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'A Story That's Important To Tell'

Two Greenspring residents share memories of life during the Holocaust.

Charles Stein grew up in Austria with dreams of being a doctor. Michel Margosis assumed he'd follow in his father's footsteps and become a journalist. Instead, they spent years hunting for visas, ever watchful of Nazi spies, eventually coming to America where they were safe from prosecution.

The two men, now residents of Greenspring in Springfield, are among thousands of the lucky ones, Jews who were able to escape the Holocaust and have lived to tell their stories through the Living History program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

For Stein, his first memory of Nazi presence in Austria is very clear, nearly 60 years later.

"March 13, 1938, there was a big parade. I went out to watch it, like a fool, even though my parents told me not to," said Stein, who speaks about his past in a matter-of-fact voice.

The day before, he said, he thought it was strange to see some of his classmates at the university he attended wearing Nazi swastikas, as the Nazi party had been "outlawed" in Austria.

"We found out later that the Nazi army had crossed into Austria," Stein said.

AT THE PARADE, he saw his countrymen marching in goose-step, arms outstretched in a Nazi salute.

A few days later, Stein said, his city was filled with Austrian Nazis in full uniform, dragging Jews out of their homes "with just the clothes on their backs and a toothbrush to scrub the sidewalks and floors. I knew my time was up."

He began pleading with embassies for a visa, hoping to secure passage out of Austria to somewhere safe. Stein said he didn't know it at the time, but he was only eligible for a stateless visa because his father, who had fought for the Austrian Army during World War I, was not born in Austria and did not take feel the need to obtain formal citizenship after the war because he had been a solider.

Jewish students were expelled from universities when the Nazis took over, Stein said, so the safest place for him was to hang out with his friends in the street, comparing notes about which embassies were giving out visas and which country had the highest quotas and would grant safe passage for the biggest number of refugees.

By July 1938, Stein had secured a stateless visa that allowed him to travel to Luxembourg, courtesy of a husband and wife who were giving out visas from their own home.

A few days before he was ready to leave for Luxembourg, he was asked by a family friend to wait until her husband, who had been taken by the Nazi, was released.

"In those days, the Gestapo were still letting people go if they had passports," Stein said. "When he got out, we had 48 hours to leave the country."

STEIN AND THE man, who was named Max, went to the train station to leave for Luxembourg the next day, joined by Stein's parents.

"The last words I heard my mother say to my father were 'We'll never see our son again.' Those words are etched in my heart," Stein said.

When in Luxembourg, without a place to stay and unable to work, they were lucky enough to run into an old friend, who took them to a place where other Jews were living.

"I had to share a room with three other guys. We took turns using the bed," Stein said.

After a few weeks, he met up with other men who had found some work as musicians, one of the only jobs a refugee was allowed to have. He had brought his violin with him when he left Austria, and, joining the other men, he sometimes sang with them three nights a week.

Stein said he arranged for his parents to cross into Luxembourg, frightened for their safety knowing they also had stateless visas, especially after Krystalnacht, or the "night of broken glass" when the glass windows of stores owned by Jews were shattered.

"I found a man who would smuggle them in across the boarder, so I sent them a letter saying to meet Aunt Fanny, she's having her 80th birthday on this day at this time, encoded just enough because the Germans were reading all the mail," he said.

Just as they were about to cross the boarder, however, a German army patrol came through and made them return to Austria. Stein later received a postcard from them, telling him they were safe at home.

Eventually, Stein was able to get accepted as a refugee in the U.S. He arrived in New York three months after Hitler crossed into Poland.

WHILE STILL HOPING to become a doctor, Stein returned home one afternoon to find two letters waiting for him: One from a group of Quakers who offered to help pay his tuition to the University of South Carolina, the other from the U.S. Draft Board.

On Oct. 7, 1941, Stein enlisted in the Army, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor, all foreign-born soldiers were automatically given citizenship while fighting. Most of his military career was spent interrogating German prisoners of war, followed by work at the Pentagon, where he met his future wife, Barbara, who was in the Air Force. He began volunteering at the Holocaust Museum 14 years ago.

"How can I not tell my story? Those of us who went to the camps or got away, we're dying out," Stein said. "Our story is fading, there's no one left to tell it."

MARGOSIS, THE YOUNGEST of three children born to Russian Jews, said he first wrote down his story when his own son asked him what life was like in Belgium during the Holocaust.

"I was in the market with my mother one day and we heard bells ringing," said Margosis, recalling his first memory of the war. "Germany had just invaded Poland."

The next year, when Germany invaded Holland and Luxembourg, his parents decided it was time to leave. Once on a train, the normal half-hour trip to Mons turned into a seven-day, seven-night ordeal, with German paratroopers coming on the train several times to check passengers for identification. At times, the train was bombarded with machine gun fire from fighter planes, Margosis said.

Finally, he and his family arrived in Dunkirk, a province 70 kilometers south of Toulouse. They moved into an empty house from which "you could see the peeks of the Pyrenees mountains," he said.

Once the French government surrendered to the Germans, and their identification papers were gone, Margosis said his family found an old Russian friend, who took the family in until his father left for Portugal.

Shortly after that, his mother decided to take her three children to Marseilles, where a diplomat was said to be handing out passports and visas.

"When we got there, there was no one," he said. "We couldn't get any rations of food because we were there illegally."

Margosis' mother began to sell food and trinkets on the black market, making a small profit that allowed her to feed her family and keep their home in the slums of Marseilles.

Most of the time Margosis spent in France was "a great adventure," he said. Barely a teenager at the time, he learned to fish, swim, tend to farm animals and stay occupied with Raphael, a boy whose father was from Cameroon and whose mother was from Denmark.

"We did everything together," Margosis said of Raphael. "We stole food together, he taught me how to kayak. We went to the beach every day."

He lived in France for close to two years, before his mother decided to try again to move to safety.

En route to the Spanish border, his family spent the night at a camp in Toulouse. In the middle of the night, "my mother got a bad feeling about the camp, so we left. It turns out, the camp was a place where people went on their way to Auschwitz," he said.

Desperate to get her family out of harm's way, his mother paid police $40,000 to get them all to Spain, where they slept "behind a bar. It wasn't a tremendous space, but it was safe."

Margosis' family faced brushes with the law — his mother, brother and sister were all arrested and sent to jail but later released — and Margosis was sent to an orphanage for a while until they were reunited in Calderon de Malavella, a town of refugees.

BY JUNE 1943, Margosis was chosen to be one of the 1,200 children under 16 allowed into the United States, a group now known as the Thousand Children. Before traveling across the ocean, he saw his father in Portugal for the first time in three years.

"My father gave me a cigarette and told me I was a man now," said Margosis, who was a little over 14 years old at the time.

While on the ship, "we played tricks on the other kids," he said, between Portugal and Philadelphia, and then Margosis went on to New York.

"My cousin took me to Radio City to see a big show," said Margosis, of his life in New York. "I didn't speak any English, and my cousin spoke very little French, so we communicated mostly in Yiddish."

After being apart for 10 years, Margosis and his family reunited in Portugal in 1946.

Margosis, who studied chemistry in high school, went on to work as a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration, where he worked until a few years ago.

"I started volunteering at the Holocaust museum just about when it started," he said. "I remember one day, I saw a bunch of people walking around. When I asked what was going on, someone told me it was a gathering of survivors. I had always thought of myself as a refugee."

Margosis' reason for retelling his story is much like Stein's, they speak for those who no longer can.

"This is a story that's important to tell," he said. "People want to forget that bad things happen, but the more witnesses we have, the more the truth will be known."

To fill out the oral histories recorded at the Holocaust Museum, a search has begun in Europe to find the "witnesses, perpetrators and collaborators" who allowed the Holocaust to happen, said Joan Ringelheim, director of the oral history project at the museum.

"We have over 8,000 interviews, 1,800 of which we've done ourselves, which makes it the second largest group in the world," she said. "It's quite interesting to hear their stories. Believe it or not, it's not all awful."

By looking outside the ring of Holocaust survivors, Ringelheim said historians will be able to pull together a more complete idea of what the Holocaust was truly like, both for those who suffered and those who allowed it to happen.

"It's one thing to read a history which gives an overview," she said. "It's almost impossible to understand what happened to a single person from that kind of history, but this gives us a personal, emotional story."

The museum has a collection of both audio and video interviews of people giving their stories, Ringelheim said. "No one person speaks for a whole town or experience or family or camp. Each individual stands for themselves."