Barbara Bayer, Editor
The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
Dec 26th, 2013
Ask Erwin Stern and he’ll tell you one is never too old to learn something new about yourself. Stern just recently learned the name of the organization that helped him escape Austria following Kristallnacht and eventually arranged for him to come to the United States.
Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, known in English as the Children’s Aid Society or simply OSE, is the organization that helped him. According to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, OSE is one of three such organizations that operated in France during that time and is the best known. OSE is credited with rescuing 5,000 children during that time.
Betty Stern, Erwin’s wife, read a JTA article published in The Chronicle in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht on Nov. 7 and was spurred to contact the newspaper about it. The Sterns wonder if there are others in the area who are unaware that they, too, were rescued by OSE.
Erwin’s daughter, Elisa, was helping her father learn more about his roots, specifically where he stayed in France, when she discovered a little more than a year ago that Erwin was one of the children rescued by the OSE. The OSE has an organization in the United States, Friends and Alumni of OSE-USA Inc. (ose.alumni.us.org), which holds regular reunions. A not-for-profit, it was founded in 1994 and its goal is to raise funds for charitable activities by OSE in France and promote fellowship among survivors (the “Alumni”) and their descendants. OSE-USA has no employees and rents no office space. All board members and officers are volunteers serving without pay and all donations are tax deductable.
Erwin had hoped to attend his first OSE reunion last month, but he had to cancel the trip due to illness. He hopes he can attend an OSE reunion in the future.
Erwin is featured in the 2009 edition of the Guide to Jewish Life, which saluted the indomitable spirit of our local Holocaust survivors, as well as The Memory Project, a collection of writings by survivors published by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in 2009. Most of the information published in those two publications is still correct, Erwin says, but now he knows a few more details.
Erwin was born in Rechnitz, Austria, on June 4, 1929, and moved to Vienna in 1935 when he was about 6. By 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, he and his parents and two sisters were living with his paternal grandparents in Vienna, where his father owned a prosperous barbershop. After Kristallnacht, their situation became difficult.
“On Kristallnacht they burnt the synagogues and books and took my father’s shop away and they threw us out of our apartment,” he recalled.
When he was almost 9 years old, Erwin’s parents managed to send him and his younger sister, Therese (Terry), who was 6, to France. He thinks they were part of the Kindertransport. Erwin’s older sister did not go with them. He doesn’t know it as fact, but believes that’s because his older sister was too old to be part of the Kindertransport. Originally Erwin and Terry were taken to a villa in Paris. A few months later, when the Nazis were about to take over Paris, they were sent to an area in France just outside Limoges, where they lived in a castle with about 200 Jewish refugees. After two years he and his sister were told they were going to America, a place Stern had never heard of.
He arrived on Ellis Island in 1941 and went to Philadelphia where he and his sister resided with a family for six months. Then he and Terry were sent to Kansas City, where they lived with the Schiff family, who had a son and a daughter about the same ages as the Sterns. A few years later the Schiffs moved to California; the siblings were split up and Erwin lived with the Orloves until he graduated from high school.
Erwin was drafted into the Army and served nine months in Korea. All this time he thought both his parents, his older sister and his grandparents perished in the concentration camps. However soon after he was engaged to Betty in 1955, he learned his father had been sent to Siberia and survived the Holocaust.
“He was 25,” Betty said. “The Schiff family, who were still living in California, read in a Jewish paper from New York that Sigmund Stern was seeking his children Erwin and Teresa.” Now Sigmund was living in Hungary, was remarried and had two sons. Armed with this information, Erwin was eventually able to reunite with his father. Eventually his father and his new family were able to move to Vancouver, British Columbia, where his new wife had relatives.
So for the past 60-plus years Erwin thought he knew his story, until his daughter completed her research. While Erwin was disappointed he couldn’t attend the reunion, his step-brother Victor went and discovered lots of information about Erwin. Now he knows that when he was in Paris, he lived in Villa Helvetia. When he was evacuated in June 1940 to Limoges, he was sent to the Chateau de Masgelier par le Grand Bourg.
Erwin also found out who sponsored his trip from France to the United States.
“I never knew the Quakers sponsored it,” said Stern, who now knows that only 100 of the 200 children who were living in the same castle were given visas to travel to the United States.
The Sterns have been in contact with people in the OSE alumni association, and they hope the OSE historian will check to see if there is even more information available about Stern’s time in France.
“I didn’t know half of it. I didn’t know about the Quakers and I really didn’t know about OSE either,” Erwin said.
Betty added, “That’s why he thought it would be so interesting to talk about this OSE organization because there may be other people in this community who were also involved and don’t know it.”
If you think you may have been rescued in France by the OSE, Stern suggests you contact Friends and Alumni of OSE-USA Inc. at P.O. Box 2184, Livingston, NJ 07039; call 973-992-0340 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.