Another Childhood Memory
Back in the sixties, when I lived back in the family home I just sold, there was an elderly couple that lived across the street. They were Mr. and Mrs. Stearn, though at some point they began spelling it "Stern" to feel, I guess, more a part of America. They were as sweet and nice a couple as you could find, though they lived in constant terror. Each night at sundown, they would lock their doors with steel bars, like securing a bank vault from the inside. They would turn off all lights in the house but for a bedroom in the back where the windows were sealed-over such that no one outside could see there were lights on in there. And they would huddle in that room, watching TV with the volume kept low and fighting off the fears that uniformed Nazis were coming to take Mr. Stern away…again.
This was in West Los Angeles in the sixties. There were no reports of Nazis coming to take anyone away…indeed, no reports of Nazis doing much of anything except occasionally shouting in parades. Still, it had happened to Mr. Stern when he was a young Jew living in Germany and he'd never been able to escape the nightmares.
That time he was taken away, he spent more than a year in a Concentration Camp where he was tortured about eleven different ways, including being made to believe each night that he would be executed at dawn. Each morn, someone he knew was indeed executed but his own demise was postponed…and postponed and postponed and postponed. He was moved from camp to camp and finally, the Nazis abandoned the camp he was in at the moment and he was rescued. He and his wife reunited and got the hell out of Europe forever. It was the same wife he now had — the only one he ever had — and she still had her own version of the nightmares.
During the day, Mr. Stern was a charming, friendly man who would occasionally be in the mood to sit and tell me stories of those days. He had a thick German accent and physically, he looked exactly like someone you'd cast to play a Nazi in a World War II movie. He received occasional offers. Casting directors would see him in a store and hear his accent. They'd approach him and ask if he'd be interested in a role on TV or in the movies and he'd recoil in horror and begin screaming at them. There was not enough money in this world to get him to step on a movie set resembling a Nazi encampment…not enough money in the world to get him to don one of their uniforms. He would later feel bad that he'd yelled at someone for innocently making him the offer but it was the hottest of hot buttons. He simply could not control himself on the topic.
One time in a supermarket, someone yelled at him. As I said, he looked like a caricature of a Nazi. Think Otto Preminger but taller. A man spotted him, heard the accent I suppose, and begin screaming at him, calling him a "Nazi bastard" and a war criminal and other such labels. Mr. Stern did not yell back. He merely reached over, unbuttoned his shirt cuff, rolled up his sleeve and showed the man the tattoo he'd been given, I believe, at Ravensbruck. The man stopped yelling, displayed his own tattoo from Treblinka, and the two of them fell into each other's arms, crying and bonding. They wound up in a nearby tavern drinking ale together all afternoon and discussing the different-but-similar terrors they'd lived with ever since.
The Sterns were good friends of our family and I would often take food (including tuna fish) over to them…but I had to get it there before the sun went down. Once it was dark, they would not answer the door. They would not answer the phone. On Halloween, they would just leave out a big bowl of Tootsie Rolls with a sign that said, "Help yourself." There was a kid down the block named Brett who would usually help himself to all of them.
One night, Mr. Stern got home from somewhere just as the sun was setting. He raced inside and bolted the door…and a half-hour later, I noticed he'd left the lights on in his car. We tried phoning and knocking but that didn't do any good. So I went over with a wrench, popped the hood open on his old Pontiac and unhooked one of his battery cables from his battery. I left a note on the car telling him what I'd done and said that in the morning, he should phone me and I'd come over and reattach it so he could drive. I have never been thanked for anything I've done so much as I was thanked for that. He hugged me. He gave me gifts. He thanked me every time I saw him for the rest of his life. There was a time I thought that when I died, the opening line of my obit would read, "Mark Evanier, who once stopped Michael Stern from having a dead battery, is dead himself tonight at the age of…"
The rest of Mr. Stern's life after that incident was not a long time. I think it was two or three years…and when he went, we all knew Mrs. Stern would join him before long. I think she lasted about two months.
One evening early in those two months, my mother answered the phone and was startled to hear the voice of Mrs. Stern. It was dark outside and we were used to her and her husband hiding from the entire world when it was dark out. She asked if I could perhaps come over and help her with something. Over I went…and it was an odd feeling going in that front door into a totally dark home. She asked several times if it was me and I had to holler to be heard so she was certain it was. Then came a scene you may recall from The Producers where Zero Mostel is visiting one of the li'l old ladies he hopes will invest in "Springtime for Hitler." He waits and waits while one lock and chain after another is unfastened from within. I waited the same way.
Finally, I got inside and she led me by the hand, holding one tiny flashlight, to the rear bedroom with the sealed windows. This was the only time I ever saw it and the only time in all the years I knew them that I (and probably any neighbor) saw any more of their home than the front hall. She sat me down in a chair which I believe had been his chair and she said, "Please…just talk to me." I did…about anything and everything I could think of. What I said didn't matter. I just had to get her mind off the feeling that she was alone there because Michael was back in that Concentration Camp. A few days later, she moved out of that house and went to live in another city with relatives…and before long, we heard that she had died.
I wish I'd thought to take a tape recorder over on those occasions when Mr. Stern got to talking about his past. He was rarely in the mood…and never when he was approached by researchers and scholars. I don't think he ever told his story anywhere and I'm not sure I even remember the details of where he was imprisoned correctly. What I will never forget is the horror and passion in his voice…how he shook all over when he told me of things he witnessed, inhuman acts performed on human beings for no rational reason. It was more than two decades earlier but the way he spoke, you would have thought he'd seen it all last night…as perhaps he did.