K. N. Steiner: I escaped the SS but not a concentration camp

Karol Natan Steiner was only 11 when he had the presence of mind to trick the SS, though he still ended up in Bergen-Belsen. Read the story of how he survived.

Karol Natan Steiner survived Bergen-Belsen. However, he lost his sister Alica and his father in the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Source: Post Bellum)

Karol Natan Steiner was born on September 3, 1933 in the family of doctor Gustáv Mordechaj Steiner. He was given the middle name of Natan after Natan Kurz, his grandfather on his mother's side. Karol's mother came from Liptovský Mikuláš, central Slovakia.

Another branch of Karol's family founded the antique shop Steiner in Bratislava, which exists even today. A year after Karol's birth, his sister Alica came into the world, but she would not get to celebrate her tenth birthday. She died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Karol lived with his parents on Suché mýto Street, near today's Presidential Palace, in Bratislava. From his childhood, Karol dearly remembers his babysitter Annie, who taught the children German and took them to a puppet theatre and swimming pool.

Karol's parents were engaged in the Zionist movement, and they had already considered moving to Palestine before the war. His father travelled there in 1935 to explore the possibilities of work for himself as a doctor. He even bought a plot of land in Haifa, but due to the riots that broke out shortly after his return to Czechoslovakia, their family put off the plan to move.

The beginning of war

The outbreak of the Second World War, on September 1, 1939, is something Karol remembers clearly as it was his very first day in school. Abruptly, the principal sent all the children home early.

Karol attended a Jewish school and lessons continued to be conducted in a calm atmosphere. However, he recalls how he and his sister had to hide in their flat during the marches of Hlinka's Youth, an organisation responsible for pre-military education of young people and defence.

Soon after the Slovak State was proclaimed, on March 14, 1939, the first measures of the Jewish Code affected the Steiners. Among other things, the Jews were not allowed to employ a babysitter and hence Annie had to leave Karol's family. In addition, he remembers how they could not travel on a tram once they were ordered to wear a yellow patch on their clothing.

Reline

When deportations started in 1942, his cousin Reline found herself in the first wave of transports, heading for the Auschwitz concentration camp, built by the Nazis in occupied Poland.

Karol's father, because he was a doctor, managed to obtain an economic exception which protected him from the first wave of deportations. He soon moved the whole family to Liptovský Mikuláš.

"There, we heard about transports from Poprad in eastern Slovakia to Žilina, central Slovakia, and from there to Poland," said Karol.

Once they went to the train station in Žilina, where trains packed with Jews sometimes stopped.

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"We saw those poor people standing behind bars and calling: 'Give us water! We have nothing to eat!'" he added. It was horrific and their first encounter with transports.

Reline died in the camp. During the war, 16 members of the Steiner family, in fact, died in different death camps.

In Stupava

Not long after, Karol's father got a job as a doctor in Stupava, western Slovakia. His family followed him there. Upon moving to Stupava, train conductor Ľudovít Rajter helped the family save their possessions by taking and hiding them in his place during the war.

While in Stupava, Karol's father saved the life of a German, who then promised him that if he ever needed help, the father could turn to him anytime.

The father also treated 198 protected Jews, who were placed in an abandoned monastery in Marianka, situated between Stupava and Bratislava. These Jews had acquired passports, prior to the war, from South American countries, on which Nazi Germany had not declared war. Because of this, the father decided to hide his children in the monastery for some time.

"My dear Karol," said the father to Karol when he brought his children to the monastery. "If something happens, you are not safe here, and you must somehow save yourself."

The SS units in Marianka

Following the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944, and the German army’s arrival in Slovakia, Alois Brunner came to Marianka.

"On a beautiful day, a lorry drove to the monastery, and SS units surrounded us," said Karol. "We did not know who Brunner was at that time."

Brunner was an Austrian SS officer and Adolf Eichmann's assistant. He restarted the transports to death camps and actively sought his victims, including those in the monastery.

"He ordered everyone to queue up in the yard and bring their passports," Karol recalled. People were standing in three lines, including Karol's sister.

At that time, Karol was 11 years old. Bearing the words of his father in his mind, he walked up to the second floor of the monastery, where the toilet was.

"I was looking out of the window, watching what was happening in the yard," said Karol.

Meanwhile, he also took off his beret and shirt, wearing only his T-shirt and shorts to not look like a Jewish child. He then threw his clothes out of the window to remove evidence and waited for what would happen next.

Encounters with SS officers

Brunner was checking everyone's passports, asking the Jews who they were in Spanish and French. But no one knew how to reply. Therefore, he ordered them to pack their things.

"I was walking out of the toilet when I came across two SS officers and one police officer," Karol said.

They approached him and began to yell at him: "Jude oder nicht Jude? Jewish or non-Jewish?" Karol pretended he had no idea what they were asking. The SS officers told the police officer to translate their inquiry, and he obediently did so.

"Boy, what are you doing here? Who are you?" the police officer asked. Karol introduced himself as Jano Gažo from Marianka, adding he came to the monastery to sell vegetables to the Jews. The SS officers were not satisfied with the translated response.

Everyone was staring at the ceiling, wondering whether water would be poured on them or if they would be gassed.

Karol Natan Steiner

"One of them grabbed me by the T-shirt and, again, began to shout at me: 'Jude oder nicht Jude?'" Karol said. Since he did not react, one of the officers came closer to Karol and intended to pull down Karol's trousers to see whether he was circumcised. Karol however curled up and did not allow him to.

"The mad soldier then kicked me in the balls, left me alone and walked away," he said.

Karol soon pulled himself together, walked down to the yard and decided to climb up the wall surrounding the monastery, and ran away. He succeeded, running through a corn field. He managed to reach his parents' office where they worked. Karol told them what had happened in the monastery.

"Gitka, take Karol and hide yourselves for some time," said Karol's father to his wife. "I am going to the German who promised to help." It was the last time Karol saw his father.

Alica Steiner!

When the father met the German he had saved, the German went to the monastery. There, everyone was already being queued up and prepared to march to the train station in Stupava.

The German came to Brunner and asked him to let a doctor's daughter go. Brunner agreed to.

"Alica Steiner, Alica Steiner!" the German shouted out. Yet, Karol's daughter used a fake name while in the monastery. Hence, she did not step out of the queue. The German came back to Karol's father.

"I am really sorry, Doctor Steiner. I called out her name, but she did not show up," he said to Mr Steiner. After, he realised Alica was there under a different name so the German and Mr Steiner returned to the monastery once more.

Doctor Steiner!

"Who is this man?" asked Brunner. When he heard Mr Steiner was a doctor, he just nodded approvingly.

"Here are 198 people who will all need your medical help," said Brunner. "You will stay here with us."

Karol’s father was scared and said he was willing to do anything but needed his medicine and equipment. Brunner gave him two SS soldiers to accompany Mr Steiner to his flat. He seated the soldiers in armchairs in the waiting room.

Following this, he began to pack his staff in another room. However, everything went quiet soon. The SS officers thus opened up the door of the room. As soon as they did not find the doctor in the room, they began to follow him. Mr Steiner was already escaping but along the main road which was a mistake.

"Doctor Steiner! Have you not seen Doctor Steiner?" the two soldiers shouted out, asking people on the street. Of course, the Slovaks knew him and showed the officers the way.

"They caught him and beat him so harshly he nearly died," Karol said. "In bad condition, he had to join the other Jews from the monastery in Stupava."

From there, they were transported to Sereď, near Trnava, where a camp was also built. When Brunner collected roughly a thousand Jews, he planned a transport to Auschwitz.

Karol's father and sister ended up in the second-to-last transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz.

Off to Bergen-Belsen

Meanwhile, Karol and his mother were hiding in a farmer's house, which his father had arranged earlier. However, someone reported them for 500 Czechoslovak crowns, and the guards took them to Bratislava, where they were interrogated.

Both of them were later taken to the Sereď camp, three weeks after Karol's father and sister had been deported from there. They stayed in the camp less than a week and in the first week of October 1944, Karol and his mother found themselves on a transport headed to Germany.

There was a funeral group that walked around the blocks, pulling a big carriage behind to load it with corpses.

Karol Natan Steiner

The train was full of wagon with 80 people packed together in each. There was only one barrel for all to use as a toilet. One woman even died in one of the wagons, Karol said. Wagons got gradually separated from the train. One wagon, full of women, continued to the camp in Ravensbrück, those able to work were sent to the Matthausen camp, and the last wagon with children and mothers stopped in Bergen-Belsen.

"The Germans got us off the wagons at night so that no one could figure out where we were and what was going on," said Karol.

They began to shout at the people: "Raus, raus, schnell, schnell!" The dogs were barking. At night, people had to walk three or four kilometres to the camp, which had a block intended for Slovak mothers and children.

"There was a woman waiting, who was in charge of our transport," said Karol. She was their capo, a prisoner of the highest rank in the camp.

"We were given straw mattresses, blankets, and some space for sleeping in triple bunk beds of wood," Karol added.

Every morning, they had to queue up to get breakfast. The Germans handed out black water, in Karol's opinion, reminiscent of tea or coffee, and a small slice of black bread with a little marmalade or margarine. At lunchtime, they got so-called soup.

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"It was good only because it was hot," admitted Karol. "It was just turnips, cut in cubes, now and then with carrots and potatoes."

Karol's mother always left her bread for her son, and that is why Karol managed to survive.

"The Spa"

The camp in Bergen-Belsen was not a work camp. Prisoners only waited for the next food to come each day, remembered Karol. While waiting, they talked, mostly about what they would cook at home. They always mentioned food.

In the beginning, children played football with a ball made of different types of cloth by the barracks.

"However, people began to die after a time," Karol said. "There was a funeral group that walked around the blocks, pulling a big carriage behind to load it with corpses."

The dead bodies ended up at the edge of the camp, in crematories. There were no gas chambers in Bergen-Belsen unlike Auschwitz. Later, when a lice epidemic broke out, the Germans were worried it could be typhus.

"Hence, they took us into a room, which they called the spa," said Karol. "We already knew how Germans had lied to people in Auschwitz."

They had to take their clothes off and were told to shower themselves. The Germans went on to say they would get clean clothes and then return to the barracks. Prisoners, untrusting, were afraid of what would actually happen in that room.

"Everyone was staring at the ceiling, wondering whether water would be poured on them or if they would be gassed," Karol said. "It was eventually just water."

April 15, 1945

When winter arrived in 1944, people started dying in large numbers. The group with carriages could not manage to take corpses out to crematories fast enough. Hence, Karol and his friend Miki pulled women, who had died in their block, outside the barrack.

"We were completely apathetic. Nothing hurt us," Karol admitted. They did it for half a year.

In the spring, they heard more British and American planes, bombing Hannover and Hamburg. They were all expecting the war to end. The camp was freed on April 15, 1945 by the British army.

Yet, the Germans had been plotting to poison all the people in the camp.

"In the bakery, where they baked bread, they put a poison in the dough," Karol said. "Guards planned to leave the camp and let people go, who would first start eating the bread and die."

Several Germans heard the British army approaching and ran towards them to surrender. They told the Brits about the plan, which was fortunately not successful.

Back in Liptovský Mikuláš

Karol and his mother were taken to a military hospital where they managed to recover. After this, they took the Red Cross bus and returned to Bratislava via Prague. However, they soon learned that neither father nor sister had survived.

They temporarily stayed at Karol's cousin's house on Ventúrska Street in Bratislava. His uncle Béla, who had taken part in the Slovak National Uprising, then drove them to Liptovský Mikuláš. There, Karol's grandmother waited for them. She had managed to avoid deportations by hiding.

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The family succeeded in obtaining their confiscated shop, which helped them get by. Karol began to attend the eight-year secondary school and do sports in the afternoons. This got him back on his feet.

In Liptovský Mikuláš, Karol joined a Zionist youth group. The organisation prepared summer camps, where they taught their members the basics of Zionism. As well, the members learned more about what was going on in Palestine.

When the communist party took over in Czechoslovakia, Karol and many other Jews in Slovakia initially welcomed it with enthusiasm. Yet, Karol's cousin persuaded Karol's mom to allow her son to travel to Israel at that time. She agreed, and 16-year-old Karol set out for Haifa on March 14, 1949.

Life in Israel

From Israel, he then followed the political trials of the fifties, which were organised by the Czechoslovak communists. He could not understand why, despite the situation in their home country, many people who had moved to Israel remained blind and went on believing in communism.

At first, they began as a group in one kibbutz (community) in Israel but after some time went their own way. Karol stayed in a dormitory for some time, where teachers from Czechoslovakia taught them.

He then went on to live in other Israeli kibbutzes and even joined the army. Karol's mother arrived in Israel, as well. She worked as educator in a dormitory. Karol studied international business, then wedded and started his own business. He is the honorary consul of Slovakia in Israel.

The story was filmed within the "WWII: Memories of Eastern European Nations in Education" project, which was supported by the Europe for Citizens Programme.