On October 18, 1941, a young German soldier with a Jewish-sounding last name was arrested for desertion. He was Kurt Stein, my mother’s half-brother from her mother Gertrude Stein. She learned of him only decades later, while going through old papers and photographs left by her father after his death. One of those papers was a letter from Kurt to his mother, my grandmother. It ended with this greeting that shocked her from the long-dead past: “Much love to my little sister Mary.”
My mother researched her family, aided by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now relatives and records in the former East Germany were available to her. Here’s the story she learned.
Kurt had been conscripted after his country invaded Poland, but was appalled at what he was hearing about the Nazi treatment of the Jews. My mother writes:
It was hard for him to believe the stories as he was not involved in this operation. He had many Jewish friends and now they had to wear a star representing the Star of David on their clothing to show they were Jews. Our grandparents, although they were Lutherans, were named “Stein.” Kurt asked his friend Hans about this new military action against their own citizens only because they were Jews. Hans answered that they didn’t have to be concerned because it was the work for the SS troops. Kurt spoke to a German officer who proudly boasted that he had been promoted and was going to the SS to be part of Hitler’s solution to exterminate the Jews.
A combination of factors led to Kurt’s desertion. He learned that he was going to be sent to fight in Russia and that his grandfather was dying. But he was also upset about the Jewish situation. He was granted leave to see his grandfather, who told him, “I don’t want to see what is ahead for Germany and for you my dear son.” Kurt did not return, hiding in garden houses and stealing food until he was captured.
After several months of imprisonment, Kurt and another prisoner killed a guard and escaped. His freedom only lasted a few weeks, until his second arrest. At one of the two prisons in Torgau, he was given the death sentence and executed by firing squad. He was 21 years old.