"How big your heart must be to do that... to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”
A 95-year-old Holocaust survivor living in California currently resides with an unlikely roommate: a 31-year-old woman whose grandparents were Nazis.
Berkeley resident Ben Stern, who survived the ghettos and concentration camps as a young man, has taken up residence with Lea Heitfeld, a German student whose grandparents were “active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party,” The Washington Post reports, while the latter completes her studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Stern, who was ripped from his home in Poland by the Nazis, sees taking Heitfeld in as “an act of justice,” he told The Washington Post. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”
At the same time, Heitfeld’s friendship comes at a time when Stern could use it most: Stern’s wife of more than 70 years recently entered a nursing home due to illness.
“This act of his opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” Heitfeld told The Washington Post. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”
The two roommates enjoy watching television in the evenings and enjoying herring salad and crackers before eating dinner together. Ben Stern walks Heitfeld to class every Thursday night and even audited one of her classes this past semester.
The unusual living arrangement ties into what The Washington Post calls Stern’s lifelong mission to make sure that the youth understand the horrors of the Holocaust, because some day, there will be no survivors left to tell the story.
“When the Nazis came, his only weapon was his insistence upon living and remaining human,” Charlene Stern, Ben Stern’s daughter, told The Washington Post. “I asked him, ‘How did you change? How did you change after the Holocaust?’ He said, ‘Char, I became more compassionate.’ That’s the father I inherited.”