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At 97, He Still Grapples With the Pain Of Being Separated From His Mother

97-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern at his home in Berkeley in this unda...

Credit: Sasha Khokha/KQED

Above: 97-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern at his home in Berkeley in this undated photo.

Ben Stern may be 97, but his mind is sharp and quick. He clearly remembers the day he last saw his mother. “It happened so suddenly, so sudden," he recalls. "Separated, ripped away. Without saying goodbye, without a hug, a kiss."

They were in Poland, in a crowd of Jews being rounded up from a ghetto during the Holocaust. Without any warning, soldiers used a stick to push his mother, Yentl, toward one line, Ben toward another.

“She got lost in the crowd,” he remembers. “And I was pushed to a different crowd, just like pulling feathers from a chicken. That's what it looked like. That's how it felt. Ripped apart.

“I was overwhelmed. Then when I got to the other side, the Nazis were screaming and ordering everyone around. You lost your personal reaction. You became a tool in somebody else’s hand,” Stern said.

'[Today's migrant kids] will carry that spot, remember the day they were separated from their mother, no matter how soon they get together. That’s an unforgettable act that has been planted in their brains and in their heart.'

— Ben Stern

He was separated from his mother and his younger brother on Aug. 15, 1942. The date still comes easily to his lips, more than 75 years later. For him, the separation from his family was one of the cruelest aspects of the Holocaust.

Stern went on to survive nine concentration camps and two death marches. His parents, grandmother, eight brothers and one sister were all killed.

“I didn't make peace in me for the loss of my loved ones. I still dream. I still dream. Every night, somebody else appears,” sighs Stern.

Stern is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors of his generation, and he has continued to speak out against hatred and intolerance.

Last year, he led a protest march against a far-right rally in Berkeley. I first wrote about him two years ago, when he invited the granddaughter of Nazis to be his roommate in his Berkeley home.

When I visited him again recently, he took out a thin album of family photos, salvaged by his only surviving brother, who escaped to Israel before the rest of the family was killed.

“My mother meant to me just like my life meant to me,” Stern said. “She was so dear, she was huge in my mind.”

Photo credit: Sasha Khokha/KQED

Ben Stern looks at some of the few surviving photos of his parents in this undated photo.

He never gave up hope that he would find her, even when he knew in his heart that she hadn’t survived the death camps.

When he visited Treblinka — a camp in Poland — in 1988, he posted a note in the guestbook that said: “I’m looking for my mother.”

Stern said he knows some people might think it’s a big leap to talk about his story and the stories of today's separated migrant kids in one breath.

Stern's parents were starved and murdered in the Holocaust. The kids separated at the border are alive, and so are their parents. But their stories do resonate with him. The images of children held in detention or crying for their parents have upset him deeply.

“I cannot put myself in the children’s place, but I feel their pain. Personally I feel their pain, what they’re going through being separated,” he said.

That pain, Ben warns, won’t necessarily go away, even as many of the migrant kids are being reunited with their parents.

“They will carry that spot, remember the day they were separated from their mother, no matter how soon they get together. That’s an unforgettable act that has been planted in their brains and in their heart.”

He has some advice for those kids, as they grow up and try to process that experience.

“Don’t forget,” he said. "Don’t forget what happened. But life goes on. Turn a new page. Be hopeful. Things will get better."

Ben Stern never got to have a tearful reunion with his mother. But he said his mother’s love has sustained him his whole life, even though he hasn’t seen her since the day they were separated in August 1942.

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