," that opened at USC’s McKissick Museum last month and runs through April 8.
“The women who put the exhibit together have friends and family that are survivors of the Holocaust, and so there’s a lot of those personal stories, there’s pictures, they went through whole family generations up to what they’re doing now,” Jacklyn Roney, a USC student who works at McKissick, said.
“You see their picture and then you see the story and what happened to them,” she said. “A lot of exhibits don’t do that, they kind of just give you the basics of what you learn in school and you become desensitized to it, so this is a way to get you more sensitized to the situation and to think about it and bring up conversations.”
Hiding out, losing everything
The panels tell excruciating stories of survival and narrow escape.
Dientje Kalisky Adkins’ family was constantly on the move through Holland in order to avoid being captured by Nazis. Her grandfather and aunt were taken to concentration camps and never came back.
Finding refuge in a nun’s attic in 1943, Adkins was able to bring her blanket, pillow and doll. The nun often beat her and left her without food, she said, and even took the child's doll and threw it away.
A photograph from her childhood shows Adkins with the doll, the only tangible proof of that long-ago toy.
Starting over in Greenville
After the Nazi invasion of his native Austria, Max Heller lost his job and was forced to sell valuables until he was able to come to the United States with his family. He wrote a letter to a young woman in Greenville, S.C. leading to a job at the Piedmont Shirt Co.
Max later founded his own shirt company in 1948 and retired in 1969. He was elected to the Greenville City Council and went on to serve as the city’s mayor for two terms.
There is one thing in common among all three of these stories: all survivors are South Carolinians. “Holocaust Remembered” profiles survivors who eventually made it to South Carolina for new beginnings, and American liberators from South Carolina who witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps.
The traveling exhibit is compiled by the Columbia Holocaust Education Commission and will be installed at the Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center after leaving McKissick.
McKissick’s Communications Manager Amanda Belue said they’ve already had a good number of visitors to the exhibit.
“We’ve gotten all ages. I think predominantly it is USC students just based on proximity, but we’ve also gotten a lot of school groups, home schoolers and smaller schools. I would say a lot of parents and a lot of students,” Belue said.
Dr. Lilly Filler, co-chair of CHEC, played a large role in planning the exhibit and the Holocaust memorial that was erected in the city in 2001.
Filler is the daughter of Jadzia and Ben Stern, who are both featured in panels throughout the exhibit. Born in December of 1947, Filler shortly after immigrated to the U.S. with her parents in June of 1949. Gabe Stern, her father’s uncle from Lexington, S.C., sponsored them.
After raising more money than was needed for the memorial, Filler and several others got together and decided to put the leftover funds towards Holocaust education by developing the CHEC and the “Holocaust Remembered” exhibition.
Filler calls it a living exhibit because the organization wanted to showcase the people in South Carolina’s community who survived or were involved with the Holocaust.
“I think it’s critical that young people know about the Holocaust and unfortunately in our education system today, we can’t guarantee youngsters will grow up learning about it in school,” Filler said.
Filler also said she feels it’s extremely important during this time with the recent increase in anti-Semitic threats and acts that have been reported around the country.
“We don’t have to go very far to see that anti-Semitism is in our midst. It’s critical that young people see this could happen again,” Filler said. “We are a nation of immigrants and I think everyone wants this country to be safe, but we also have to be compassionate, and see the reasons why people are trying to leave their country.”
Filler said the lessons of the Holocaust can teach tolerance.
“There are people in this community who are closely related to the Holocaust,” Filler said. “You don’t have to go across seas; it’s right here in our own community.”