Stanley Bernath first began speaking about surviving the Holocaust more than 40 years ago when his niece asked him to talk to her high school class. He hadn’t spoken about his experience since World War II ended, but once he started, he hasn’t stopped.
Now, Bernath volunteers his time at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, where he speaks about his experience along with other appearances at churches, synagogues and Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. His experiences have been preserved through a partnership with USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony and the museum, which turned Bernath into an interactive visual recording that appears as a hologram-like projection.
However, the 92-year-old’s involvement in the community doesn’t stop there. Since retiring, he visits roughly 85 people, some of whom are Holocaust survivors, at Menorah Park in Beachwood daily. He also transports people with Jewish Family Service Association and delivers food with Meals on Wheels.
Family is the most important thing to Bernath, but right under them is helping others.
“I help other people because we all need help in one way or another,” he said.
Bernath doesn’t have plans to stop talking about the Holocaust anytime soon. By speaking about it, he’s able to ensure younger generations can hear directly from a survivor. It’s also an opportunity to teach them three rules he learned through his experience.
“No. 1, believe in yourself,” he said. “No. 2, never, ever give up no matter how bad things look. No. 3, nobody is better than I am and I’m not better than anybody else, just different.”
During his speaking appearances, he’s repeatedly asked why he doesn’t have hatred for the Germans. He compares hatred to a “parasite invading someone’s brain.” It does no good to keep it, he said, and instead he just lets hatred roll off his back.
“What good does hating do to me? Not everyone is a monster, you can’t generalize all Germans were monsters,” he said.
As someone who experienced the Holocaust, he hopes he can pass these lessons onto other’s who only know of the Holocaust through classes.
“The kids I talk to learn about the Holocaust in books or magazines, they’ve never met anybody who was actually there,” he said.
He recalled a time when he was digging trenches in a concentration camp and a German soldier dropped a small package filled with bread and meat down from the guard tower.
“What was more important than the food (was showing) that not everybody was a monster,” he said.
Giving back is deeply rooted in Bernath’s personality. When he came to the United States at 19 after being liberated by U.S. soldiers, he didn’t know English but felt a deep desire to enlist in the military. It was a way for him to give back to the entity that freed him. After two failed attempts to join at a recruitment center in New York City, he tried again outside of the city and was finally accepted. In the army, he was sent to Germany where he served four years with the intelligence unit.
“I owed them,” he said. “I was lucky, it was the luckiest day of my life when I came to this country.”
When others go to make a difference in their own community, Bernath said to start by eliminating hate and helping others.
“Erase hatred, that’s very important,” he said. “And help others because when we needed help, no one helped us.”
– Alyssa Schmitt