When the Nazis were hunting for Jews in occupied Amsterdam, Martin Stern was hidden just three blocks away from Anne Frank.
Both children were captured and sent to concentration camps.
We hear tragic Anne’s testimony only through her diary. But Martin lived to tell his tale.
He still shares it during school visits and stresses his gratitude to the brave souls who defied the Nazis to help him avoid Anne’s fate.
Speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, he said: “I owe my life to so many others.”
Martin was five when his ordeal began. His mother died giving birth to sister Erica and his father was sent to die at the Buchenwald camp.
The children were taken in by different families and Martin was cared for by Cathrien and Johannes Rademakers. Posing as the Dutch couple’s child, he went to school. But the Gestapo got wind.
Martin, 81, said: “One day two men walked in wearing civilian clothes and asked, ‘Is Martin Stern here?’ The teacher shot back ‘No, he hasn’t come in today.’ I put my hand up and said, ‘But I am here’.”
Martin was led to a room where they had Johannes.
He said: “I recognised Johannes, of course. He’d been looking after me in his flat around the corner from the Anne Frank house.”
When Martin called out to him, Johannes was dragged away. He was sent to Neuengamme camp, near Hamburg, where he died. Martin would be held in two concentration camps.
The first, in 1944, was Westerbork, where Jews were held before being shipped to extermination sites. Unknown to Martin, Erica had also been found and sent to Westerbork – where the Frank family were held.
He said: “We lived in wooden creosoted huts which were crowded, the food was terrible and there was little of it.”
From there, Martin went to Theresienstadt in Terezin, north of Prague. He remembers the stench of the cattle train and being packed tightly against strangers sharing a single bucket for a toilet.
But mostly he recalls wondering why an old man was allowed so much space to lie on the floor.
Martin said: “Everyone had squeezed back from him and I was asking why he was sleeping with his eyes open I had never seen a corpse before.” Children had little chance of survival in Theresienstadt.
Of 15,000 sent there, 2,600 are thought to have lived. Martin said: “It was disgustingly crowded. The sewage, water and food were inadequate and we still wore the clothes we were arrested in. It stank.”
Martin and Erica were saved by a Dutch woman called Catharina Casoeto De Jong, who was imprisoned for marrying a Jew.
She started looking after them, taking them to her women’s dorm and stealing food for them.
When a cattle truck arrived to take children to Auschwitz, their names were miraculously not on the list.
Martin said: “I have no idea why. Maybe the list was made in buildings where the children were. If the Germans had time they would have caught us.
“There was a pit being dug for bodies and they were trying to create a gas chamber.”
The Soviets liberated Theresienstadt on May 8, 1945. Martin and Erica went back to the Netherlands with Catharina, later joining their mum’s family in Didsbury, Manchester.
Martin, a retired immunologist, was made an MBE in 2018. He lives in Leicester and is part of the Forever Project.
The interactive scheme, at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Laxton, Notts, lets people question survivors through recordings.
Martin said: “Surviving is like undoing a combination lock by chance. But the memories will never disappear.
“I live with them every day. They are all too real. And I wish they weren’t.”
- See holocaust.org.uk for more information.
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