I flew to Israel to have lunch with a man and his wife. Nathan Steiner grew up in Bratislava. I knew the family name from the Steiner bookstore which still operates in the center of the old town. Ever since we lived in Bratislava, I have wanted to write about this family—not a blog, a book.
During our stay in Michigan, I took a novel writing class. The teacher encouraged me to get after the book. “Don’t procrastinate, Julie. Do it now.” I wrote a letter to Nathan Steiner. Ten days later, he called me. That day, I booked a flight.
Some people will think this is a ridiculous expense for a meal and a story (though I ask you not to judge until you hear the story). Yet can I place a price tag on the stories of our last four years? No, I can’t.
When we first sat down with the Steiners, Nurit peppered me with questions: Why did you come here? Why do you want to talk to us? What about our lives is so interesting?
“Nurit, your lives are fascinating, amazing. I never heard a story like yours.”
“In Israel,” she replied, “We all have these stories. Ours is not special.”
But it was special to me.
As lunch progressed, and as she felt more comfortable with my motivation, she opened up. Nathan Steiner speaks very little English. I paused so she could translate to Hebrew and then translate his reply. They have been married for 40 years. Often, she answered my questions without needing to consult Nathan.
I learned that in Bratislava the Steiners had a synagogue room in their home, that they all played musical instruments and at times were joined by their friend, Bela Bartok, in family concerts. Jakob Steiner played for the Slovak Philharmonic until the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, and he was forced to stop. I heard about the collection camp in Sered; Nathan’s father who was sent from Auschwitz to be murdered at Kaufering; Nathan’s own interment with his mother in Bergen-Belsen; and his sister who was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Eventually, Nathan talked about his return to Auschwitz with Benjamin Netanyahu two years ago as part of an Israeli delegation. During the hour long train ride from Krakow, he cried. “And Julie,” Nurit clarified, “Nathan never cries.”
The Slovaks have invited him to the opening of a museum in Sered early in 2016.
“Will you go?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I am strong enough,” he replied.
I was most interested in Selma Steiner, and I heard stories of her own deportation, eventual return to Bratislava, and the legal process to reopen the store after the fall of communism.
For three hours, I scribbled notes. Since they are a well documented family, I knew some of what they told me. I learned so much more.
When we finished, Nurit asked if I would like to hear her story. “Of course, Nurit. I’d love to.”
She described her mother and father coming from Czechoslovakia before the war, Zionists. “My father was never very forceful, so it surprised everyone when he told my mother they were moving to Palestine—no discussion.”
When the boat pulled into Haifa harbor, the British would not allow it to unload. To force approval for the passengers to disembark, a group of Jews sabotaged the ship by blowing a hole in the hull. The damage was far greater than intended; the boat tilted to one side and sunk. “Those on the right died. Those on the left, swam to their new lives in Israel.”
Since Nurit’s mother was seven months pregnant, the authorities allowed her to stay with an uncle rather than inter her into a camp. She was reunited with her husband a year after their arrival. That baby was Nurit. The nurses said she must become a Physical Education teacher because her mother was so strong to swim to shore.
“That’s what I became. I still play tennis every day. We dance. That’s why we are so old and so healthy.”
Nurit’s story was a bonus. How do you put a price on that?
Categories: The Middle East