Fred Stein was born on July 3, 1909 in Dresden, Germany. His father was a rabbi and his mother taught religion. As a teenager he was deeply interested in politics and became an early anti-Nazi activist. He was a brilliant student, and went to Leipzig University, full of humanist ideals, to study law. He obtained a law degree in an impressively short time, but was denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons.” After the Gestapo began making inquiries about him, Stein fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife, Liselotte Salzburg, under the pretext of going on a honeymoon.
In Paris they were in the center of a circle of expatriates, intellectuals and artists. There he took up photography, and found his life’s passion. He was a pioneer of the small, hand-held camera, and with the Leica which he and his wife had purchased as a joint wedding present, he went into the streets to photograph scenes of life in Paris. He took remarkable portraits of the people around him – people who were to become major intellectual figures, such as Willy Brandt, Arthur Koestler, and Andre Malraux, but also a flower vendor, a stylish couple, a refugee child…a host of poignant images that accuse the inequities of the social order, and at the same time, reveal the beauty and dignity of each individual.
When Germany declared war on France in 1939, Stein was put in an internment camp for enemy aliens near Paris. He managed to escape, and after a hazardous clandestine journey through the countryside, met his wife and baby girl in Marseilles, where they obtained visas through the efforts of the International Rescue Committee. On May 7, 1941, the three boarded the S.S. Winnipeg, one of the last boats to leave France. They carried only the Leica and some negatives.