As a boy during World War II in Odense, Denmark, Steen Metz didn't know he was Jewish until Nazi soldiers dragged his family to a concentration camp.
"I remember the Nazi soldiers marching up and down the streets," says Metz, now 82 and living in Barrington. German troops had occupied Denmark since April 1940 and Metz tried to avoid them while riding his bicycle to school, but "I really didn't understand it," he says. "I don't think anybody in Denmark understood the gravity."
A boy at TherensienstadtHolocaust survivor Steen Metz will tell his story at 11 a.m. today, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day, at The Garlands Center for the Performing Arts, 1000 Garlands Lane in Barrington. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP by calling (847) 304-1996.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, fell on Oct. 2, 1943, and members of the Metz family were jarred awake that morning by a pair of Gestapo officers pounding on the door of their apartment. Guards took his father, Axel, into custody and gave his mother, Magna, a moment to gather some belongings and food. Metz, then 8, and his mother went to the bakery on the first floor of their apartment building.
"I played with the baker's children. He gave us a big bag of bread and rolls," Metz says. The baker also offered them a chance to escape through a secret passage. But his mother refused to leave her husband behind.
"We were herded into cattle cars," Metz says of the 60 or so Jews arrested that day. Packed so tightly that only the most tired could sit, the group traveled for three days and three nights. They shared what little food they had and used a bucket as their toilet. They arrived at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp 40 miles northwest of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, where his dad was put to work doing heavy labor and his mom cleaned floors and worked in a factory.
"My father died of starvation six months later," Metz says. Witnesses said Axel Metz, a lawyer, was whipped and beaten, and German records said he died of pneumonia on March 13, 1944, shortly after his 40th birthday.
"My mother had to identify his body and she didn't know what to do with me, so I went with her," Metz says, adding that he barely recognized the 88-pound corpse. Many camp inmates died of starvation and illness. Children formed a bucket brigade from the crematorium to the Elbe River, passing cardboard containers of ashes of the dead to be dumped in the water. An older boy spared Metz the agony of seeing his father's remains. "He turned it around so I wouldn't see the name and number of my father," Metz says.
He did make friends and played soccer on a gravel field with a makeshift ball made of rags.
"That was probably the only time I felt like a 9-year-old boy enjoying life," Metz says. "And one day the boys didn't show up."
In addition to the ravages of starvation, beatings, typhus and other diseases, many of Theresienstadt's residents were taken to extermination camps such as Auschwitz. Records show that 15,000 children passed through Theresienstadt, and less than 10 percent survived. Of the 141,000 prisoners who spent time at that camp, 32,000 died there and 88,000 were sent to gas chambers in other camps, according to some records.
"So I'm one of the lucky ones," Metz says. He survived on the daily soup of water and potato peels and whatever food wasn't stolen by the guards from care packages sent by friends and others in Denmark.
After 18 months in Theresienstadt, Metz and his mother heard rumors that the Germans were to build a gas chamber in May. On April 15, 1945, he, his mother and the Danish and Norwegian prisoners were rescued by the "white buses" of the Swedish Red Cross. The rest of the camp would be liberated three weeks later by the Russian army. Given sandwiches and chocolate and kept in quarantine in Sweden, Metz and his mother returned to their hometown after the war was over. His father's law firm saved their furniture and possessions.
"I remember my father teaching me the bicycle when I was 4 years old," says Metz, who, as do most residents of Denmark, used his bike as transportation. "He would run next to me. He would be out of breath. I remember some good times with my father."
The boy helped in the family garden with radishes, lettuce and flowers, "and I had the nerve to sell them to my mother," Metz remembers. He admires the strength of his mother, who died in Denmark at age 90. A photo of him as a beaming boy eating an ice cream cone reminds him of how happy his family was before their lives were ripped apart.
"That was the last time my family was together," Metz says.
After returning to his hometown and finishing school with his old classmates (Metz will attend his 65th high school reunion in Denmark this June), Metz made a career in the food business. He and his wife, Eileen, have been married for 56 years and have lived in the United States since 1962. They have two daughters, Annalise and Christina, and four grandchildren.
"We all have a different story," he says of survivors.
He will tell his story at 11 a.m. today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in The Garlands Center for the Performing Arts. 1000 Garlands Lane in Barrington, where he and his wife live. The event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP with Amy at (847) 304-1996. A member of the speaker's bureau at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Metz has told his story to more than 55,000 schoolchildren and adults, and he volunteers to speak about 75 times a year. That is his passion.
"First of all, never forget that the Holocaust happened," Metz says, quoting from a sign in the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. "Remember and do not let the world forget."