Ben Stern, 95, is a Berkeley resident and a Holocaust survivor. According to The Washington Post, Stern, originally from Poland, endured nine concentration camps — including Auschwitz — and life in the Warsaw Ghetto along with the death march from Buchenwald.
He lost his family but found a wife, and he began life anew in America. Now, he's living with a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union named Lea Heitfeld, who happens to be the granddaughter of active Nazis.
And they're good friends.
They eat dinner together nearly every evening, munching on herring salad and crackers before the meal. They enjoy watching the news together, and they talk about history and Stern's Polish upbringing. They walk to campus side by side every Thursday.
Stern's wife of more than 70 years is battling dementia in a nursing home, and the friendship Heitfeld provides by living in his home is welcomed.
"This act of his opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me," Heitfeld, who's receiving her masters in Jewish studies, said to the Washington Post. "That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain."
Stern, for his part, considers the living arrangement "an act of justice."
"It was the right thing to do," he said. "I'm doing the opposite of what [the Nazis] did."
The dynamic of Stern and Heitfeld's relationship is intricate and beautiful, especially considering the influx of anti-Semitic hate crimes on American soil.
In fact, the connection is not limited to Stern and Heitfeld. Stern's daughter, Charlene, created a documentary titled the "Near Normal Man," which refers to what Stern calls himself since the experience. Charlene showed the documentary to Hetfield's parents upon visiting.
Hetfield's father, the son of Nazis, wants the film to be shown in Germany, even offering to travel with Charlene — the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
It's a beautiful display of love and human restoration in the face of adversity, once again.
"I feel like it's important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life," Stern said to the Post. "It's important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, religions. We're different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world."
Banner/thumbnail credit: Flickr, njaminjami