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Survivor found purpose in helping, leading

Karla Stept, of Oakland, died Monday, March 4, 2013.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Karla Stept felt like she had plenty of close calls in her life. She escaped from Nazis in Austria prior to World War II, avoided being shipped back to Europe by marrying a fellow refugee and eventually built new lives for herself and her family in Argentina, New York and Pittsburgh.

“There was a time in Vienna she was walking down the street with a couple of her girlfriends when they were approached by a pair of SS guards, who took her friends. They were never heard from again. She was spared because she was walking in the middle,” said Peter Geiringer, 65, of Squirrel Hill, her only child. “What my mother said often was that she couldn't understand why she was spared, so she dedicated the rest of her life to being helpful to people.”

Karla Stept of Oakland died Monday, March 4, 2013, in the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill from a blood infection. She was 94.

Born in 1918 to Simon and Roslyn Byk in Vienna, she witnessed the Nazi persecution of Jews as a young woman, Geiringer said.

Her father, an attorney, was arrested by the SS and released, and was on the brink of being arrested again in 1938 when the family sneaked out of the house and fled to Italy.

At 20, unable to get visa papers to move to New York with her parents, she traveled by boat to Argentina with forged documents instead. The captain found out, but took pity on her, her son said.

To avoid being sent back to Europe, she married Hans Geiringer, whom she had dated in Austria and exchanged letters with after he'd escaped to Buenos Aires.

“She'd had a fairly easy life in Vienna and suddenly it was gone; she was in Argentina scrubbing floors,” said Peter Geiringer, who was born in Argentina.

Hans Geiringer moved the family back to Austria in 1958, but died of cancer two years later. She and her son moved to New York to be with her parents, and she married Joseph Behr in 1966, but he died less than a year later.

“When life dealt her a bad hand, she picked herself up. She survived,” said Peter Geiringer, whom she raised as a single mother while ascending the ranks from clerk to vice president at a book publishing company.

She retired in 1979 and moved to Pittsburgh to help her son and his wife, Toby, with their daughters Julie and Stephanie.

“Words like ‘close' or ‘strong,' they just don't do our relationship justice,” said Stephanie Geiringer, 28, of San Francisco. “She wanted us to be strong, independent women and make our way in the world the way that she did.”

Widowed a third time more than 20 years after marrying Dr. Raymond Stept, Mrs. Stept eventually moved to the Schenley Gardens complex in Oakland in 2005 and quickly became a leader there. She worked with the Carnegie Library to keep the Gardens' library stocked with large-print books, served as president of its Resident Council and started a holiday fund that residents supported so employees could get holiday bonuses, said Rosemarie Malinoski, the complex's director of activities.

She spoke to students and researchers about the Holocaust. One interview about living through Adolf Hitler's rise to power found its way into “The Century,” a book by journalist Peter Jennings.

“She kept her friendships forever,” Peter Geiringer said. “I'd laugh when I'd come here during Hanukkah or Christmastime and she'd be deluged with cards — hundreds of cards.”

In addition to her son, Peter, and granddaughter, Stephanie, Mrs. Stept is survived by her stepson, Michael Stept of Jackson, Miss., and a granddaughter, Julie Hamilton of San Francisco.

Visitation is 11 a.m. to noon Thursday in Ralph Schugar Chapel, 5509 Centre Ave., where funeral services begin at noon. Entombment will be in Homewood Cemetery.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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