Margot and Herbert Stern
Heartache as well as gratification
by Angelika Rieber
Margot and Herbert Stern are “first generation”. They both were born in Germany in 1930 but they were brought up in quite different family environments. Margot Stern, née Kahn, has her origins in Bonbaden, a small village near Limburg. Here, in a rural atmosphere, she could experience antisemitism very clearly. Her father was arrested and brougth to Buchenwald in November 1938. In order to continue attending school, Margot had to move to a foster family in Frankfurt. Her parents then followed her to Frankfurt in 1940. Together they managed to escape to the USA in a most hazardous way. But her grandparents and more relatives had to suffer deportation.
Herbert Stern grew up in a well protected family surrounding in the Frankfurt Westend. His family escaped to the USA as early as 1938.
It took a long time before Margot and Herbert Stern felt ready to accept the invitation of the City of Frankfurt. On the one hand, both of them were impressed by the attention they were given by the young generation, especially their interest in talking to them, but on the other hand, the tour back to Germany evoked mixed emotions. „It spelled both heartache as well as gratification“.
They belong to the few surviving Frankfurt residents of the first generation. Margot and Herbert Stern were born in Germany in 1930, Margot in Bonbaden, today a neighborhood of Braunfels, Herbert in Frankfurt. Both emigrated to the USA with their families. They grew up in very different circumstances, however. While Herbert comes from a well-situated Frankfurt family, Margot Kahn comes from a humble, rural environment. Their experiences under the Nazi regime are also very different.
In 2012, Margot and Herbert Stern decided, after long hesitation, to accept the invitation of the City of Frankfurt. But Margot Stern declined the invitation of Gerhild Kirschner to return to the places of her childhood. Kirschner researches Bonbaden’s former Jewish families and has been corresponding with Margot Stern for years. The experiences Margot had as a little girl are too painful. Gerhild Kirschner moved from Frankfurt to Bonbaden in 1976, where she still lives today. During her visit, Margot tells the students of Otto-Hahn-Schule that she is grateful and moved by Ms. Kirschner’s remorse about the injustice and pain caused to innocent people. Margot Stern might not come to Bonbaden during her visit to Germany, but she meets Gerhild Kirschner in Frankfurt.
Criminal proceedings against the Kahns from Bonbaden
Margot’s father, Gustav Kahn, had a textile shop in Bonbaden, a village near Braunfels. The family lived at House No. 13 with Gustav Kahn’s parents. In the 1930s, not just the economic situation worsened, but also relations with the other villagers.
Margot suffered from this isolation, the animosities and insults. Even her teachers humiliated and beat her, she remembers. She was very anxious as a child, also because she felt her parents’ and grandparents’ fear. “Nobody came to help us.”
Gustav Kahn was arrested after the 1938 November Pogroms and deported to Buchenwald. He returned in 1939 in miserable condition. “I remember the day before Kristallnacht, about two or three SA men walking up and down in front of our house in Bonbaden. My parents, grandparents and I could not leave our house. The next day, on November 9, my father and grandfather were arrested. My grandfather was sent back home right away. […] My father stayed in Buchenwald until January 26, 1939.
He returned home with his head shaved, resembling a skeleton. He sat on a chair in the kitchen, dropped his head and began to cry, like a child.”
Jewish children were banned from public schools in November 1938. Margot was sent to a foster family in Frankfurt, so she could stay in school. She was homesick, but at least remembers having two intimate friends there. (Kirschner collection) Desperate, Gustav Kahn tried to obtain emigration visas for himself and his family.
This was difficult, because the family’s finances were tense. Like all Jewish inhabitants remaining in Germany, Gustav and Isaak Kahn had to report their assets to the authorities and place them on a “security account,” to which they had no access. The family moved to Frankfurt in 1940 and lived at Quinkestraße 13 from mid-1940. Gustav Kahn had to perform forced labor. His father Isaak Kahn died at 72, only a few months after the relocation to Frankfurt. Gustav feverishly tried to gain permission to emigrate, which was becoming increasingly difficult since the Third Reich had occupied Western Europe. Each week, Gustav Kahn had to report to the Gestapo and report on his emigration efforts. In May 1940, he applied officially for the permission to move household goods out of the country (Antrag auf Mitnahme von Umzugsgut). All objects for removal had to be listed in detail. The so-called “foreign currency record” (Devisenakte) documents the official repression the family faced.
The family now planned to emigrate via Russia. On July 16,1940, the father wrote to the Foreign Currency Office: “Hereby I send you a new list of the remaining objects from the list authorized by you on May 14, 1940 and kindly ask you for prompt authorization of this list, since my emigration is imminent.” The emigration failed. Instead, the customs investigation office (Zollfahndungsstelle) pressed criminal charges against Gustav Kahn. Allegedly, his travel luggage had included non-authorized objects. (Central State Archive (HStA))
The family stayed in Frankfurt while Gustav Kahn continued his efforts to obtain American visas and permissions to emigrate. The Nazis had already started to force people to move to Ghetto-houses. Margot remembers that her mother had already packed rucksacks for them. They finally traveled via Berlin. Margot remembers an airport employee saying: “Jews are not allowed to fly.” The family persisted in its efforts to obtain passage until finally, thanks to the support of aid organizations, they had the opportunity to leave the country by plane.
Johanna Kahn could not follow her son. According to official information (HStA), she was deported on May 8, 1942. Her date of death is given as August 18, 1942. Johanna’s father Joel Simon died on November 22, 1939, aged 84.
Margot’s maternal grandfather, Julius Lichtenstein, was deported on 18 August 1942 from Frankfurt to Theresienstadt and from there to Treblinka, where he was murdered on September 29, 1942. Margot’s uncle Hugo Lichtenstein was also deported and murdered, like many other members of the large family.
“I was a front-line soldier in the World War, from beginning to end…”
Herbert Stern’s paternal family originated from Augsburg. In the early 20th century, the merchant Jacob Stern moved to Frankfurt, where he met his wife, Nora Ries. Together with a partner, he established a wholesale store for lining fabric at Kaiserstraße 51. The Nazi regime dramatically altered the life of the family, who lived at Niedenau 72. “We enjoyed a comfortable family life. Once the Hitler years began, there was fear and abuse. We left in haste after Kristallnacht.”
This is how Herbert Stern summarized his family’s fate in a questionnaire by the project group Jewish Life in Frankfurt (Jüdisches Leben in Frankfurt).
Herbert Stern, born in 1930 as the youngest of four brothers, attended Samson-Raphael-Hirsch-Schule near the Frankfurt Zoo, but was soon torn from his usual environment.
In 1938, his father’s business was liquidated. Hastily, the merchant made plans to emigrate with his wife and four children. The required household goods list includes a letter, in which Jacob Stern informs the authorities about his plan to relocate to North America in early December.
“I am a merchant and 56 years old; I have a wife and four under-age children, who will emigrate with me. I was a front-line soldier in the World War, from beginning to end, and fought four years in Bristerwald and at Verdun, and I hold the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Honor Cross.” Like many, he hoped his merits for Germany could spare him and his family the worst.
The household goods list shows that the family was fairly well off before the persecution. In addition to Jewish literature, the list also includes classics such as Goethe’s “Faust,” Wilhelm Hauff’s Märchen, “Winnetou” and the “Jungle Book.”
The planned emigration was already prepared, when the father was arrested in November 1938. After his release, Jacob Stern immediately left the country and briefly stayed with relatives in London. His family followed two weeks later, in December 1938.
Jacob Stern joined his brother-in-law in a struggling artificial flowers business, which became the support for the family in World War II years. While Herbert's brother served in the American Armed Forces, he quickly made up for lost time in school. Yet, his memories of the hard first years as an immigrant are mixed. Building a new existence was a challenge, because the family had lost everything, had to start over and learn a new language. (HStA) Distrust against Germans also overshadowed the first years. Many Americans viewed them as potential spies and traitors. “Spy, go home,” is a sentence Herbert Stern will never forget. (Talk at Otto-Hahn-Schule)
Searching for traces
Margot and Herbert Stern hesitated a long time before accepting the City of Frankfurt’s invitation. It is their first time back in Frankfurt. Herbert left Frankfurt directly after the November Pogroms and Margot escaped narrowly in 1941. Herbert Stern’s parents never returned to Germany. What were Margot’s and Herbert’s particular concerns before their visit to Frankfurt? The stay was not long enough to do all they had planned. Visiting their ancestors’ graves and the former synagogue was important to them, also archival research and talks with school students.
Many family members could not escape in time. They included Herbert’s uncle Albert Ries, as well as the family of a paternal uncle. He owned the kosher hotel Ullmann at Bethmannstraße 52, directly across the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof. Herbert Stern asked if there were any documents about the hotel on the first day of his visit. The Jewish Museum confirmed right away.
Margot Stern is moved to tears during her visit to her former school, Philanthropin.
Today they are welcomed with open arms and supported in their research. This experience is unexpected, but extremely important for them, but causes mixed emotions. “It spelled both heartache as well as gratification,” wrote Margot looking back on the visit. Exchanges with other participants of the visiting program were also very important to her. “Sharing all of our experiences with a group gathered from all around the world was another highlight of our trip, another moving experience for us all.” (Letter to Angelika Rieber)
The Sterns continued this exchange in the USA, where I visited them together with the Sakheims at their summer home on Cape Cod. Ilse and Georg Sakheim visited Frankfurt in 2003 and again some years later with their daughter. They closely follow the visits of former Frankfurt residents and the continuation of the program with their children.
Margot Stern has not finished dealing with her origins yet. Some months after her visit to Germany, she asked if I could help find out something about her foster family in Frankfurt. Margot fearfully anticipated their fate: Her foster parents Hugo and Frieda Grünebaum and their daughter Blanka were deported in 1942 and murdered in Majdanek.
Did they feel betrayed by Germany?
“Are you interested in talking to teenagers at a school?” The couple emphatically confirmed this request of the Project Group Jewish Life in Frankfurt. Meeting young people in Germany was very important to them, and Margot and Herbert Stern were very touched.
“Speaking about our experiences in Nazi Germany to the high school students was certainly rewarding for us. The students were both interested as well as uninformed since they said that their parents never spoke to them about this important period of history.” (Letter to Angelika Rieber)
“Did you feel betrayed by the Hitler-regime?” asks a student. “Yes,” Herbert Stern answers embittered. Especially his father’s generation, who had fought for Germany in World War I, felt betrayed. They thought the Hitler regime would not last that long.
Many of the teenagers’ questions deal with the reasons for the family’s flight from Germany and the adaptation to the new surroundings. One girl wants to know, if the Sterns spoke to their children about their experiences in Germany. Herbert Stern confirms. On Jewish holidays, especially Passover, the family takes the opportunity to speak about the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and about their own experiences.
The students also want to know about the Sterns’ relationship to Germany today. “Did the Germans learn anything?” “Would you come back?” Herbert Stern responds by giving the students a mission: It depends on them, on their active commitment. They should not allow something like the Holocaust to happen again. “That’s a duty.” (Talk at Otto-Hahn-Schule)
The students and the Sterns shared the wish that the crimes of the past should not be forgotten, so they will not be repeated in the future.
Participation in the Visiting Program: 2012
Place of Birth:
1930 in Frankfurt
Attended Samson-Raphael-Hirsch-Schule in the Ostend.
The Family lived in Niedenau 72
was fighting as a Soldier in the war 1914 – 1918
Father traded animal-food in Kaiserstraße 51.
Father’s family originated from Augsburg
Father Jakob Stern was arrested in November 1938
Family managed to escape to the USA via England in 1938
was born in 1930 in Bonbaden near Limburg
Father Gustav Kahn was arrested in 1938 and deported to Buchenwald
In 1939 Margot is given to a foster family in Frankfurt, Sandweg
In 1940 her parents arrived in Frankfurt, too. They live in Quinkestraße, now Königswarter Straße
Later in 1940 the family manages to escape to the USA.
Many relatives were deported to Buchenwald.
Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden (HStA)
Correspondence between Angelika Rieber and Margot and Herbert Stern (AR)
Correspondence between Gerhild Kirschner and Margot Stern (GK)
Gerhild Kirschner: Ein jüdisches Kind in Bonbaden. Spuren von Margot, Braunfels 2008
Bericht von Jasmin Janusz und Seher Kodak; Homepage der Otto Hahn-Schule (OHS)
Filmaufnahme von dem Gespräch mit Herbert Stern (FOHS)
Private photos and Documents of Margot and Herbert Stern and Gerhild Kirschner
Fotos by Angelika Rieber
Photos of the Meeting at Otto Hahn-Schule