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Sofie's Memorial

By Peter Stein

By Peter Stein

In August 2008, my son Mike and I traveled to Prague to see my birthplace, explore the city, and pay our respects to Sofie, my grandmother. First, we explored the world of Bohemian beer. Mike wondered whether Josef Stein, Mike’s great-grandfather, played a role in selling hops, yeast, and barley to brewers in Eastern Europe? Mike often recreated historic beers, and he was eager to learn if Josef had any beer-brewing experiences.

But today was different—we were visiting Theresienstadt (Terezín), a ghetto and transit camp northwest of Prague. Almost 90 percent of Czech Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Most men, women, and children were at first sent to Theresienstadt before being packed into “Trains Going East” to their deaths in places such as Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland and Maly Trostenets near German-occupied Minsk. Approximately 35,000 Jews were killed in Theresienstadt itself—worked to death, succumbed to various illnesses, or starved.


Josef and Sofie disappeared from my life before my sixth birthday. Josef died in 1938, before the Nazi occupation, and I have no memories of him. He was a successful grain merchant who sold hops, malt, and barley to farmers and to breweries in Bohemia-Moravia and Austria. His business was both wholesale and retail, including a store with Catholic and Jewish employees. The Stein family lived in the town of Kolín, where a Jewish community was established in the 14th century. The Steins were members of a local synagogue, where my grandfather was one of the leaders of the congregation. They lived a comfortable life, and after Josef retired, he and Sofie moved to Prague. Then the German army invaded the Czech lands in March 1939 and changed everyone’s lives.

During the occupation, many Jews were ordered to move, and families who lived in the better sections of Prague were forced to move so Nazi officials and high-ranking Czech collaborators could become the new occupants. Sofie had to move into a small apartment in a poorer district of Prague. She lived with her longtime maid, Anushka, whom she likely needed to administer insulin shots, help her dress, shop, cook, and take her to medical appointments. Anushka, a Christian, was so loyal to my grandmother that she wanted to get on the deportation train with her but was pushed away by Czech guards. 


I have one vivid memory of Grandmother Sofie. I was six years old when she visited our apartment in June 1942. She wore a dark gray coat with a small black ribbon denoting the death of her husband. She carried a chicken liver casserole, which she placed carefully on the kitchen table. When she lifted the lid, there was an inviting aroma. It was my father’s favorite snack—he loved to spread a little of the liver paste on a small cracker. Sofie gave me a taste of her delicacy. It had an interesting flavor, memorable because I did not know whether I liked it or not. After a while she, my father, and my mother settled into our living room and closed the doors behind them. I stayed in the kitchen reading a book, had another taste of chicken liver, and wondered what was taking them so long. When Sofie finally returned to the kitchen, she and my parents were weeping. She gave me a big hug and whispered what would be her last words to me: “I love you.” It was the last time my father saw his mother. A short time later she was on a train to Theresienstadt.


Mike and I approached the gates of the camp cautiously. “Arbeit Macht Frei,” blared the sign to all who entered. It was read by my father, Victor, in 1944 when he first arrived in Theresienstadt. It might have been read by his 77-year-old mother, Sofie Marcus Stein, two years earlier in July 1942. She would have been forced to walk, with great difficulty, from the railroad station to the camp. It was likely read by her other adult children and their families in September and October of 1942.

My grandmother was frail and suffered from Type I diabetes. She needed insulin injections regularly, but the Nazi guards at the camp confiscated all medications. Sofie must have suffered terribly without any insulin and without any care. She died 21 days later. 

We were guided around the camp by Martina who had escaped the Nazis by going to London and was now a tour guide in Prague. She was knowledgeable and energetic, and we appreciated her guidance. When I spoke about my grandmother, Martina showed us the crematorium where Sofie was cremated. I remember four gray and dusty ovens that had “processed” thousands of innocent souls.  

We found the crematorium building very sad and emotionally draining. As I stood there, I could imagine Sofie being placed on the narrow tracks that pushed her body into the oven and exiting as a pile of ashes—how ghastly, I thought. A lively, loving, intelligent woman killed for no reason but because she was Jewish.

We exited the grim crematorium to view rows of unmarked graves. We saw a huge mass grave holding perhaps thousands of victims. Historians of the Holocaust estimate that as many as 35,000 Jews were killed in Theresienstadt. Each row of the grave had about 12 victims, followed by another row of another 12 cremated victims. We started to count the number of rows but stopped, realizing there were rows upon rows as far as our eyes carried all the way to the forest of trees bordering the camp. I found the scene very impersonal with the victims abandoned and not recognized. We found the location of Sofie’s remains just outside the crematorium in the mass grave holding a number of victims. Were there hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of men, women, and children? I held onto the memory of one.

Much later Mike and I were able to get a copy of the drawings of this area made in 1942 by the Germans. The maps were housed in the Jewish Museum in Prague. Sofie’s small grave was marked as 25742 indicating the day she was cremated—July 25, 1942. 

Mike and I were overwhelmed by the experience, and yet we were gratified to witness such an important part of our family history.

© 2022, Peter Stein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.