Young Joe Stevens was raised in a comfortable, middle-class Polish family. He was educated in Vienna with the goal that he would someday take over his father's graphic arts business. A native of Kalisz, Poland, Joe immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 and moved to Grand Rapids from Detroit in 1956 where he founded National Correct Color Service. In later years, he worked for Amway Corporation and then became an international consultant to large graphic firms.
In 1938 Joe was forced to leave school when Hitler marched into Vienna and Jews were routinely beaten and driven from the city. When called to serve in the Polish army, he made his way to Warsaw and the Polish Warsaw resistance; he never saw his family again. Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia following a pact between Hitler and Stalin. The city of Warsaw was surrendered, and Joseph was left alone to forage his own existence. He lived by his wits and intellect--counting as a good day one on which he found safe shelter, a meal, and occasionally a place to bathe. Stevens' wartime experiences have been published in his 2001 memoir, Good Morning.
Stevens evaded Hitler’s World War II death camps by concealing his Jewish identity and working as a laborer, teacher, and even an emissary between a Catholic parish and the Germans because of his facility with the German language. He was forced to join the underground Polish resistance movement where he became a leader in raids against Nazi soldiers. Discovery of Stevens' participation in the Polish resistance would have resulted in arrest and death at the hands of the Germans for himself as well as those with whom he lived and worked. If he had been known to be Jewish by his anti-Semitic countrymen and fellow resistance fighters, he may have been turned over to the enemy.
Stevens’ relationship with Grand Valley began in 1988. After many years of silence because he felt that his memories were too painful to share, he spoke about his war memories to a new class about the Holocaust, established by political science professor William Baum. In Stevens' words, "I forced myself to forget, wanting to eliminate from my memory the terrible experiences and gruesome pictures that haunted me. But I could not" (Good Morning 235).The class was Stevens’ first time talking publicly about his experiences. His sons Richard and Jack had encouraged him to write down his stories to preserve them. When GVSU President Don Lubbers heard about the compelling lectures and the manuscript, he determined it would become Grand Valley’s first university-published book. English Department faculty member, Robert Franciosi,edited the manuscript. Former GVSU professor, William Baum, wrote the preface, and Hank Meijer, of Meijer, Inc. underwrote production costs.
In 1990 the Joseph Stevens Freedom Endowment fund was established by Grand Valley from the proceeds of the book and the contributions of individuals. The endowment provides funds for lectures related to human rights and freedom.
To learn more about the speakers and events sponsored by the Joe Stevens Freedom Endowment, see our events page.
In 2004, WGVU Production staff traveled with Stevens and his son, Jack, to revisit the places of his life in Poland for production of a documentary, Defying Hitler. The 30-minute film was premiered in 2005 and received several national awards for excellence in documentary film. It is available through GVSU's library system.
Mr. Stevens died in December 2011, just prior to his 94th birthday.
Click here to learn more about Mr. Stevens, the Freedom Endowment, and to support ongoing efforts to promote conversations about human rights and freedom.