In recorded interviews, Andre Steiner appears slight. He wears thick glasses, his white hair combed back and his trim beard well-kept. He is difficult to understand because of a thick Eastern European accent despite having lived in Atlanta for several decades.
The impression belies an extraordinary human being, who was best known as a planner and architect until later in his life. Born in Austria-Hungary (present-day Slovakia), he was a successful architect with a wife and a young child when World War II broke out.
He is known to history as a Jewish Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” fame. While the German industrialist saved an estimated 1,200 Jewish lives during World War II, Steiner saved nearly six times that number.
In Atlanta, he was a planner with Robert and Co., the architecture and engineering firm founded by Georgia Tech graduate L.W. Robert. Steiner was also an instructor in urban planning at the predecessor of Georgia State University. He served as vice president of the urban design department of the American Institute of Planners.
Steiner’s best-known building in Atlanta is the Ahavath Achim Synagogue on Peachtree Battle Avenue in Buckhead, completed in 1958.
The building on the corner of Northside Drive is perfectly square, with concrete squares and long, thin stained-glass windows along its three-story facade. A one-story brick wing juts out to the west. In the back is an open courtyard, more concrete squares and more long, Picassoesque windows.
In the documentary “Andre’s Lives,” Steiner returns to his home country with his two sons and marvels that the buildings he designed are still standing. They, too, are modern, with floor-to-ceiling glass and metal accents along the facade.
But that’s not why he traveled to Slovakia for the first time in more than 50 years for the film. He came back to tell the story of labor camps and the Jewish underground, of which he was a founding member.
During World War II, Slovakia aligned with Germany. The authorities imprisoned Steiner, but he was allowed to return to work because of his profession and position. However, an official warned him the police would arrest him again, but this time he wouldn’t be so lucky.
With his family, Steiner fled to another city, where he had business contacts. There, he continued working. As an architect, Steiner was able to join the Jewish group forced to implement Nazi orders. He used his connections and skills to convince officials to build a series of labor camps for Jews, who German rules had removed from the economy.
Steiner felt his people needed to be self-sufficient and remain in Slovakia, rather than being sent to other German-ruled countries.
He bribed officials to keep the people in his camps from being deported. In one case, he paid $50,000 to prevent removal. In 1942, Slovakia sent about two-thirds of Slovak Jews to German concentration camps. Most of the 4,000 people in the labor camps set up and designed by Steiner remained in Slovakia.
Steiner was also a founding and the last surviving member of the Bratislava Working Group, an underground resistance movement.
In 1944, during the Slovak uprising, he fled the city with his family. After the war ended, Steiner returned. The Communist takeover in 1948 forced him to escape with his family a final time, this time for Cuba, before settling in Atlanta in 1950.
Steiner didn’t discuss his time in Eastern Europe during World War II with his family or his colleagues. He explains in the documentary his job was his focus. Steiner died in 2009 at the age of 100. He is interred in Historic Oakland Cemetery.
Ahavath Achim was founded in 1887, and its first building was on Gilmer Street in downtown Atlanta. In 1920, with membership growing, it moved to a new building where Center Parc Stadium (formerly Turner Field) sits southeast of downtown. In 1958, it moved to its current location in Buckhead, in the modern building designed by Steiner.
Despite its design, the synagogue does not stand out, even among traditional Buckhead homes and greenspace at a busy intersection. It sits back from the street and is barely visible from Northside.
Yet when you take a moment to look at it — to really see it — there is much more to it, reflective of its diminutive designer, a bold and fearless man who saved the lives of thousands in the face of the greatest horror of the 20th century, the Holocaust.