Norbert Stern

Norbert Stern was a gifted young pianist, born to a Polish Jewish family who fled to Belgium after the rise of Nazism. Despite his prestigious musical training, Stern and his parents were unable to escape persecution, and were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This article, written by Stern’s nephew Roger Peltzman, tells the story of Stern’s early achievements and the tragedy of his death, which inspired Peltzman to write a play named “Dedication” in memory of his talented uncle he never had the chance to meet.

Early Life

In 1933, eleven-year-old Norbert Stern fled with his family from Berlin to Belgium. Considered to be a piano prodigy, he was immediately accepted into the prestigious The Royal Conservatory of Brussels. However, having been born to Polish parents, Mayer and Flora Stern, he was never considered a citizen in either country.

Stern studied piano with Belgian pianist and composer Charles Scharrès, although it seems clear that he had little to teach his gifted young pupil. Nevertheless, Stern’s chamber music studies with Béla Bartók’s favourite violinist, the Hungarian Jewish musician Andre Gertler, proved to be greatly important for both student and teacher.

In 1937, aged 14 years old, Stern won the school’s annual piano competition. This was the first time that a such a young student had ever won the prestigious prize, thus causing controversy. The notion that the youngster could outplay the senior students was perceived as an embarrassment amongst his peers. After discussion, the judges decided to award him second place. Afterall, they most likely believed that he would have a lifetime to win piano competitions. 

The following year, Stern officially won first place playing Robert Schumann’s challenging Symphonic Etudes. One critic wrote that he was “brilliant and full of promise…playing beyond his years.” Another said, “In the conservatory great soloists might be discovered and new talents revealed. Only one is worth mentioning: Mr. Norbert Stern”. 

Career and Musical Development

Stern performed live on Belgian national radio numerous times. He played as both a highly skilled soloist, who was known as a “true Chopin pianist”, and as a well-versed chamber musician. He earned good money doing this, and his future career seemed assured. When the German army invaded Europe in 1939, this began to devastate the European economy and Stern’s father found himself out of work and destitute. In a letter to his brother in New York City, Mayer Stern wrote: "It’s gone so badly since the war broke out. We’re going hungry and get through many days with just dry bread and tea. I’m not earning anything and can’t pay the rent. I don't know how we can hold out. Everyone is afraid we'll be taken over by Germany. What lays ahead only God knows. The new hope is that I can get away with the family and go to the US to make my fortune. But I tried everything to get the money and it's all falling apart because I can’t find 1000 francs for travel papers. In the USA I would need little means to make my fortune. I know that Norbert, whose progress since recent times has shown him to be a mature artist, would have immediate success and bring in a large income. He is today undeniably the best in the whole of Belgium. Regarding his artistry together with his technique, no one comes near him. People are now discovering that he has “it” fully." 

Mayer was counting on his son’s talent to save the family.

War and Occupation

In 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium. Stern continued studying at the conservatory, even as Jews were being incrementally discriminated against. He was even awarded a medal from the King of Belgium for being unanimously selected as being the best pianist at the school. Then, in 1942, life changed dramatically. Stern and nine other Jewish students were informed that they could no longer attend the conservatory. Soon after, all Jews in the city were ordered to report to the Brussels train station for “work re-location” in Nazi Germany. Rightly, the Stern family did not believe this false assurance, and chose to go into hiding. They also arranged to get falsified identification documents.

Falsified identification documents, 1939. Courtesy of Kazerne Dossin Museum, Mechelen, Belgium

For two years, the Sterns hid in a tiny attic. Despite the dangers, Stern would leave the attic to practice on a beautiful Steinway piano at the home of a nearby sympathetic gentile family. He even attended concerts, feeling he was safe with his fake ID. Unfortunately, he may have overplayed his hand. It is likely that, having attended a public concert, he might have been recognized and followed back to the family’s hiding place. Shortly after, the SS broke down the door of the attic in the middle of the night, and hauled the family away. Stern’s sister Beatrice narrowly escaped by climbing through the bathroom window just moments before the Nazis entered the attic. She continued to elude the Germans for the next year and miraculously survived the war.

Death and Post-war Memory

Stern and his parents were not so lucky. After their arrest, they were eventually sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the process of “selection” by the Nazi administration in the camp, Stern was permitted to live, for at least another day, by doing hard labour. His parents, Mayer and Flora, however, were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Stern was assigned to do exhaustive manual work at the Auschwitz III subcamp, otherwise known as Monowitz-Buna. He was there for only three days before being sent back to the infirmary at Auschwitz-Birkenau: “infirmary” being a Nazi euphemism. It is not possible to confirm if he passed away from sickness, or if he was simply killed. Either way, Stern did not survive the camp.

Regrettably, we can never know how Norbert Stern’s musical talent might have flourished or manifested itself in his later years, had he not been murdered for simply being a Jew. Fifty years after his death at age 21, his former teacher Gertler told Stern’s sister Beatrice that the young pianist’s death was the greatest tragedy of his own life. He concluded: “Your brother would've been the next Rubinstein.”

Stern’s nephew, Roger Peltzman, has since written a play about the relationship he has with the talented uncle he never met, aptly named Dedication. It was first performed at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe festival. Joyce McMillan of the Scotsmen, reviewed the play: “ Peltzman’s one-hour solo show is put together with such grace, beauty and sorrow that it offers a richly rewarding and thoughtful experience. At key moments during the show, Peltzman takes to the grand piano on stage and plays like an angel.”

Dedication from Roger Peltzman.

He will be performing Dedication at The Marylebone Theatre, London June 7-24th, 2023

By Roger Peltzman, pianist and nephew of Stern