Friday, August 22, 2008
Unsung Holocaust Hero Celebrates 100th
ATLANTA (Aug. 22) - Andre Steiner was the muscle behind one of the most daring — and overlooked — missions to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In his youth, before he became a renowned architect, he helped engineer a plan to stave off the deportation of Slovakia's Jews through a network of work camps and a series of bribes that likely helped save the lives of thousands.
The last living member of the underground network that devised the plan, Steiner marked his 100th birthday Friday in a retirement tower north of Atlanta.He's hard of hearing but his mind and memory are sharp, and his crystal blue eyes sparkle when he talks about his experience.
Wearing a loose flannel shirt and jeans that hung off his thin body during a recent visit, he was sporting two white hearing aids that blended with his close-cropped beard. But visitors still had to shout in his ear to be heard.
"Imagine — a hundred years," he said in a thick, halting accent. "It's nearly too much."
Steiner already was in his late 20s when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, bringing with them anti-Jewish laws they had spread through much of the rest of Europe. His father-in-law fled to England in 1938, but Steiner settled in Bratislava with his wife and young son.
He was arrested after Nazis seized control of the country, but was later released to finish a building project in town. He began designing work camps and other sites for the Nazis, hoping the Jewish community would be better off if they cooperated.
Soon he had 4,000 people working in 130 workshops at the camps, making an array of items for the German war effort. At lunch, he gathered with other young Jews to talk about ways to improve conditions for the Jews. The band soon became known as the Bratislava Working Group.
But as Slovaks began a massive deportation of Jews to concentration camps in Poland in 1942, the group's mission changed as well. It decided to focus on finding a way — any way — to rescue Jews in Slovakia.
"We wanted to help in any way we could," he said. "It was a very close-knit friendship with one ideal: to help the Jews."
One of the members, Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, had heard a rumor that a Nazi official was willing to accept cash bribes to keep Jews off the dreaded deportation list. Soon, they had devised a back story for their gambit: They were negotiating on behalf of a fictitious world Jewish leader named Ferdinand Roth.
When it was time for a face-to-face meeting, the group picked Steiner, the confident man who cut a dashing figure with slicked back hair and a golden tongue. Inside, though, Steiner was awash with anxiety. A single misstep could have cost him his life and betray the group's effort.
Asking the rabbi for advice, he got a most unexpected answer: Imagine the Nazi sitting on a toilet nude. When he arrived at the meeting and did just that, he couldn't stifle a smirk.
"He got really angry but I told him if you're angry we won't make a deal. He conceded, then said, 'Take a seat,'" Steiner remembers. "From then on, I wasn't nervous at all."
Steiner soon became the go-to-guy for the group's negotiations with local leaders and Nazi officials, handing over cash installments smuggled in through contacts in Europe, America and elsewhere.
"He was the foot soldier of the group," said Jacob Fuchs, a Tel Aviv author who chronicled the group. "He went out there and risked his neck in actual negotiations."
Buoyed by its success, the group planned to boost the bribes to save Jews through the rest of the continent, but it couldn't come up with the cash. Their work was sidelined for good in September 1944 when Slovak partisans revolted, drawing a crushing response from the German military.
Steiner and his family fled to the mountains, hiding there for months until peasants from the countryside came with the welcome news that the war had ended. Newly liberated, Steiner moved to Cuba in 1948 and then the U.S. in 1950, settling with relatives in Atlanta.
He became a celebrated architect here, responsible for planning some of the state's largest attractions, from Stone Mountain Park to Emory University. He was also known for more ambitious ideas, like a 1970s proposal for a mini-city in downtown Atlanta that could be home to 130,000 people.
When shown a newspaper clipping about the project, he dismissed it with a wave of his hands. "Plans, schmlans," he said. "Only plans."
Steiner's long life has had its share of sorrow. He still regrets divorcing his first wife. He fought off colon cancer a dozen years ago, a stroke two years back. And he's outlived his two sons, who both died recently.
But he has long since come to terms with his quixotic relationship with the Nazi, a man he bribed with labor and money in hopes of saving his fellow Jews.
"He's an enemy in whose hand is the future."