Steen didn’t know that he or his family were Jewish until they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, when Steen was eight years old. He hadn’t been raised in the religious faith or in a Jewish community, and was confused by the Nazi persecution.
Before their arrest, Steen and his family lived in an apartment. It had no garden, but the family rented space in a community garden. Steen and his mother grew vegetables—mainly radishes—on their plot. “I would pick the flowers and dig out the radishes,” he recalls, “and I would go home and sell the flowers and sell the radishes and other vegetables to my mother.” Steen believes this was the start of what would inspire his interest in agricultural business.
When Steen was around five years old, the Nazis invaded Denmark. Because of Germany’s strong military power, Denmark put up little resistance. The Nazis occupied Denmark for five years, but for the first three-and-a-half years, life remained relatively unchanged for Steen and his family: he continued going to public school while his father practiced law. The government of Denmark continued functioning under Nazi rule. There was little change at first, because Germany desired to maintain the country for its strong agricultural market and location as a transportation hub. “I still can see those ugly, green uniforms that they were wearing,” Steen says, “and I still get the chills when I see pictures of them.”
By September of 1943, most Jewish citizens in Denmark had gone into hiding. Steen, who was eight at the time, recalls that the Danish were extremely helpful in the effort to hide the Jews from Nazi officers. He calls these people “upstanders,” people who didn’t stand by as spectators or bystanders and instead made an effort to do what they saw as right. Steen remains extremely proud of his Danish heritage for this reason.
(Eight year old Steen in Denmark before deportation in 1943)
Underground resistance movements formed in opposition to the Nazi takeover after occupation. They armed themselves with weapons sent from Sweden, a neutral country, and with self-made bombs. The underground movements bombed factories and railroad lines held by the Nazis. The Allies also assisted in these acts. “They bombed a church, which they shouldn’t have done,” Steen recalls, “and I’ll never forget it because I was home at that time and it was very, very loud. Later we went out to see what had happened and there was absolutely nothing left of the church.”
However, the heroism of the Danish resistance brought further consequences. In the fall of 1943, Nazi Germany was reaching a tipping point. They began cutting telephone lines, which disconnected Steen and his family from any outside communication. Soon after, on October 2, a knock sounded on their door. Steen’s father answered it, and the Gestapo came in and arrested the family. The Gestapo specifically did this on a Jewish holiday, to ensure that most Jews were in their homes during the round-ups. “I learned, many many years later,” Steen says, “they were not allowed to break down the door. So sometimes, although you can’t look back, you wonder what would have happened if he [his father] hadn’t answered the door.”
The family had thirty minutes to prepare to leave. Steen and his mother were allowed to go by the bakery, with the Gestapo still waiting at the apartment, to buy food for the journey. Steen, not entirely certain of what was happening, played with other kids at the bakery while his mother got bread. The baker gave them plenty, knowing what was happening. Steen later learned that while he and his mother were there, the baker offered to help the two of them escape capture. His mother declined the offer, fearing what would happen to her husband if they vanished and reluctant to endanger the baker.
That day, the family was herded into box cars, which Steen refers to as “cattle cars.” The car was filthy inside, and Steen and his family spent three days and nights inside it. Since Steen didn’t know he was Jewish at the time, he was all the more confused about what was going on. He was frightened, and his parents equally so; they never thought their situation would come to this.
The inside of the car was completely dark, with no benches, blankets, food, or drink provided. Since Steen was only eight years old he was small enough to lie down, but older people had to stand. Steen’s family had food from the bakery and many people brought sandwiches, which were sometimes shared amongst the group. Steen and his family didn’t know anyone else in the car, which made the atmosphere extremely tense. He found out much later that one person in a neighboring cattle car committed suicide, and many others brought poisonous pills for themselves, though they didn’t use them.
At the end of the horrific journey they arrived at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, present-day Czech Republic. Back in Denmark, the Gestapo told Steen’s family to bring money and jewelry with them, which was taken from them upon exiting the boxcar. They were then separated into men, women, and children. At this point, Steen was separated from his father. Despite horribly low odds, Steen’s mother managed to convince the Nazis to allow Steen to stay with her in the women’s section. This was the case for a very small number of other children, but most were taken to the children’s section of the camp, away from their parents.
At the camp, Steen was able to play soccer with the few other children who stayed with their mothers. “We didn’t have a real soccer field,” he recalled. “We had a gravel field, and we didn’t get a real soccer ball, obviously, but the mothers put some clothes together and some rags and tied it together and we would kick it around the best we could. And when I think back that was probably the only time that I really felt like a nine-year-old boy in the camp.”
Meals at the camp started with standing in line for breakfast—ersatz coffee with brown bread. At lunch they lined up at a kind of “soup kitchen,” and most days got potato soup, which, Steen said, was more like boiled water with added potato byproduct, only slightly cooked. Dumplings were often provided as well, but food was scarce. Good soap was not provided either, which made cleanliness extremely difficult, though Steen and his mother made do with their poor quality soap.
Steen’s mother had two jobs at the camp—working in a mineral factory, and cleaning the floors of a different factory. As a way to pass the time in the camp, Steen’s mother encouraged him to volunteer for work. “So, I took German documents from one Nazi office to another.” Steen says, “I also transported messages. I did this for about half an hour to an hour every morning and about forty minutes in the afternoon. All of the documents were in German, and I didn’t know the German language, so I couldn’t read them. I also tried getting in and out of the German offices as quickly as I could because the German officers were very, very intimidating.”
Often times, Steen passed a kitchen on the way back from his trips. “In the kitchen,” he recalls, “there were these big sacks of potatoes. I would look around to make sure that no one was watching me, and I would put a raw potato in each pocket. My mother and I would share the raw potatoes.” Steen, during his lectures, tells this story to children in schools, and it has earned him the nickname “The Potato King.”
The first six months in the camp were the most brutal. Food was incredibly scarce; starvation and disease claimed the lives of over 40,000 inmates during this time. It was during this time that Steen’s father died of starvation. A witness said that Steen’s father was whipped after not performing up to the Nazis’ work standards, then sent to the infirmary. In the infirmary he died of starvation; around fifty percent of his body weight had been lost. “My mother was asked to identify the corpse of my father,” Steen says, “and she didn’t know what else to do with me so I joined her. It was an awful sight.”
Soon after, while Steen’s mother was working in a mineral factory, an officer came in and asked her how she was feeling, to which she responded that she was not feeling very well. He asked why, and she said she had lost her husband. He asked how, and she said that he died of starvation. After the officer left, the other women in the factory swarmed around her, stressing that she shouldn’t have said that. The next day, and for several days in a row, the officer asked the same question of her again, to which she then responded that her husband died of pneumonia.
After the first six months, the prisoners began to receive packages. Steen and his mother got more than most, likely because of their Danish heritage. In the packages, they received clothing, food, and vitamins. These packages became crucial for the survival of both Steen and his mother. Since he was still young, Steen was mostly unaware of how valuable food really was. It was treated like gold among the prisoners.
Steen recalls a particular moment at the camp involving these packages. “One day,” he says, “my mother started unpacking the packages like she normally did, and she felt that it was very heavy. She didn’t understand why it was so heavy, until she opened the package and saw that there was no food or vitamins or anything. One of the guards, or some of the guards, had taken the package, empty all of it, and replaced the objects with stones. It’s hard to imagine how anybody can be that cruel.” After this, Steen and his mother received these stone-filled packages a few more times.
On another day, after Steen’s mother finished cleaning the floors of a factory, an officer came in to assess her work. He said the floor was very clean, then kicked over the bucket of dirty water. It spilled all over the floor, and she cleaned it again. “My mother was very, very upset,” Steen says, “but what can you do? There’s nothing that you can do. It was slave labor and she was a slave.”
Later on in his time at the camp, some of the other children, who were Czech, didn’t show up to play soccer. Steen asked his mother why, and she said not to worry about it, they were probably sick and would be back later. “From research I have done,” Steen says, “there were 90,000 out of 140,000 inmates in camp that were deported to extermination camps, most of them to Auschwitz. Those poor children I played with were among those. But, I didn’t know. My mother kind of hid the ugly truth from me.”
On April 15, 1945, the prisoners were liberated by soldiers from Sweden. Steen and his mother were transported via white buses through Germany and to Sweden. They were held in quarantine in Sweden for eight days, then were able to contact and stay with members of their family who lived there. They stayed in Sweden for about five weeks before they were able to return to Denmark, where Steen returned to his old school.
Steen eventually graduated from business school, then worked in the agricultural market. In 1962 he moved to the United States, where he has stayed since. After publishing his book, A Danish Boy in Theresienstadt, in 2011, he began speaking publicly with students. He was initially reluctant to share his story, but his oldest daughter had a son in the eighth grade whose teacher thought it would be a good idea for Metz to come in and talk to the children. This was his first time speaking with students, which he actively does to this day.
(Steen, present day)
Steen sees great value in sharing Holocaust Survivor stories, as well as in the mission of The Florida Holocaust Museum. “I think that it is more important to do so now more than ever,” he says, “Since 2011, sharing my experiences has become my absolute passion, especially to students. I tell them how important it is, because they are the last generation to hear directly from Survivors, to share any Holocaust story with at least four people. As far as I am concerned, the best thing that we can do for others is education.”
A special thank you to The Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida for connecting us with Steen Metz.
Story by: Lever Stewart and Jessica Garcia
Edited by: Sarah Hagerty, Jared Stark, and Kristen Wright