From Holocaust to Harvard: A Story of Escape, Forgiveness, and Freedom

From Holocaust to Harvard: A Story of Escape, Forgiveness, and Freedom

by John Stoessinger


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A true and touching human tale of survival and achievement.

When John Stoessinger was ten years old, Adolf Hitler annexed his homeland of Austria, ripping the boy from his home and his friends in Vienna. His grandparents encouraged his mother and stepfather to take young John somewhere safe. “You must have a future,” his grandfather told him before he and his parents boarded the train and waved goodbye.

As they trekked across the country, from Vienna to Prague and then finally settling in Shanghai, there was never a single moment Stoessinger was not afraid—he lived in constant fear that he and his family would be found and killed. However, even in Hitler-ruled Nazi Germany, there were plenty of people who refused to cower to absolute evil and who did everything they could to usher families like Stoessinger’s to freedom.

In From Holocaust to Harvard, Stoessinger recalls heartbreaking moments from his childhood and of living a life of secrets in Shanghai. He then presents the second part of his story—the part where he attempts to untangle himself from his previous life and devastating memories and is able to relocate to America, earn a graduate-level degree from a prestigious university, and later become a member of the Council on Foreign Relations despite making a decision that nearly lands him in prison and threatens his hard-earned freedom.

Throughout his story, Stoessinger expresses his gratitude to those who helped him through the toughest parts of this life and put him on a path that led him to a Harvard education, a successful career, and inner peace.

Skyhorse Publishing, along with our Arcade, Good Books, Sports Publishing, and Yucca imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. Our list includes biographies on well-known historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Nelson Mandela, and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as villains from history, such as Heinrich Himmler, John Wayne Gacy, and O. J. Simpson. We have also published survivor stories of World War II, memoirs about overcoming adversity, first-hand tales of adventure, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629146522
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John G. Stoessinger is the author of several nonfiction books, including Why Nations Go to War and The Might of Nations, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize by Columbia University. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Global Diplomacy at the University of San Diego and is a visiting lecturer at the University of California, San Diego. He resides in Encinitas, California.

Read an Excerpt

From Holocaust to Harvard

A Story of Escape, Forgiveness, and Freedom

By John G. Stoessinger

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 John G. Stoessinger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62914-959-2


Vienna, 1938

A holiday had been declared all over Austria and the schools had been closed. Tens of thousands of Viennese had dressed in their Sunday best, each straining toward the Ringstrasse. The mood in the city was festive, with church bells tolling incessantly and houses everywhere adorned with spring flowers and large swastika flags. The city had turned out en masse to greet its new Fuehrer.

The Ringstrasse — the main thoroughfare of Vienna — was a great boulevard circling the city. It seemed that all of Vienna was lining "the Ring" to celebrate Austria's absorption into the Reich; it was the day of the Anschluss, and Adolf Hitler was making his triumphal entry into Vienna in a grand motorcade several miles long. He was to be welcomed by the blaring of trumpets and the thunder of drums from scores of marching bands, accompanied by the marching of the vast goose-stepping armies of the Wehrmacht, the SS, and the SA. The German leader was to ride past the waving throngs of Viennese in an open limousine.

By the time I arrived, the crowd lining the Ringstrasse had already begun to cheer, even before the Fuehrer's arrival. Latecomers, hearing the noise and fearful of missing the parade, were all running in the same direction — the young couples, eyes laughing and arms intertwined, easily overtaking the older generations.

Only ten years old and wiry, I ran faster than most. I, too, was eager to get a glimpse of the German Fuehrer who was coming to annex my hometown. Lisl had promised she would wait for me at the Beethoven statue. She was a music student at the Vienna Academy of Art my mother had hired as a part-time governess and piano teacher. Only twenty-three, Catholic, and very beautiful, her eyes were the color of cornflowers and her blond hair reached down almost to her waist. She had told me about Schubert's early death at thirty-one, and together we had made the pilgrimage to Heiligenstadt to pay homage to Beethoven. Her favorite composer was Mozart, however. Once, she had taken me to St. Stephen's Cathedral to hear the Great Mass in C Minor.

"When the angels are on duty in heaven," Lisl had said, "they play Bach; but off duty, they play Mozart."

She had wept afterward when she told me that Mozart was buried in an unknown grave. I had promised her someday I would try to find Mozart's final resting place; I was so in love with Lisl, I would have promised anything to stop her tears.

But on this day, I could not spot her. By now, people were packed ten deep along the Ringstrasse, all eyes riveted on the steel-helmeted storm troopers on motorcycles who formed the vanguard of Hitler's victory procession. Soon, a row of cars appeared and the shouting became louder. I made my way through the crowd as I searched for Lisl.

"The Fuehrer will pass here in five minutes," a high-pitched voice exclaimed behind me. Turning, I saw Lisl standing in the front row and happily pushed through the last few feet of the cheering throng, finally reaching for her hand.

Lisl glanced down at me. I had never seen her look so radiant, yet she seemed strangely distant and did not give my hand the reassuring squeeze of recognition I craved. I became uneasy.

"We must be silent," she whispered, almost reverently. "The Fuehrer's car is coming."

I nodded obediently, studying Lisl's face. Her eyes seemed to burn with an ardent fire, and her hair was windblown in the March breeze. At that very moment, a great roar went through the crowd. An open Mercedes-Benz automobile had become visible in the distance and was slowly moving toward us. A solitary figure stood within it, his arm outstretched in a stiff salute.

Lisl let go of my hand and reached for the little golden cross she wore between her breasts. This was a gesture she made habitually when reciting the Lord's Prayer to me at bedtime. "It's a prayer Jews can say, too," she liked to say on those occasions.

Hitler's car was inching closer, and then, for some unknown reason, it came to a complete standstill almost directly in front of us, only a few feet away. The cheering around us had risen to a deafening crescendo: "We thank our Fuehrer. We thank our Fuehrer." Again and again the crowd chanted the same refrain. I looked at Lisl, still clutching her cross. Her eyes had become glazed.

"Holy Maria, Mother of God," she whispered. "He is the new Messiah."

Hitler had dropped his arm for a moment and stood smiling, looking handsome and kind. It seemed to me he was looking directly at Lisl. With a sudden pang of familiarity, I fixed my eyes on his mustache. Just like Papa's, I thought.

My beloved father, who had disappeared years ago, used to tickle the soles of my feet with his mustache as he kissed them. I was heartbroken when he vanished and had spent weeks searching for him. Convinced it was my fault he had gone away, I had promised Mama that I would never be bad again.

"Please make him come back, Mutti," I pleaded, to which my mother could only cry.

One day, I thought I saw him on the street and ran into an oncoming car. The driver had braked at the last instant; I escaped with only a few bruises.

"For a big boy of ten, you shouldn't be so careless," the doctor had warned me.

Nevertheless, I thought I saw Papa everywhere. The pain was like a wild animal raging inside me. Gradually, its grip lessened, but never left entirely. Papa's sudden disappearance would remain a mystery throughout my life.

I was awakened from my reverie by Lisl's voice, just as Hitler's car lurched forward.

"He has the most beautiful eyes," she said. "Did you notice?"

I hadn't noticed. I had been thinking about Papa. "Will Hitler be my Fuehrer, too?" I asked.

Lisl's face became grave as she placed her hand gently on my head and ran her fingers through my curls.

"I don't think so," she replied. "Hitler does not want to be the Fuehrer of the Jews." Then she took me home, through the Stadtpark and the festive crowd. I can still remember the heavy ironwork bars on the front door to our apartment house at 35 Reisnerstrasse.

"Mutti, you are part Aryan, aren't you?" I asked my mother during lunch after Lisl and I had returned home. My mother had blond hair and blue eyes, fitting the description of the ideal Aryan I had heard about in school.

"No, I am not," she answered. "I am Jewish, and so are you."

"One hundred percent?" I asked.

Mama nodded.

"Well, I don't want to be Jewish any longer," I blurted out.

The day before, I had been beaten up by some of my classmates who, only a few weeks earlier, had made it a daily practice to copy my homework. Now all the boys in school, except for a handful of Jews, were Hitler Youth, and everything had changed, even the clothes. The Hitler Youth proudly wore their new uniforms with the swastika armbands, the shining belt buckles, and the glittering daggers that bore the inscription Alles für Deutschland. I was tired of being an outsider and the only Jew in the class.

"Why does Hitler say that everything is the fault of the Jews?" I asked my mother.

"Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists," Mama answered.

I was surprised by her response.

"Why the bicyclists?" I continued.

"Why the Jews?" retorted my mother with a small, sad smile.

I looked at her and then at Lisl, waiting for an explanation, but neither offered one. I was confused, and Mama seemed lost in thought. Lisl looked at her and then at me but did not smile.

"Come, let's go for a walk," Mama said finally, and rose from the table.

My mother was a beautiful woman who was proud of her resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. She was out much of the time, and I was always left in the care of both Lisl and Emma, the elderly cook.

"Where have you been?" I would ask my mother when she would return in the evenings.

"Shopping," Mama would say with an easy laugh, pulling me toward her. She would shower me with kisses and endearments but, after a few minutes, she would become impatient.

"Emma!" she'd call into the kitchen. "Is dinner ready?"

After dinner, Mama would usually go out for the evening, but sometimes she sat down at the piano and sang the latest Viennese hits. Once in a while, she would take me to a concert or a play at the Burgtheater, the oldest and most beautiful theater in Vienna. I cherished those brief moments in the company of my mother. Men, I noticed, would kiss her hand and look at her with admiration.

"Meet my little prince," she would say, and a strange man's hand would pat my head perfunctorily.

Sometimes she would be gone for days at a time. I never found out what Mama bought on those shopping trips since she rarely brought anything home. All I knew was that I hated those long absences — I would sulk in my room while Lisl and Emma did their best to comfort me. I would listen for Mama's footsteps when she returned for dinner.

"How's the little prince?" she would ask as Emma opened the door.

"He's been waiting for you," the cook would answer in a tone of mild reproach. "I just fixed his favorite dessert."

"I'll have some, too," my mother would say, and then she would smile at me.

During dinner, my mother would quiz me on my homework. Her questions were always easy.

"My clever little prince," she would say proudly with a laugh. "You'll be a king yet, or at least a prime minister."

Now, as we walked through the Stadtpark, Mama was serious. Swastika flags fluttered everywhere: from the park trees, its fountains and war memorials, its statues of generals, artists, and composers. Someone had even stuck one in the hand of the Schubert statue. The composer's cherubic face looked impassively into the distance while a pigeon, settled incongruously on his head, relieved itself.

"That's how Vienna treats its geniuses," my mother said sadly.

I thought of the "Unfinished Symphony," which I had heard for the first time a month before. Its insistent yearning had stirred me deeply and had prompted me to dream of Papa again. The dream was always the same: I followed him into dark tunnels and alleys, but just when I thought I could touch him, he would recede into the distance. In the end, he always eluded me.

When I woke, I would lie in bed for hours, trying to recapture the image of his face, which had been so clear in the dream. With the morning light, the image would fade, leaving only the longing in its wake.

Mama and I emerged on the north side of the Stadtpark, where the streets were narrow and paved with cobblestones. Mama, who had been silent for a while now, turned to me suddenly.

"We must leave Vienna," she said with an effort. "I am taking the train for Prague tonight. Opi and Omi want us to live there and have found us an apartment. I will come back next week and take you to Prague. In the meantime, Lisl will take care of you."

I nodded happily, anticipating an escape from my schoolyard torments. An Austrian Gymnasium was a difficult place under any circumstances, but with the takeover by the Hitler Youth, the harassment and daily beatings, school had become a nightmare. I still recall how a few boys from my class ripped the buttons, the fleur-de-lis patch, and the merit badges from my Boy Scout uniform, telling me that Jews weren't fit to be scouts. Any chance to get away from all this was welcome. Moreover, the prospect of a ride on the Vienna – Prague Express exhilarated me. Prague was an exciting city, and I loved my grandparents, whom I tended to visit every summer.

"How long will we stay in Prague?" I wanted to know.

Mama did not answer.

"Will Lisl come along?"

"No," my mother said. A sense of foreboding rose within me. I began to understand that this train ride to Prague would not be a routine vacation.

"Let's get an éclair," said Mama. She and I sometimes wandered around Vienna on Sundays, and she made it a habit to take me to her favorite pastry shop on the north side of the city, famous for its cream puffs and thick hot chocolate. But this was no Sunday. My foreboding deepened, but I was too frightened to ask any more questions.

We trudged up the hilly Berggasse in silence. The sun had broken through the clouds, making for a lovely afternoon with a hint of early spring. Halfway up the hill, my mother broke the silence with a small gasp.

"My God, here comes the dream doctor," she said.

I looked up to see a very old man with a beard coming toward us. He walked with short steps and held on to the arm of a younger woman.

"He will leave Vienna, too, the dream doctor," said Mama.

"Does he know what dreams mean?" I asked, fascinated.

"He has written a book about them," said Mama. "I tried to read it once but it made no sense to me. He is a famous old eccentric. His name is Dr. Sigmund Freud."

"What a wonderful name!" I exclaimed.

In school, we had sung Beethoven's chorale from the Ninth Symphony, set to Schiller's poem, "An die Freude." The words had made a deep impression on me.

"Can Dr. Freud make dreams have happy endings?" I asked, thinking of my recurrent nightmare about Papa, which always ended with the same frustration.

Mama broke into a cascade of affectionate laughter. "Maybe you should ask him yourself," she said.

We turned around, but the dream doctor and his companion were already at the bottom of the hill, well out of earshot.

Mama's mood darkened again. Something about our encounter with Dr. Freud seemed to have upset her, and our visit to the pastry shop proved to be an anticlimax. We returned home by mid-afternoon, where Lisl had already packed Mama's bags.

"Be a good boy," Mama said as she hugged me good-bye. "I will come back for you next week."

And then she was gone.

I loved my piano lessons with Lisl. We would sit side by side on the piano bench and play Mozart sonatinas for four hands. Lisl would usually let me play the easier part with the melody, the scent of her perfume completing the enchantment. Once, and quite by accident, my elbow touched her breast and an overpowering, delicious sensation coursed through my entire body. My brief encounter with her breast, which went quite unnoticed by Lisl, left me unable to concentrate. Lisl continued alone at the piano, accompanying her considerable skill with her rich alto voice as she sang Schubert's lieder. After that evening, I worshipped Lisl and would practice endless hours to try to please her.

Tonight I looked forward to an evening alone with Lisl. This would make up for the shock of Mama's announcement that we would leave Vienna soon. But during dinner, Lisl seemed preoccupied, and when I asked her to play for me, she shook her head and announced that she had to keep an appointment with a friend. Besides, she admonished, it would do me no harm if I practiced some Czerny exercises. Fearful of arousing Lisl's displeasure, I sat down at the piano. Lisl said that she would return in time to say goodnight and then left the house.

I woke with a start later that evening, after Lisl had returned and tucked me into bed. I had heard voices whispering in Mama's bedroom, which was next to mine, separated only by a thick and heavy velvet curtain. The curtain had been installed the year before when I had come down with scarlet fever, and Mama would come in during the night and cool my burning forehead with ice-cold compresses. Now my first thought was of burglars, and I began to choke with fear. Then I recognized Lisl's voice, speaking in hushed whispers, laughing softly. I found it strange and was only partially reassured. I knew that Lisl's little room was on the other side of mine, and all was silent there.

For a while, I lay in bed and listened to the whispers coming from behind the curtain, even catching the sound of a man's voice. "It's all right," I then heard Lisl say. "He's asleep."

The whispering stopped and soon gave way to soft rhythmic moans that aroused my curiosity. I knew that I could look into my mother's bedroom by parting the curtain in the upper-left corner, so I slipped out of bed and crept toward it. Getting up on tiptoe and stretching to look, I could see that there, on Mama's big and comfortable bed, lay Lisl and a large, strange man. Both were completely naked, the man's clothes strewn all over the floor.

I immediately recognized the black uniform of the SS. A swastika armband and a belt with a silver buckle were visible on the chair, while a pair of black boots and a holstered revolver lay on the carpet.

"Stay a while," she said softly, then lifted her face and whispered, "give me a son for the Fuehrer." She reached for the cross between her breasts, clutched it with both hands, as if in prayer, and whispered reverently, "The new Messiah."

The man turned toward Lisl and reached for her. Suddenly, terror flooded my body, as if my guts were hungry wolves that were devouring me from within. My throat constricted and, almost unable to breathe, I staggered back to my bed and curled up. As the rhythmic moaning began, the fear howled inside me. I stuffed the bedsheets into my mouth to stifle my sobs and continued to lay there, twisted with anguish, long after I heard the SS officer leave Mama's room.

By the next morning, I had developed a raging fever. Lisl called the doctor, who prescribed alternate hot and cold baths. Mama returned from Prague at news of my illness and sat by my bedside for three days and nights while I slowly recovered. She told me the doctors had been unable to agree on a


Excerpted from From Holocaust to Harvard by John G. Stoessinger. Copyright © 2014 John G. Stoessinger. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Vienna, 1938,
Chapter 2: Prague, 1939,
Chapter 3: Shanghai, 1941–1947,
Chapter 4: Arrival in America, 1947,
Chapter 5: Iowa, 1950,
Chapter 6: Harvard, 1954,
Chapter 7: New York City, 1962,
Chapter 8: 1970–1975,
Chapter 9: 1975,
Chapter 10: South Africa, Spring 1994,
Chapter 11: Japan, Fall 1994,
Chapter 12: California, 2000s,
Chapter 13: Vienna, 2010,
Chapter 14: California, 2011,
Photo Insert,

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From Holocaust to Harvard: A Story of Escape, Forgiveness, and Freedom 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent, fascinating book about a young Jewish boy who endured beatings and bullying for the"crime" of being born Jewish for many years and in several countries. When John reaches the United States, however, the force of his intellect propels him into enormous academic success. But the author with human frailty, like all of us, finds himself with relationship and legal mistakes that cost him both money and reputation. In the end, though, this is a book about hope and redemption.
missmickee-bookreview More than 1 year ago
From Holocaust to Harvard: A Story of Escape, Forgiveness and Freedom is an extraordinary memoir of the life of prolific bestselling author Dr. John G. Stoessinger PhD (1927-) political scientist, former professor's of several prestigious universities, and service for the United Nations. Dr. Stoessinger (JGS) serves as Distinguished Professor of Global Diplomacy at University of San Diego, and visiting lecturer at the University of California. As a young child, JGS watched in awe as Hitler arrived in his birthplace of Vienna, celebrated with a marching band, as the Nazi's thundered into the city. As a Jewish youth, he was soon terrorized and badly beaten by other students, his mother would relocate them to the safety of Prague where his grandparents lived, there she would remarry. JGS was haunted throughout his life by the loss of his father, he wouldn't learn the truth behind his mysterious disappearance until late adulthood. Oskar, his stepfather, despised him for unknown reasons and beat him. However, Oskar had connections to flee Nazi persecution, and took his new family to Shanghi, China. Terribly unsettled by the ordeal, JGS was thankful to be alive, made a close friend Rusty. Receiving notice for his exceptional academic progress, he later earned a full scholarship to an American college in Iowa, where he relocated, not sharing the news of his good fortune until the last minute. Excelling in his academic studies, JGS received a full graduate scholarship to Harvard. So focused on his studies, his goals and dreams were of becoming a prestigious academic. JGS nearly lost this chance with a pregnant girlfriend, and was almost deported. A quick marriage brought him full acceptance by his wealthy father-in-law, who planned for JGS to manage his vast business holdings. JGS outright rejected this generous offer, and fled to Harvard, eventually his wife divorced him and another man would raise his only son. Academic study acted as a security for JGS, where he fully thrived and caught the notice and was mentored by a distinguished Harvard professor, another close friend was Henry Kissinger; who later was the subject of one of his books. Drawn to the thrill of buying and selling stocks and commodities, JGS would make and loose vast sums of money. He would become a notable professor at Harvard, and later served as acting director of political affairs at the United Nations. Finding stability and a measure of happiness with his second wife, a concert pianist, they had a daughter. He would catch the eye of a seemingly popular international political figure who claimed connections to further advance/publish his books. Flattered by her admiration for his work, she soon became his mistress. Through JGS letters of recommendation, this woman was able to illegally obtain favors and funds from foreign banks, and implicated JGS involvement. Federal charges were filed against him. Eventually JGS was cleared in court, and received a full pardon from Ronald Regan in 1985. Considering the stress of this tremendous ordeal, his second marriage ended in a bitter divorce. With the need to start over, JGS accepted a position to teach at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. A new relationship would bring him a sense of renewed love and hope. Janis would encourage him in the direction of family connections, he would hear from his adult son, and she would greatly support him when his mother died of Alzheimer's. It is unclear why JGS relationship with Janis