Houston’s Survivors

Sonia Stern*

Born: Sarah Stiller
Kaunas (also known as Kovno), Lithuania 1925
Died: December 23, 2011

“My children know everything, everything. They made peace with it, but they were very angry when they were younger. I know they suffered a lot because of the Holocaust. Not only me, not only us, but them too.”

Sonia Stern was the third of five siblings born in Kaunas, Lithuania to Nathan and Golda Stiller. When Germany invaded Lithuania in June 1941, thousands of Jews, including Sonia’s family, fled to the countryside. But German troops overtook them and forced the Stillers to return to the city. On the outskirts of Kaunas, German SS units and Lithuanian police pulled several hundred men from the group and shot them. Sonia’s father was among the victims. Her two older brothers disappeared in the melee that followed. Shocked and numb, Sonia returned to her home with her mother and her two younger siblings only to find that non-Jewish neighbors had taken it over.

Sonia and her remaining family members were herded into the crowded ghetto where the burden of caring for the family fell to the 16-year-old girl. “I figured, no way I’m going to let them die, Sonia said of her siblings, Pearl and Abraham, whose stomachs gradually swelled from malnutrition. “I’m going to do something and if they kill me, they’ll kill me. I’ll be better off than watching my little brother and sister die.” By smuggling food into the ghetto, Sonia kept her brother and sister from starving to death, but she was unable to save their lives. One day, she and her family were sent to the railroad station. When Sonia noticed that the young children were being separated from their parents she hid Abraham under the folds of her overcoat. A Lithuanian policeman discovered him, beat Sonia brutally, then picked up the small child by the collar and flung him into a waiting truck full of children.

Sonia was sent with her mother and sister to a labor camp in Estonia and, in December 1942, to Auschwitz where Golda and Pearl were murdered immediately. When Sonia asked what had happened to them, a fellow inmate pointed to the smokestacks of the crematoria and explained that her family was better off dead than alive. But Sonia refused to give up. During periodic selections, when the weak and infirm were taken to the gas chambers, Sonia hid among the corpses so that the Nazi officers would not see how emaciated she had become. After two years in Auschwitz, she was sent to work in an ammunition factory where Soviet troops liberated her in May 1945.

Sonia came to New York in 1949 with her husband Morris, a survivor from Poland who had also lost his entire family. Morris opened a kosher butcher shop in New Jersey and he and Sonia raised three children, Allen, Gail and Bill. Sonia and Morris moved to Arizona in the early 1970s. Sonia spoke frequently to groups there about her experiences during the Holocaust, earning an award from the governor of Arizona for her service to the community. The Sterns retired to Houston in 1994 to be near their children. Sonia continued to speak often about the Holocaust. She felt that bearing witness was her way of fighting back.

Nathan Stiller, d. Kaunas, 1939
Golda Krangel Stiller, d. Auschwitz, 1942

Leon, d. 1946
Moishe, d. 1941
Pearl, d. Auschwitz, 1942
Abraham, d. 1942