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The NBA Finals ... and my late father
Please permit me, nearing the eighth anniversary of Reuven Stein's passing, to share more of his remarkable story as a Holocaust survivor who made it all the way to America (to have an NBA-crazed kid)
The NBA Finals will be over before Sunday unless the Boston Celtics can stretch them to a Game 7, but the league's grandest stage and Father's Day will always be intertwined for me.
That's why, with another Father's Day fast approaching, I feel a strong pull to detour temporarily from the series and the implications of Golden State’s Game 5 victory over Boston on Monday night. I need to rewind to the most important Game 5 of my life and have felt the need to retell that story ever since I read my friend Dan Grunfeld's incredible book about his family's journey from Holocaust survival to the NBA.
Wednesday will mark the eighth anniversary of my father Reuven Stein's death on June 15, 2014. That same night, San Antonio completed its five-game demolition of LeBron James' Miami Heat to win the most recent of the Spurs' five championships under Gregg Popovich.
My father had been placed in hospice care at that point after a withering seven-year battle with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I flew from Miami to California to see him between Game 4 and Game 5 of the series to say my goodbyes even as he was largely nonresponsive, then returned to San Antonio to work the game as the sideline reporter once again for ESPN Radio — my favorite gig of the many assignments I had during my 15 years with Bristol Inc. I obviously should have skipped the game to stay at his bedside, but my father was a never-miss-work-no-matter-what kind of mechanical engineer, so that's the way I was raised. I knew, in my heart, that he was not going to survive much longer, but I told my wife Rachel that I would rush back to rejoin the family vigil after the Spurs’ expected victory — and asked her not to text me no matter what happened. I held it together through my radio duties, San Antonio duly finished the Heatles off and then I called Mrs. Line to confirm what I instinctively knew as that Game 5 unfolded: My father was gone.
A year later, in conjunction with Father's Day 2015, I wrote a tribute piece to him that explained, among other things, how much he preferred to be referred to as Father rather than Dad. While I felt the piece did a decent job of capturing the man and his remarkable journey to America and all the traits he bequeathed to his very fortunate eldest (and NBA-possessed) son, I included only brief (and flawed) detail about what he really endured during the first six years of his life. Reuven largely spent them as one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews imprisoned in concentration camps or ghettos in Transnistria, then in brief hiding with my grandmother until they could get to Cernăuți (Chernivtsi in modern Ukraine) to wait out the end of World War II and partake in the repatriation process for Holocaust survivors.
On the eve of my father's Yahrzeit, now is the time to share as much of his story as I've been able to glean, thereby ensuring it is documented somewhere — forever — after I'm gone. I'm so grateful to Dan, son of longtime NBA player and executive Ernie Grunfeld, for inspiring me to memorialize as much as I can after reading his incredible November 2021 book By the Grace of the Game, which tells the story of his own grandparents' Holocaust survival and subsequent immigration to the United States, where the Grunfelds’ son Ernie became the sort of world-class basketball player that neither Romania nor Hungary — neighboring homelands for their family — is known for producing.
My other prime inspiration here: My soon-to-be-10th-grader Aaron. He had to do a research paper on our family history last semester and asked me all kinds of questions about my parents’ past. Mrs. Line amazingly found a document that my father had prepared more than 20 years ago which recounted as much as he could remember ... and which I had completely forgotten about. Had I had that document at my disposal in 2015, I would have avoided two or three of the shoddiest paragraphs I've ever written in the ESPN piece. Today is my opportunity to do a much more representative job than I did the first time in explaining the incomprehensible start to my father's life and maybe, just maybe, being able to forgive myself someday for the initial lack of precision that fell far short of Reuvs Standards.
I certainly don't have anywhere close to enough material for a whole book like Dan, but I'm truly thankful for what I have learned. Here, then, is what I do know of my family’s story:
When my father was roughly nine months old late in 1940, his parents Alexandru and Esther left Bucharest to move to Galați. The reasons why were never explained to my father, nor for their later moves into Moldova and beyond. But these relocations east are what led his family, according to my father's account, to be taken by Nazi-allied Romanian troops into captivity in a town known then as Mogilev (or Mogilev-Podolski) in the northwest corner of what became Transnistria in 1941. (They were not, as I mistakenly wrote in my ESPN story, captured in Bucharest.)
How long my father and grandmother were able to stay connected to my grandfather as a trio, as well as how long they were in Mogilev, is unclear. At one point I know my father and his mother were transferred to what was often referred to as a starvation camp called Scazineţi, which The Steins somehow survived to make it back to Mogilev. Once again: I remain unsure if Reuven had been separated from his father by this point ... or how on Earth my grandmother got them back to Mogilev. But they indeed made it back, which was apparently key in saving them because Russian forces eventually liberated the territory in seizing control of Mogilev in 1944.
Somewhere along the way my grandfather was transformed from Holocaust prisoner to Russian soldier to fight against the Germans after the Russians seized control of his camp. When Reuven, at this time roughly four years old, was designated to be placed in a care center while my grandmother was to be assigned to a coal mine, Esther Stein understood immediately that it surely meant permanent separation from her son. So she escaped this fate, too, by means that were likewise never fully explained to my father and which I could never fully extract from her through my badly broken Romanian. (As much Romanian as I was able to muster in my teens, just by hearing so much of it on both sides of my family, was our sole means of communication. Esther, known as Fira, spoke zero English. And I knew zero Russian or Yiddish.)
My father said that he and his mother, having successfully sneaked into Cernăuți, were taken in by locals Esther had met named Pepi and Willy Weingarten. Pepi had a son who was close to my father's age and a parent living with the family who watched the young boys while the adults scrounged for work and food during the day. Cernăuți is where they stayed for roughly two years until the war ended.
The happiest possible ending to the story is the part I know best — presumably by design because no one wanted to share a full depiction of the gloom and hopelessness of life with no water, food, electricity or bathroom facilities and constant exposure to disease on top of starvation and death all around them. After he was forced to join the Russian army, Alexandru made it back to Romania first, having apparently been discharged in the wake of leg injuries caused by shrapnel. Through the Red Cross and whatever search efforts were possible in 1945, my grandmother ultimately discovered that her husband was indeed back in Romania, but that her brothers Boris and Matei had been killed.
My father and grandmother did not start making their way back to Bucharest until the summer of 1946, because as Reuven explained it: "With transportation, food and fuel all at a premium, needless to say, to travel anywhere you had to bribe and pay." Esther eventually scraped together the necessary funds to land her and my father, then age 6, on a canvas-covered military truck bound for the Romanian capital.
When they finally made it to Bucharest, as family legend has it, Esther and Reuven went to the house they knew to be owned by Alexandru's father. She sent my father to the door alone. When Reuven knocked, my grandfather answered ... and quickly deduced that the scared little boy in the doorway was the son he thought he'd never see again.
To be clear: I shudder to think about how incomplete this summation is and how much I will never know, all while understanding very clearly that I have completely undersold how desperately inhumane conditions were in the various camps and ghettos of Transnistria. An estimated 150,000 Romanian Jews were held there with the presumed intent to be sent to their deaths in Nazi-controlled Ukraine. The word used by my friend Maksim Goldenshteyn to describe conditions in Transnistria is "apocalyptic," which the Seattle-based author detailed in his must-read book So They Remember published in December 2021. As an Associated Press story in February on Goldenshteyn's book put it, Transnistria is "where hundreds of thousands of Jews were brutalized, exploited and murdered. Many died of starvation; some succumbed to disease or exposure; some were executed."
My father never really discussed specifics with me of the horrors he saw. Maybe he was too young for vivid recollections. Or more likely: He couldn't bear to relive the scenes or bring himself to help me to picture them. I only knew him, in terms of fatherhood, as a world-class worrier all the way into my 40s. I have since become one myself as a dad, but fully cognizant of the reality that The Reuvs had no choice. Given how agonizingly he lived over the course of those first six years, followed by more than a decade in Communist Romania, how could he not worry constantly?
I have mentioned often to Dan Grunfeld how vital his book will forever be for painting such a thorough picture of his family’s Auschwitz ordeal, crafted from his years of research and countless talks with his grandmother Livia. I also couldn't resist telling him how envious I am that he was not impeded by the language barriers that I should have done more to overcome to learn more from my grandmother.
Maksim's work is equally vital. He is so well-versed in the history of this heinous time period and can explain the depths of the Romanian Jews' suffering and despair unlike anyone I know.
It naturally means tons to me to have the platform to honor my father's memory and life by sharing more of his story than I did last time. The first installment just wasn’t enough for me. Not at a time, some 80 years removed from the Holocaust in 2022, that anti-Semitism is scarily on the rise worldwide.
It’s never been more important for any of us who have the means to do so to record as many of these stories as we can, because there are so few Holocaust survivors left who can tell them. In another recent book like Dan’s called Lily’s Promise that was recently featured in The New York Times, 98-year-old Lily Ebert explained it so perfectly in the memoirs she assembled with the help of her great-grandson Dov Forman.
“Words can barely describe what happens next,” Ebert said of becoming an Auschwitz captive. “But words are all I have.”
The confluence of Reuven’s onrushing Yahrzeit, his unimaginable life story and how he emerged from both the Holocaust and Eastern European communism to put me in a position to live out almost every single sports dream I’ve ever had … I just can’t help it. This is what dominates my brain during NBA Finals and Father’s Day season.
And I suspect it will be this way for every future Finals that I’m fortunate enough to witness.