Holocaust survivor Benjamin Steiner recounts in this excerpt derived from his personal testimony, how he escaped death as boy of eight years in Auschwitz and survived Nazi medical experimentation.
Benjamin Steiner was born May 14, 1935 in Budapest, Hungary. Ben’s father was a German salesman who changed his name from Meier to Schneider when he met and married Ben’s mother in Budapest. Ben’s mother was originally from Poland with the Jewish sounding name of Kaminski, which she later changed to Jettner for similar reasons. His grandparents were actually named Cohen and once again it was decided to discard the identifying Jewish name. So, at birth Ben’s full name was William Bela Schneider, like his father, but years later he changed it to Benjamin Zachary Steiner. He had no siblings and as far as he recalls, neither did his parents.
Even as a boy Ben remembered the increasing intolerance towards Jews in Hungary in the 1930s. In 1944 the Nazis took his father away while his mother sent him to what she hoped would be the safety of a Catholic boarding school at Esztergom. That safety proved to be illusory since all Jewish children there were arrested shortly after. Ben ended up in Auschwitz where he was “saved” from the gas chamber to serve as a subject in medical experiments.
He had his head shaved and became a patient of the notorious Josef Mengele, and was forced to endure numerous experiments, operations, and drugs. A kindly matron named Ruth would often look after him. One day she was shot in front of him as she tried to stop a camp guard from beating him. Her surname was Steiner, the name that Ben later adopted as his own.
Ben was liberated by the Russians. Miraculously his parents had also survived, his father having been forced to work in the German V-2 rocket factory and his mother as a doctor in a military hospital. Ten years later, living in soviet-controlled Budapest, Ben was involved in student protests. He had to flee the country, eventually arriving in New Zealand and settling in Auckland where he lives to this day.
Over the years Ben was an avid follower of TV history programmes, yet never once was a film ever shown about the Hungarian refugees despite half a million Hungarians having been taken to Auschwitz and slaughtered there. Then one evening in 2011 he had the most exciting and unbelievable experience. A film showing the Hungarian transports was shown on the history channel. One of the trains to Auschwitz was shown arriving at the station and there in front of him, as he sat watching the TV screen, he saw himself getting off the train while holding hands with Miss Levy.
It was understandably an absolutely incredible experience to see himself in a film from the Holocaust after 56 years. In 150 movies or more that had been made about the Holocaust and that Ben had viewed, here he was himself, stepping out in front of him on a wide TV screen. Not only did he recognise Miss Levy straight away – and then himself – but he also immediately identified Karl Hooker, an SS officer who later denied that he was ever in Auschwitz. There he was, selecting Ben to go one way (and survive) and hundreds of others to go the other way and straight to the gas chambers.
Image header (above): Benjamin Steiner recalling his life story as a young boy who survived the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Photographed by Keren Cook © JoM