Yom HaShoah marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is observed during the Week of Remembrance, this year beginning the evening of May 4th. (Holocaust remembrance event at the Jewish Federation, circa 1998-2000. Jewish Federation of Las Vegas Records, MS-00602)
No voices recorded among our archived oral histories are more powerful or heart wrenching than those of Southern Nevadans who recounted their personal memories of one of the greatest war crimes of the modern world. These oral histories, along with biographical essays and video interviews with Holocaust survivors, are accessible online to everyone as part of the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project.
The Holocaust affected not only survivors, but also rescuers, liberators and non-Jewish witnesses. It’s difficult to adequately express the depth of our gratitude toward those who so bravely and generously shared their stories with us. The value and meaning of these recorded experiences are beyond measure. On this Day of Remembrance, we wanted to reflect upon some of these extraordinary narratives, and give voice to the memories of those who began new lives here in Southern Nevada. By Nancy Hardy, Outreach and Reference Assistant, UNLV Libraries Special Collections
Between 1943 and 1945, over 80, 000 Holocaust survivors came to the United States. The Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project's oral histories give others the opportunity to learn about the struggles and experiences of those immigrants who arrived in Las Vegas and made it their home. As with all oral histories, the most captivating aspects of each story lie in the details, often best told through the intimacy of a one-on-one interview. During these recorded encounters, Holocaust survivors often share such details as what items they chose to take with them when fleeing Nazi persecution, or by what means they were able to survive.
In one such oral history interview, Gary Sternberg described his early childhood as the son of Herman Sternberg, a German Jew, and Augusta Sternberg, a Polish Christian. Near the beginning of the war, Gary’s father spent a year away from the family in a concentration camp. Through political connections he had made, Herman was able to leave the camp on the condition that he would depart the country immediately. Gary described his memories of their exodus in his oral history:
“So now we’re trying to make arrangements to leave the country, and it turned out that there was only one passage left, and China was the only place to go because nobody would have Jews.”
Gary Sternberg retired in May of 2005 from a 31-year career as a dealer at Caesars Palace. (Image of Gary Sternberg in his home. Gary Sternberg Papers, MS-00717)
Once the family had settled in an impoverished area near Japanese- occupied Shanghai, their circumstances gradually worsened; the Jewish neighborhood was cordoned off. Although their compound had no barbed wire, Jewish residents knew they would be shot if they tried to leave. Gary continued:
“When we first got there…they put us in a huge room…a huge dormitory kind of room with double bunk beds stacked on top of each other…Men and boys would live in the same room and women and girls would live in the same [another] room…It was ridden with bedbugs and lice…I remember my father was sleeping on the bottom; I was sleeping on the top bunk bed. The only place to put anything was under the bottom bed. I had brought with me from Germany my prized erector set. I put it under the bed and my biggest worry was that somebody was going to steal it because there was no place to put anything.”
It wasn’t until three years after the war ended that the Sternberg family could get the necessary documents to travel to the United States. Gary’s description of that time is poignant and filled with rich detail. You may wish to read his account in its entirety.
Another Holocaust survivor who shared his oral history was Henry Kronberg, who grew up in a town on the border between Poland and Germany, about 40 miles from Krakow. Because he felt uncomfortable speaking about surviving the Nazi concentration camps in World War II, Henry remained silent for many years.
“When I came to the United States, I never want to tell. I mean people knew about it. I was not comfortable telling the stories…
Henry Kronberg owned Stoney’s Loan and Jewelry Company in Las Vegas for 27 years. Today the Sperling Kronberg Mack Holocaust Resource Center in Las Vegas bears his name. (Image of Henry Kronberg at Stoney's Pawnshop, circa 1980. Henry Kronberg Papers, MS-00718)
Even when my daughter was born and when she was old enough to ask me about it, I never wanted to talk about it because it was painful and used to bring a lot of memories, which I didn't want at all. But when Schindler's List came out, the movie Schindler's List, I realized that somebody has to tell the stories. It was at that time when I opened up, actually, and I start sharing my experience.”
Because he worked as a painter and laborer at Nazi headquarters, Henry was imprisoned only by night, thus enabling him to survive most of the war outside of a concentration camp. In his testimony, Henry described having to scrape blood off the walls he was about to paint, blood that had been spattered there when people were interrogated and beaten. Tragically, Henry’s father, Aron Kronberg, came down with typhoid fever while living in the prison. After Aron had been ill for two days, Henry was told that his father was taken to a hospital. Aron never returned; Henry later found out he’d been taken to a camp and executed.
During the last few months of the war, when the fighting began to turn in favor of the Allies, Henry was relocated to three different concentration camps. He describes how his incarceration ended:
“On April eleventh, 1945, they assembled us and put us on the truck with a guard. Again, we didn't know where we were going and we asked the guard, ‘Where are we going?’ They said, ‘I don't know.’ The guards didn't know where they're taking us. Maybe two hours into our trip, all of a sudden, the truck stopped and the guards disappeared. What happened? The American troops were coming, and I see American jeeps and American soldiers and I realize that the war is getting over for me. The guards disappeared and we jumped off the trucks. We were in this little village. I said to a friend of mine, ‘I think we're free people.’ We jumped off the trucks. The first thing what we were looking for—to get something to eat, because we were starving, all the time starving. We went to a German farmhouse and we walked in. And I spoke German, so naturally I told them, I said, ‘We want some food.’ So he didn't know what to do. We were afraid of him and he was more afraid of us because he didn't know who we were.” Read more about Henry Kronberg’s life story.
In addition to archived oral histories such as Henry’s, the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project also includes riveting and very moving biographical essays about the experiences of Holocaust survivors. These consist of first- and third-person written narratives, often with photographs. Among these is the story of Raymonde (Ray) Fiol. Ray was born in Paris in 1936.
Her parents were foreign-born Jews living in France, her mother was a dressmaker; her father was in the handbag business. When Ray was only three years old, Germany invaded the country. Her parents had their daughter smuggled out of a labor camp by a member of the French Resistance. Ray came into the care of a courageous, compassionate couple living in a village outside Paris. They changed Ray’s last name and told neighbors she was a niece who came to live with them to be out of harm’s way. Ray remained with them until the end of the war.
Raymonde Fiol’s biographical essay includes this photo with her guardians. Ray retired to Las Vegas after many years in New York City and became President of the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada. (Image from Generations of the Shoah - Nevada, MS-00720)
Ray only discovered what had become of her mother and father in late adulthood. She was contacted by a researcher in France who was able to document their arrival in a labor camp in Northern France. Ray’s parents later were sent to Auschwitz, where they perished in January of 1944. Since learning the fate of her mother and father, Ray Fiol has made it her life’s purpose to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to provide services for Holocaust survivors in the community and all over the country. Read more about Ray and her work.
The work to preserve the memories of the Holocaust and Second World War at times spills over into UNLV’s Oral History Research Center—a repository for oral histories covering nearly every aspect of life in Southern Nevada over the last century. Longtime Las Vegas residents may provide an oral history because of their prominence in a career field, and part of their story may have taken place during wartime. Within some of these histories, it’s possible to uncover the stories of veterans of World War I and World War II, recorded as part of their individual lifetime histories.
Among the collected stories of the Boyer Early Las Vegas Oral History Project, for example, is the oral history of Lon Halls, a non-Jewish soldier who witnessed the atrocities of war when he helped to liberate the concentration camps. In his oral history, Lon remembers these camps and the horrors they contained:
“…One particular one, the Germans had tried to get rid of the bodies. They had these old farm wagons that were stacked high with bodies. Stacked so high that when they went down the road, some of them tumbled off onto the street. Well, the street was like one of those Salvador Dali paintings where the road goes down to an endless, to a point. It narrows down to a point with trees on each side. Well the bodies were strewn haphazardly on the street where wagons had rolled over them a lot. And just the sight of that is something you’ll never forget because it was so horrible. And then of course, General Patton, one place that people in the town nearby claimed they didn’t know what was happening. He made the whole town come out there and go through and scrub and everything. It’s very hard to describe those places. And sometimes we liberated prisoner of war camps, too.”
“But right now, it’s almost kind of a hazy vagueness because there were never any street signs. They were always gone. You never knew, you never knew exactly where you were. So I have a book of General Patton, D-Day plus one, D-Day plus two, and so forth. So from the book, I can identify about on the map where we were connected to where he was. So that’s about the only way I really remember some of those towns.”
Lon Halls had a long career as a special effects designer and lighting technician for Las Vegas production shows. Lon’s oral history is not yet available online, but can be accessed in UNLV Lied Library in Special Collections on the third floor, OH-00771.
Because such gripping and powerful stories as Lon Halls’ are kept in UNLV Libraries’ Special Collections, readers and researchers are able to sense something of what it was like to stand in the boots of a disoriented soldier who was uncertain of what town he was in or what camp he was liberating. We can imagine what it is not to know what happened to family members for most of a lifetime. Even more importantly, we can “hear” the many voices that tell us of a history that must never be repeated. As time passes and Holocaust survivors grow older and pass away, it becomes even more crucial that these oral histories to be collected and preserved. We in Special Collections are impassioned about ensuring that the legacy and memories of Holocaust survivors are not forgotten.