Growing up in Radom, Poland, Anna Steinberger knew that she wanted to become a bioscientist. “I always wanted to dedicate my life to discovering something to help people all over the world by maybe developing a wonderful new drug or something spectacular that would help,” she recalled. “War definitely got in the way.”
Anna was 11, ready to start seventh grade, when Germany attacked Poland in September 1939. As bombs fell, her family fled eastward with her physician-uncle’s family and thousands of other refugees. Eventually they reached Rovno (now in Ukraine) which about one week later was occupied by the Soviet army. Russian soldiers assured the family that they were no longer in danger of capture by German forces.
One day a Red Army soldier knocked on their door and offered them a choice: return home to German-occupied Radom or “resettle” in the Soviet Union. They chose the Soviet Union, and were sent to a sovkhoz (collective farm) near Stalingrad where her father and brother toiled in the fields. Anna attended a one-room school for grades one through five and was learning Russian. After about one year, the Schneider family was moved to Stalingrad where Anna and her brother Jacob attended school and parents worked in a clothing factory. The family faced food shortages and was constantly hungry. After Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, Anna’s brother was drafted into the Soviet Army. The rest of the family was relocated again, this time to Alma Ata in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. There she met Emil Steinberger and his family who, after fleeing the Nazis, spent about two years in a Russian gulag. Emil was so malnourished that he was briefly hospitalized.
Emil and Anna became friends and, after finishing high school, they both enrolled in medical school. After class they enjoyed ice skating and going to dances and operas, some of the few luxuries they could afford. When the war was over the two families traveled back to Poland, but on separate trains and they lost contact with one other. By an unexpected encounter, like a miracle, the two families were reunited in Poland! Eager to emigrate, both families crossed Czechoslovakia and Austria to reach a camp for Displaced Persons in Kassel, located in the American zone of Germany. Despite not knowing the German language, Anna and Emil managed to continue their medical studies in Frankfurt am Main.
Emil came to New York on June 25, 1948 with $10 in his pocket. A year later Anna and her family traveled with Emil’s parents to the United States. She and Emil were married in New York City on December 24, 1950. The couple moved to Iowa City where their two daughters, Pauline and Inette, were born while the couple continued their education. Emil graduated from medical school in 1955 and Anna earned her M.S. in virology/biochemistry in 1952. Anna then worked as a laboratory technician before returning to graduate school to earn her Ph.D. from Wayne State University in 1961.
The Steinbergers’ academic careers took them to Detroit; Bethesda, Maryland (where Emil served in U.S. Navy); Philadelphia and, in 1971, to Houston. There they were invited to establish the Department of Reproductive Medicine and Biology at the new University of Texas Medical School. “Anna and I fell in love with Houston,” said Emil. They decided to stay. Both had distinguished scientific careers and were active in the community.
Anna continues to serve on different committees and as a docent at Holocaust Museum Houston where she derives great satisfaction from teaching museum visitors about tolerance and understanding. The Steinbergers’ generous gift endowed the Museum’s docent training program so that well-informed docents will continue to share the stories of Holocaust survivors and educate museum visitors about the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.
Isaac Schneider, survived
Sara Bajczman Schneider, survived