Stephan “Steve” Ross, who survived Auschwitz and nine other Nazi labor and death camps and who went on to found the New England Holocaust Memorial in 1995, died earlier this week. He was 88.
Ross was one of the most visible Holocaust survivors in New England. He spoke to countless children and organizations about his experience, and over the years worked as a psychologist and also served as a counselor at Boston’s Youth Activities Commission.
In addition, he was the subject of a 2017 award-winning documentary “Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross.” Ross also published a memoir, “From Broken Glass: My Story of Finding Hope in Hitler’s Death Camps to Inspire a New Generation.”
“Today Boston lost a giant, and the world quite honestly lost a giant. Here’s a man who could have given up several times in his life and he didn’t,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wrote on Twitter Monday after learning of Ross’s death.
Rick Mann, chair of the Yom HaShoah Program and the New England Holocaust Memorial, believes that without Ross’s commitment, the Boston memorial – which stands near Faneuil Hall and on Boston’s historic Freedom Trail – would not have been built. “The Memorial was Steve’s dream. His indelible, permanent message [was] not just to New England, but to the world. It was his intent to create a sacred place of remembrance for the six million souls murdered by the Nazis, including his parents, brother and five sisters. A place to stand as a beacon of light in the darkness of the horror that was the Holocaust. A place for reflection and for learning,” Mann wrote in a tribute.
Senator Elizabeth Warren also paid tribute to Ross on social media. “My thoughts are with Stephan Ross’s family, friends, & the many lives he touched through his tireless work & powerful story. May his memory be a blessing & his legacy never be forgotten,” she said.
Ross leaves a son, Michael, a former Boston city councilor, and a daughter, Julie, and a grandson. His funeral was held in Brookline on Wednesday.
Ross was born Szmulek Rozental in 1931 in Poland. In 1940, at the age of nine, he was taken away from his family and brought to the first of the 10 death and labor camps that he would somehow survive. During the five years he was imprisoned, Ross was subject to brutal beatings and horrifying stories of survival. A vicious beating by a Nazi guard broke his back; once when Nazis were searching for him, he cheated death by submerging himself in human waste in an outhouse; he also was so famished that he had to resort to cannibalism; at Auschwitz, he slipped away from a death line and hid under a moving train.
Wasting away at the age of 14 and suffering from tuberculosis, he was discovered by an American soldier who was part of the liberating troops at Dachau in April of 1945. The soldier handed him a piece of bread and what Ross thought was a cloth, which he used to wipe the tears away. He fell to his knees and kissed the boots of the soldier and cried into the cloth, which he later learned was an American flag. Ross, the youngest of eight children, survived, along with a brother, but learned after the war that his parents and six siblings had perished at the hands of the Nazis.
After the war, he came to the U.S., and served in the Army in the Korean War. He went on to earn a master’s in psychology from Boston University and a doctorate from Northeastern.
In the mid-1980s, Ross first approached former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn about the idea of creating a Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston. On Oct. 22, 1995, 8,000 people attended the memorial’s dedication.
About a decade ago, Ross spoke with a group of students at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. He described his early life as a Jewish child in Lodz, Poland, and his remarkable survival through Nazi atrocities. After the talk, groups of teens gathered around him, eager to ask more questions and connect with him personally. In turn, he urged them to not ignore prejudice or bullying.
“When you see somebody being denigrated … you’ve got to stand up and make a noise and say, ‘I’m not gonna take that from you,’” Ross told the group.
Moments from that riveting talk were among the many stirring scenes in “Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross,” the documentary by Marblehead native Roger Lyons. The film traced Ross’s life through the Nazi death camps to his arrival in Boston as a teenage refugee where he pursued an advanced education, married, and raised a family. The film also detailed Ross’s pivotal role in creating the New England Holocaust Memorial.
“It was my father’s dream. It’s his physical legacy,” said his son Mike.
Journal correspondent Penny Schwartz contributed to this article.