“I tell the kids what a great country this is,” Holocaust survivor and Goleta resident Stan Ostern said of the United States.
When he arrived in America in 1946, Mr. Ostern was illiterate in not only English, but his native Polish, due to years without education that were instead spent hiding from Nazis and escaping death during the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, from those hard beginnings he has managed to make his life in America a success. Mr. Ostern had a long career as a physician and his wife, Edie, also a Holocaust survivor, is a professional artist.
Mr. and Ms. Ostern were interviewed at their house in Goleta on Wednesday for the latest in a series on Holocaust survivors whose pictures are displayed in the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara’s exhibit “Portraits of Survival: Life Journeys During the Holocaust and Beyond.”
Born in 1935 in the town of Stryj, formerly part of Poland and now part of Ukraine, Mr. Ostern came from an affluent family, with a physician father and a grandfather who owned a large flour mill.
“It was great. I had a pretty nice life. … And in ’39 we were invaded by the Germans.”
German forces were only present in Stryj for about a week, however, and for two years the town would be occupied by the Soviet army due to the 1939 non-aggression pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Life under Russian control wasn’t plagued by genocide or extermination, but those deemed not to be good communists would be sent to prison and capitalists were taken to Siberia.
During the Russian occupation, word got around that Jews in Germany were being sent to concentration camps. Some feared that the Germans would one day come to Stryj. A certain engineer in the town thought so and decided to build a bunker, in which Mr. Ostern and his family would later hide for two years.
Built underneath the residence of a local baker, the bunker came to good use during “round-ups” at the ghetto, where Mr. Ostern and his family was sent after the Nazis occupied Stryj. The family by this time did not include Mr. Ostern’s father, who during the Soviet occupation had been conscripted to serve as a doctor in the Russian army. Mr. Ostern recalled life in the ghetto was “terrible” as “people were dying of starvation.”
During the round-ups, also known as “actions,” Jews in the ghetto were required to “report for labor.” This meant getting on board a train bound for a concentration camp. Sadly, Mr. Ostern’s grandparents decided not to hide in the bunker during the actions and he never saw them again, as they were taken to an extermination camp.
The bunker Mr. Ostern and his family used to escape from the round-ups was located a few miles away from the ghetto and they were only able to get to it because of his uncle, who belonged to a cleanup squad that answered to a German commanding officer. Squad members carried a “W” insignia, which designated an important person and granted permission to leave the ghetto. Mr. Ostern added that they were helped by the fact that “the guards were drunk anyway.”
One night after escaping the ghetto, the family had to find a place to stay before reaching the bunker. Mr. Ostern’s uncle took a great gamble and made a desperate plea to his commanding officer. The officer took a chance himself, allowing the family to stay in his horse barn, which they accepted until the fleas in the barn made sleeping there unbearable. After another plea from Mr. Ostern’s uncle, the officer told them to sleep in his office.
“Can you imagine a German officer hiding Jews? Five Jews? He would have been shot on the spot if he were found out. … He saved our lives, he was a hero,” Mr. Ostern said.
They eventually made it to the bunker but it didn’t stay unnoticed by other Jews, who threatened to tell the Germans about it if they weren’t let in. The bunker was built to hide 12 people, but by the time the bunker was closed, 35 people lived in it.
There Mr. Ostern lived for two years. The conditions were uncomfortable and squalid, constantly hot due to the constant burning of gas lights, with no shortage of rats, and only one hole in the ground for a toilet.
He said of the makeshift toilet, “Can you imagine 35 people using that? Can you imagine the aroma?”
Because the man who lived above them was a baker, he was able to give Mr. Ostern and his family bread without suspicion. Though occasionally they would get their hands on some meat, grains, or canned foods, most of the time they were starving.
According to Mr. Ostern, the 35 individuals who were lived in the bunker were 10 percent of the surviving Jewish people from Stryj. Twelve-thousand Jewish people lived in the town before the war and only 350 survived to see the end of it.
Mr. Ostern and his mother both survived, as did his father. However, his father believed his wife and son had died and married another woman who he had worked with in Russia.
That, as well as the fact that he had fathered a child with her, remained a mystery to Mr. Ostern until his father’s grandson through his second family got in touch with Mr. Ostern in 2009.
When Mr. Ostern’s father discovered that his first wife and child hadn’t died, he reunited with them and for a short time they stayed in a displaced persons camp in Germany before making the journey to the United States in 1946. His father continually sent money to his second family in the years after the war. Mr. Ostern’s mother knew of his second family, but they both kept it a secret from their son.
Unlike her husband, Ms. Ostern didn’t have to go into hiding and arrived in the United States after living under Nazi occupation for one year. Born to an affluent family in Vienna, Ms. Ostern was 2 years old during Kristallnacht in 1938. Shortly thereafter, her father was sent to the concentration camp Dachau for “protective custody.” The Nazi policy at the time was not yet extermination, but “judenrein,” which meant “clean of Jews.”
“It’s a very nice term isn’t it?” she remarked, “As if we were vermin.”
Under judenrein, the Nazis were satisfied simply if a Jewish person had a visa to another country and could leave Europe. Luckily, her family did have visas and Ms. Ostern’s father informed the authorities that they had a way out of Austria.
The Nazis demanded her father surrender his lumber yard and two apartment buildings in exchange for passage out of Austria, but was told that his lawyer needed to facilitate the transaction. However, the lawyer didn’t do the necessary paperwork and fled to Belgium instead.
When Ms. Ostern’s mother returned to her apartment to find out it had been sealed from her, she put her two baby daughters into her pram and ran across Vienna to Ms. Ostern’s aunt’s house. There they stayed until her family finally managed to get passage to the United States out of Genoa, Italy.
Mr. and Ms. Ostern did not meet until decades after arriving in America. In 1973 both were living in Santa Barbara and Ms. Ostern visited her future husband to get a vitamin B shot.
“I went to him for a vitamin B shot and he said that he didn’t believe in them, but he would give me one anyway,” Ms. Ostern said.
They married in 1975.