ROCKFORD -- In November 1938, Ruth Stern got into a rented Volkswagen with the two members of the Gestapo she had bribed to save her husband.
She had to beg them to take her along. They traveled for three hours at night, toward a concentration camp near central Germany, until the car couldn't make it any farther in the snow.
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The Gestapo wanted to turn back.
"But I wouldn't let them," said Stern, 97. "It was chutzpa. It was my chutzpa and my father-in-law's money that got my husband out."
So the Jewish newlywed in her early 20s waited with the two Nazis at a farmhouse for a rental agency to bring a heavy Mercedes. The car came and they traveled to Weimar, a city near the concentration camp that held her husband, Max.
He had been arrested on Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass," when most synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned to the ground and Jewish businesses and storefronts were looted and destroyed.
It was the night many say the Holocaust began.
Stern, who lives in Peterson Meadows Retirement Community on Newburg Road, is one of the few Holocaust witnesses remaining in the Rockford area.
"You can't describe it because people might not believe it really happened," she said. "But it did happen. Six-and-a-half-million people were murdered. Most of my family was murdered. I don't say `killed' because they were murdered. My mother's family, my father's family. I have no uncles, no cousins. Nothing."
She met Max at a hotel in Weimar and laid out his clothes while he took a shower. He had been released and told to never return to his hometown.
They arrived in America on New Year's Day 1939.
She has told her story many times around this time of year -- Holocaust remembrance week begins Sunday -- to schools, churches, synagogues and organizations. The Jewish Federation of Greater Rockford plans a ceremony with guest speakers at Rockford College.
"It's important because I want everybody to know all the miserable things that this one man did. We will never forgive and we will never forget. It can never happen again."
Know your politicians
When Trudy Weiss was 12, she escaped Vienna, Austria, with her three older siblings.
By the time the four left Europe in August 1939, their mother had written more than 100 letters to Jewish agencies and families in America, desperate to find someone who could take her kids.
It was clear what was going to happen if they stayed, said Weiss, who lives on Meadows Circle with her husband, Warren.
"They were picking up Jews and killing them," she said. "They would pick them up in the street and they would pick them up in their homes. We were always worried that my dad wouldn't come home.
"The families never knew if the person who was working would come home or if they would get picked up."
Her mother found a sponsor who paid for the four children to come to Chicago. But Weiss' parents did not have the affidavit to leave.
She would never see them again. "We knew what was happening. We knew that after the war they would not be there."
Weiss wants people to be aware of who they put in power.
"People should be aware of their government, of what goes on. They have to vote for people who do the right thing."
On a mission
Goldie Pekarsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rockford, has helped organize an annual service for the past 20 years.
It's not just about what happened during World War II, she says. It's about genocide.
"We hope, by studying it, we can prevent it from happening again. We're not naive. We know genocide has happened since, but we think if the kids can see the warning signs, if they can see what happened, then they can notice those signs if they occur again."
Pekarsky was born in 1949 in a displaced-persons camp. Her parents met after the war, after each had lost their first spouses and most of their families.
Her mother and father were kicked out of their homes in Poland and swooped up by the Russian army. The Russians put them in work camps and gave them the bare minimum to survive.
"They were walking skeletons," Pekarsky said.
Her mother lost her husband and two of her three children to starvation and malaria while working in a tobacco factory. Her father was sent to Siberia to work in war factories. He slept in a hole in the ground with 10 other men; people lost fingers and toes to frostbite.
"He tried to commit suicide twice by jumping in front of the train because he was cold and starving," she said.
It was difficult for her parents to tell her the story. But once she learned it, she made it her mission to inform as many people as she can about the Holocaust.
"We hope people will see how bad hatred and intolerance are and will become vigilant that this will never happen again."