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Holocaust survivor recalls his time in a Nazi concentration camp

By Staff | Feb 11, 2015

Steen Metz, a Holocaust survivor, speaks in front of a packed Strauss Theater Wednesday, Feb. 4. BRIAN WIERIMA

The Nazi Holocaust is remembered as one of the worst and darkest part of human history, one in which is ugly, violent and evil.

The thorough and blatant extermination of over six million Jews and five million non-Jewish victims still haunts our history and it’s a part of time some would sooner not think about.

But Holocaust survivor Steen Metz is doing his part that this tragedy of historical proportions, is not forgotten. He has shared his 18 months of “hell” with over 12,000 people in the last 3.5 years, as he freely talks about his life-changing time as an 8-year-old in the Theresienstadt Bauschowitz concentration camp in Denmark, where he survived with his mother and saw his father wither away in the first six months, where he eventually died from starvation.

Metz shared his inspiring story in front of a packed Strauss Theater Wednesday, Feb. 4, as he recounted the days leading up to the Germans pounding on his family’s door, to their incarceration in the Denmark concentration camp and the 18 months of brutal conditions he and his mother had to endure, before they were freed with the defeat of the Nazis.

“The Holocaust is referred to as the greatest infraction to people ever,” Metz started his presentation. “Hitler is the greatest bully who ever lived. Now even 70 years later, there are a number of people denying the Holocaust ever took place. But like someone told me during one of my presentations, denying that the Holocaust ever existed, is like saying the Civil War never took place.

This picture was of an 8-year-old Steen Metz in Denmark, holding two ice cream cones, as his father took the photo. His father would succumb to starvation within six months after entering the Theresienstadt Bauschowitz concentration camp. BRIAN WIERIMA

“That’s the reason I want to talk with as many people as possible. When I talk to students, I ask them to talk with friends and family. And if one person can talk with just four people about the Holocaust, then the message will get across.”

Metz was born in Denmark, which in 1940, the population was around the four million mark, with a sliver of it being of 7,000 Jewish decent. His family lived in the middle of Denmark, where his father practiced law.

On April 9, 1940, life started to change in Denmark, as the Germans started their occupation of the country.

“I remember that day so well,” Metz said. “First, we just moved to a new apartment and I still remember the ugly-looking uniforms the Nazis were wearing and the stamping of the soldiers coming up the street.”

The first 3.5 years of Nazi occupation was pretty normal for the Metz family, as his father still was practicing law and Steen attended public school. Jews didn’t have to wear the infamous Jewish Star on their clothing, unlike the Jews had to in such countries as Poland.

Eventually, the Danish government came under heavy pressure by the Germans after the resistance army proved to be very bothersome for the Nazi war machine. The Germans gave the Danish government the ultimatum of arresting those responsible or suffer the consequences.

Ultimately, the consequences were served and the Danish government was ousted, thus leaving the population exposed to the Nazis.

But a few days before the Jewish roundup was to be had, word leaked out by a German diplomat, giving good enough forewarning to 95 percent of the Jews in Denmark, mostly in the capitol city of Copenhagen.

On Aug. 29, 1943, the roundup started, but the Nazis found many empty houses, as many of the Jews fled to the safe confides of Sweden. Unfortunately for Metz and his family, they did not receive word of the exodus out of Denmark.

“Many said ‘only’ five percent of the Jews were arrested that day, but to be among those five percent, it was a big number,” Metz said. “That morning, we got a pounding on the door, we lived on the third floor. I knew the Germans were occupying Denmark, but I didn’t understand why they were coming to our door. At that time, I didn’t know I was Jewish. I was not brought up in the Jewish faith and my parents were not practicing the Jewish faith.

“But was it a crime to be Jewish? No. It was only a crime to Hitler and his army.”

There was no escape to be had, either, as Metz recalled his father would have certainly been shot by the Nazi soldiers.

After his parents grabbed some valuables and a bag of bread and pastries from a baker from downstairs, they were loaded on wagons and transported to what Holocaust survivors called “cattle cars”, or railcars.

“It was dark, it was dirty, there were no seats, benches, no light, no bathroom facilities except for a bucket,” Metz said. “There was no air ventilation. You can imagine the smell and what the atmosphere was like. We went through three days and three nights with no certainty of where we were going. It was just a horrible experience.”

The trip lasted three days and three nights, which covered 550 miles to the concentration camp. After being unloaded, they were forced to walk another 1.5 miles to their new “home”, Theresienstadt Bauschowitz.

“The first thing that happened was the intimidation and abuse,” Metz said. “It was the sign of things to come.”

The conditions were just as brutal, with sleeping accommodations in overcrowded bunkhouses, which had wooden bunk beds with just straw as padding. The Metz family was separated, with Steen going with his mother, his father to the adult male area and his grandmother to another area of the camp.

Food was a rarity and eventually, it took its toll on his father.

“My father was used to office work, not the heavy construction work and hard labor they forced him to do,” Metz said. “It was cold and a German officer tore his coat off him and told him you don’t work with a coat on. He was physically abused and whipped.

“In the first six months, he lost 50-percent of body weight. He eventually ended up in infirmary, where doctors couldn’t save him, because they had no supplies to work with. He passed away at age of 40.”

Metz did his part of helping his mother and himself survive, including “stealing” raw potatoes which were in the kitchen. He would share them with his mother.

“I had to look around and help myself to a couple of raw potatoes when no soldiers or officers were around,” Metz said. “When you are trying to survive, it wasn’t stealing and I shared with mother. When we got back to Denmark, my mother was afraid I was going to become a kleptomaniac (laughing), but fortunately this did not happen.”

There were nearly 140,000 inmates at the concentration camp Metz was in and 35,000 died, mostly from starvation and illness.

At any one time, the camp housed 60,000 inmates, which basically left 1.5 square yards for each person.

The “miracle” happened on April 15, 1945, the “white buses” with red crosses on them, arrived.

The remaining inmates from Theresienstadt Bauschowitz were loaded on those buses and transported to another part of Denmark and eventually to Sweden. The war was still lingering, but the Germans were slowly being defeated by the Allies.

“The bus drivers were both Danish and Swedish and I give them a lot of credit for driving through those conditions,” Metz said.

On May 5, 1945, the war officially ended in Denmark, but still was being waged in surrounding Europe. Ironically, it was Metz’ birthday. Steen, his mother and his grandmother all survived and had their reunion soon after in Sweden.

After 50 years of living in the United States and raising two daughters in Deerfield, Ill., Metz worked in the food industry, at companies such as Sara Lee, Kraft and McCormick. He retired in 1999. His mother also lived a fruitful life and lived up to the ripe old age of 90.

Metz started telling his story in 2011 and became a way for closure and helping make sure people “Don’t forget.”

He was asked if he still holds a grudge against the Germans.

“Right after the war, yes, I did hold a grudge,” Metz said. “My mother felt the same. For many years I held that grudge, but now, the Germans who are living, had nothing to do with (the Holocaust).”

It’s a story which might be sad and filled with tragedy and death, but it’s one which cannot be passed into the fog of history.

It cannot be forgotten, and thanks to people like Steen Metz who are willing to share his darkest moment of his life with people, the memory of the Holocaust will not fade into obscurity.