Where do your glasses come from?

Where do your glasses come from?

Two Venezuelan Jews, ophthalmologist and optician, talk about their longtime partnership

Dr. Daniel Stegman and his father, Josef Stegman.
Dr. Daniel Stegman and his father, Josef Stegman.

We’re often told that we’re links in a chain. Living links, part of a chain that connects through space and across history.

L’dor v’dor, as the Jewish cliché goes (and remember, a thought or saying or trope becomes a cliché only if there’s truth in it). From generation to generation.

And those chains don’t go only up and down, from one generation to the next. They meet and link and split again in fantastical patterns.

Daniel Stegman and Steven Bernstein both are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors; like all survivors, their grandparents have extraordinary stories. They’ve been friends since their childhoods in Venezuela and now are business partners in northern New Jersey. That sounds prosaic enough, but the more you hear their stories, the more you marvel.

Dr. Stegman, who is an ophthalmologist, lives in Tenafly. His father, Josef Stegman, who is 94, was born in Cluj, Hungary, in 1927. “He wanted to be a doctor,” his son said, but the advent of World War II made that dream an impossibility, although once the son graduated from medical school Josef Stegman did get a physician in the family. And he was able to get a job in healthcare, and that job most likely saved his life.

Josef Stegman, the youngest son in a family of four children, was working in a local hospital as a radiologist’s aide in 1943, when his family was forced into the ghetto. The radiologist, who was Jewish, was sent to a concentration camp. But the quick-witted and desperate Josef “stole papers from a dead person in the hospital,” his son said; the papers proclaimed him a non-Jew, and he was able to pass as an ethnic Hungarian — he didn’t look Jewish, whatever that means, and he spoke Hungarian — and he kept working.

Meanwhile, his brothers, Kalman and Abraham, were sent to work camps, which they survived. His parents, Isaac and Leah, and his baby sister, Gittel Dina, were sent to concentration camps, where Leah and Gittel Dina were murdered. Isaac survived the end of the war, but when the shocked liberators came in and gave the severely emaciated prisoners food, he overate, and it killed him.

Josef Stegman carried the unnecessary guilt of his baby sister’s Nazi-inflicted death with him. He had wanted to keep her with him, Dr. Stegman said, but “his parents said to him, ‘You are a kid. You can’t take care of her. She will stay with us.’

“He visited them every day, and one day they were gone.”

A few months before the war ended, Kalman and Abraham, along with five other Jewish prisoners, escaped from the camp, and made their way to the house where Josef was living. “He hid them in an attic, bringing them food and taking their excrement away in a bucket because they didn’t want to use the plumbing,” Dr. Stegman said.

After the war, Kalman developed diabetes; Josef, who took charge of his care, decided that the two of them should immigrate to Israel, “to help fight in the war there,” Dr. Stegman continued; later, Abraham made aliyah as well, and their families live there still.

“My father got to Israel on the Altalena,” the fighter- and weapons-laden boat that came to symbolize the bloody fights between Zionist factions as Israel gained its statehood, Dr. Stegman said. “He enrolled in the army, he fought in the War of Independence for 18 months, and then, after five years, he said that he had done his duty for Israel, and he wanted to try a different life.

Daniel and Patty Stegman are with Daniel’s parents, Anete and Josef.

“Life was very hard then in Israel,” he added. “And he said that he’d paid his dues as a Jew, and now he wanted to improve his life.

“He wanted to come to the United States, but there was a quota, and he couldn’t get in. The only place that he could get into was Brazil, so he lived there for three years, but he didn’t love it. Then he moved to Uruguay for six months, but he didn’t love it.

“And then he went to Venezuela — he had a good friend there — and he loved it.”

That was somewhere around 1956 or 1957, Dr. Stegman said.

Josef Stegman learned Spanish, and he opened a watch company called Anker. He flourished. In 1961, he went back to Israel to visit his brothers, and met a young Romanian woman, Anete Falticeneano. She’d been in Israel for six months when they met; 17 days after that meeting, they got married. They went back to Venezuela for what was supposed to be a six-month visit; they stayed for about 40 years and had two sons there, Daniel and his younger brother, Zeev. About 20 years ago, “Venezuela got bad, so they left,” Dr. Stegman said; that was soon after Hugo Chavez came to power.

So Dr. Stegman’s childhood in Caracas was a good one, he said. The Jewish community was about 30,000 strong. “It was a mixture of everything — a lot of Holocaust survivors, a lot of Sephardic Jews” — Mizrachi, to be more specific, from Arabic countries — “who went there after Israel was formed.

“In Venezuela, the groups didn’t stay separate,” he continued. “We all merged. They had different temples” — there were two synagogues, he said, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic — but we were all together in school. All the Jews went to Jewish day schools. If the family had no means, they would go to a special board” and get a scholarship.

“No one knew who paid tuition and who didn’t,” he said. “But everyone went to day school. There was one hour of Hebrew, and one hour of Torah, and then the rest was secular. The pioneers of the Venezuelan Jewish community put everyone together, even if there were some cultural differences between European and Moroccan Jews. My best friends were all Sephardic. There was a Jewish club called Hebraica, and 95 percent of the Jews belonged there.

“Most of the community was modern Orthodox,” he said. Many members of that community didn’t keep kosher, at least outside their homes. But their sense of being Jews was strong.

“It was a beautiful life, at least until Chavez, and then Maduro.” (Nicolas Maduro is Venezuela’s leader, a strongman who seems to pattern himself after Chavez.)

Dr. Stegman’s path through the Jewish community in Caracas led him to the United States. That was a pattern in the community.

“My family had a summer house in Miami,” he said. “I went to Camp Massad and then Kfar Masada.” Those are Zionist summer camps in Pennsylvania. “I went on a year abroad course at the University of Miami to improve my English. Venezuelan Jews went to Florida a lot. It’s a 2-hour 45-minute flight from Caracas to Miami, the same as it is from New York to Miami. People went there all the time, so now that things have deteriorated so much in Venezuela, with Maduro, people who could move did move to the United States, or to Israel; some moved to Spain, where they know the language. The Jewish community in Venezuela now is about 5,000. But it used to be a very vibrant Jewish community.”

Dr. Stegman went to medical school in Venezuela, but then he came to the United States. “My father told me to come here, to get my licensing here and to keep it, just in case. Remember that he was a Holocaust survivor. ‘You never know,’ he told me. But I met my wife here, and I never went back.” Instead he did his fellowship and residency in Philadelphia, and then two fellowships, both at Mount Sinai.

His brother, Zeev, also an ophthalmologist, lives and practices in New York.

Steven Bernstein and his wife, Ximena.

Dr. Stegman’s wife, Patty Karlin Stegman, is a family and couples therapist who teaches at the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone. They have two children —Natalie, 28, whose Hebrew name is Miriam Gittel Dina, after her grandfather’s lost sister, and Glen, 23, whose Hebrew name is Kalman, after his grandfather’s brother.

Meanwhile, his parents stayed in Venezuela until about 20 years ago, when they moved first to New Jersey, to be near their grandchildren, and then to Aventura, Florida, where most of the Venezuela Jewish community in exile lives. Anete Stegman died five years ago; Josef lives in Florida today.

Dr. Stegman is one of the two partners in New Jersey Eye And Ear, a practice that has expanded from examining and treating patients’ eyes to offering audiology services as well. The practice now gives ophthalmology patients prescriptions for glasses, and sells them those glasses, and soon it will make them as as well. New Jersey Eye And Ear is about to open a plant in Wayne that will produce high-end, high-fashion spectacles.

Dr. Stegman’s expertise is on the medical side. Steven Bernstein, another Venezuelan Jew, oversees the business. The two men met about 25 years ago in Caracas; they’ve been friends and then partners ever since.

Mr. Bernstein’s grandfather, Herman Bernstein, was born in Bacau, Romania, and his grandmother, Sabina Katz Bernstein, was born in Czernowitz, also in Romania, although it’s changed hands often. “My dad was born in Czernowitz as well, in 1941,” Mr. Bernstein said. “His name was Ernesto Bernstein” — although that’s not a name that would have been given to a Romanian Jewish baby in 1941, “that’s the only name I knew him by,” he said. The stories he heard were murky, but “from what I remember, my grandparents were caught and brought to a camp in Transnistria,” a disputed piece of land that’s now Moldova. “My dad was about a year and a half old. They stayed there for over two and a half years, until he was almost 4 1/2. He got to Venezuela when he was 5.

“From my understanding it was a work camp, and my grandmother struggled very much with my father.” According to stories he’s heard, the Germans in charge of the camp would give a little more food to women with babies, “so my dad was passed around to different ladies so they could get food.” Ernesto was not the only young child there, he said. “And for some reason one of the Nazis liked my grandfather, and asked him to come cook for him. He was very lucky, at the end of each day, he was able to steal a little bit of bread and take it back to my grandmother and my father.”

This wasn’t exactly a death camp, but death was all around them, Mr. Bernstein said, and that was his father’s childhood. “He had no childhood.”

Then, “after two and a half years, they were able to escape, with a group, and they were in the forest right before liberation.”

Sabina Bernstein had six siblings; most of them were killed, but one of them, Mauricio Katz, had gone to Venezuela before the war, and he prospered. “He became a very successful businessman,” Mr. Bernstein said. “It was a communist country at the time, and somehow he got a contract with the government to manufacture all the soldiers’ uniforms. He became very wealthy during the war.

“After the war, he was one of the people who was able to bring a lot of Jews to Venezuela, and to help them with their transition.”

Sabina, Herman, and Ernesto Bernstein made their way to Paris after liberation, and Mauricio found them there and brought them to Venezuela. “My grandmother always was a seamstress, so Mauricio helped them open a small factory that made high-end women’s clothing,” Mr. Bernstein said. The factory, Sabina Modas, was successful. Ernesto Bernstein was an optometrist; he opened an optometry store and that, too, was successful.

“My dad went to the Jewish school in Venezuela,” Mr. Bernstein said. “It’s the same school that we went to.” Then Ernesto went to the University of Miami for his undergraduate degree. “That’s where he met my mom. She is from Connecticut.” Barbara Cease (her name was shortened from something very long and Russian when her parents immigrated, Mr. Bernstein said) went to Venezuela with her new husband, and lived there until the 1990s, when they joined the stream of Venezuelan Jews heading to Florida. “My dad passed away about five years ago, and my mom lives in Miami now,” Mr. Bernstein said.

Mr. Bernstein’s father, Ernesto, with his father, Herman, in Caracas.

Like Dr. Stegman, Mr. Bernstein talks about how deep and real the Jewish community in Venezuela was. “It was very tight-knit,” he said. “The bonds we have with each other are amazing. We are like brothers and sisters. We keep in touch with each other; we have reunions all the time.

“It was an amazing community.”

Daniel Stegman and Steven Bernstein met in Venezuela. Dr. Stegman is three years older than Mr. Bernstein, and his best friends were Mr. Bernstein’s sister and brother-in-law.

“Growing up, I always liked optometry,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I always liked the business. I always liked eyeglasses. My parents would pay me to organize them.”

Mr. Bernstein and his wife, Ximena, whom he met in Florida, have two children, Nicole, 27, and Michael, 22.

So there were these two now-transplanted Venezuelan Jews — one an ophthalmologist, the other an optometrist and businessman — who are longtime friends, with a shared history. What could be more logical than going into business together?

They did.

“We have had a lot of great experiences throughout our relationship as partners,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Our families are close. There are always ups and downs in business; obviously at the beginning it was a little more difficult. But we feed off each other, and the formula works very well.”

New Jersey Eye And Ear has two offices, in Englewood and in Clifton. When he talks about the factory the business is about to open in Wayne, Mr. Bernstein goes into fascinating detail. The kind of high-end glasses he plans to produce are expensive because they take a great deal of time and expertise to make, he said; “there are about 65 steps in creating one frame. Our goal is to be able to produce between 100 and 150 frames a day.” There are very few such factories in the United States; they demand skilled technicians, and there aren’t many around here, so Mr. Bernstein’s goal is to train them. “It’s very exciting,” he said.

The moral of this story is that despite unimaginable trauma, sometimes families can endure; sometimes communities built from that trauma can produce lifelong connections, even when ongoing political disasters end them, and that friendships built on that bedrock of shared experiences can lead to successful business partnerships as well.

And it can also make for healthy eyes highlighted by American-made high-fashion glasses.

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