Posted by Carol Laibson
"Have you ever met or known a Holocaust survivor?" This is the question I asked a class of 25 students of diverse backgrounds, each majoring in criminal justice, social work, or psychology at Bridgewater State University. Marsha Frankel, Clinical Director of JF&CS Services for Older Adults, and I were guest lecturers. I asked the group this question after showing the last slide of our presentation, one about remembrance, resilience, and hope, and right before Sam, a Holocaust survivor, walked in. When I introduced Sam to the class, a hush immediately came over the room. Sam shared his experience during the Holocaust, starting with the evening he came home from a Bar Mitzvah lesson to discover his parents and siblings had been taken away by the Nazis. He brought us along as he talked about his journey of hiding with relatives in another country to living on the streets wearing the same clothes for eight months to going to the police thinking they would help him. The entire class listened intently as he shared that, instead of receiving help from the police, he was thrown in jail for two years with hardened criminals. Sam told us that even after he was released to his grandparents, he was forced to report twice each week to the police where he was beaten and told not to tell anyone. If he had, he told the group, the police threatened to deport him and his grandparents.
Sam's story takes a dramatic turn when he was forcibly transported by cattle car to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After surviving starvation and inhumane conditions, he ran away from a death march under the cover of darkness. Miraculously he was found unconscious by Russian soldiers and brought to the hospital weighing only 80 pounds. When Sam finally came to the US, he told the class, it was with encouragement from letters he had received from a young girl who had been his neighbor and childhood friend. Before the war, this young girl and he had shared a pact that one day they would marry. After both surviving the Holocaust, Sam and his neighbor reconnected in the US and have been married now for almost 70 years.
The juxtaposition of Sam's soft spoken manner and the description of the hardships he endured was striking to me, to Marsha, to the students, and to the professor. The professor was so inspired by Sam's story she made a closing request to her students: She asked each student to commit to telling one other person about Sam and his experience, to pay tribute to Sam and all Holocaust survivors and help preserve their legacy. I am glad I live in a time when Sam no longer has to be silent.
As I looked around the room at the spellbound students, I couldn't help but think how inspiring it is to know that we can still be caring human beings despite hardship and cruelties endured.
Carol Laibson, Manager of Case Management Services for JF&CS Schechter Holocaust Services is a licensed clinical social worker. She has more than 20 years of experience helping older people age well with dignity, works directly with Holocaust survivors and their families, and provides training and consultation to professional staff on the special needs of aging Holocaust survivors.