A dark blue death camp number tattooed on to Ben Steiner’s forearm is hidden under his long sleeve shirt. His Auschwitz ID: No A-421734.
On January 27, 2015, Steiner will represent New Zealand at the United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This event will be held at the Auckland War Museum and hosted by Auckland City Council.
Benjamin Steiner, 79, was born in 1935 in Budapest, Hungary. Steiner arrived in New Zealand in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising.
He says he was identified as Jewish during a Nazi raid while hiding inside a convent. He was alone and 8 years of age.
Steiner says it was midnight when the Germans came to the monastery. They told all the Jewish children to come down, line up and step forward.
“I knew they were after us,” says Steiner. Many of the children did step forward, but Steiner and his friend Eva stood back.
A nun grabbed Steiner by his ear, and told him to “step forward you little Jew, you know you should have stepped forward”.
Steiner says he then “stepped forward, and Eva followed me because we were holding hands”.
There were 18 Jewish children hiding in the monastery, and all the children were shoved in to a truck. The journey took three days and then they arrived at Auschwitz.
Steiner recalls that the soldiers ordered the people to stand in front of the Nazi officers who made the selection.
“The Germans were selecting who was going to die straight away, who was able to work and who they can use as an experiment,” says Steiner.
“Most of the experiments was for the children, to the right for working and to the left was the gas chambers.
“I was one of the children who were selected by this nice smiling officer, Karl Hoeker. We were escorted away from the rail yard to a building which looked like a hospital ward.”
During his time at Auschwitz, Steiner recalls the horrors of death and medical experimentation.
“I called them the white coats, but they were doctors and nurses.
“I was there for 10 months. Sometimes in the middle of the night they took blood from you, filling you up with all sorts of pills and powders almost like being dopey all the time,” Steiner says.
His only happy moments in Auschwitz were with Eva. “We became good friends. In the morning she used to wake me up, call me ‘sleepyhead’. One morning she didn’t wake me and she died that day and I was very upset. I cried as she was my only real good friend.”
Steiner dedicated his own name to a Hungarian nurse, Mrs. Steiner, who tried to save him from the brutal hands of a German officer.
“I had a bad night and only a couple of hours of sleep,” Steiner recalls. “They took blood from me, he was hitting me to hurry up – get moving. And the nurse who was on duty at the time, a Hungarian lady Mrs. Steiner – that was her name.
“She grabbed his hand, saying, ‘can’t you see he’s not well? He can’t go any faster’, and he just pulled out his gun and shot her dead just like that. He just walked out of the building, came back with two other soldiers and they dragged her in to that buggy and dragged her out. It was an awful situation after that. I felt so touched by Mrs. Steiner who that German killed,” he adds.
“For years I thought she died because of me because I couldn’t get fast enough out of that stupid bunk and she tried to protect me. And for years I thought it was because of me.”
The Red Cross eventually arrived to liberate the prisoners inside Auschwitz, and it was only after his time in a refugee camp in Denmark that Steiner was able to recuperate and grasp what he had been through.
“I have cuts all over my body. Goodness knows what they did to me, pumping me with powders and injections,” says Steiner.
The Red Cross also located Steiner’s parents after the war. Miraculously, both parents were alive. However, it took quite a few months before they found each other and were reunited as a family once again.
Leaving Hungary for a new life was an important decision for Steiner, and provided a welcome opportunity to build a different and positive future.
New Zealand appealed to Steiner because of the mild climate. Also his father had previously visited New Zealand on business and this helped to facilitate a useful connection.
“I wanted to go to the United States, they only took half a million they had a quota there. I didn’t want cold countries so I wanted to go to a warm country. New Zealand was available and I registered, didn’t know much about it, native Maori girls, beach and all swimming – big silly fantasy,” explains Steiner.
“When I came out to New Zealand it was Mr and Mrs Heiner who picked me up at the airport. My father called them and they took me down to Christchurch for 2 years, they were nice people.”
Over the years Steiner has enjoyed living a more fulfilled Jewish life. He is a member of the Silver Club. “I go there, I don’t do much there, I’m just there but it’s still nice to be amongst older Jewish old folks,” he says.
Steiner is positive and grateful about his life here and calls New Zealand home.
“I appreciate that I know what this country does for me, I appreciate it,” he concludes.
Listen to the full interview below: