Fort McCoy News May 09, 2014

Holocaust speaker shares story of childhood survival

STORY & PHOTO BY GENEVE N. MANKEL
Public Affairs Staff

A Holocaust survivor shared his account of the atrocities of the Holocaust with a Fort McCoy audience April 29.

The Holocaust: Days of Remembrance presentation featured Samuel Harris, 79, a survivor of the Holocaust and author of the book, "Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust."

Photo for Sam Harris article
Speaker and author Samuel Harris shares his Holocaust story with the audience at the Fort McCoy Days of Remembrance observance.

Members of the Fort McCoy community, area school students and Challenge Academy cadets attended.

Harris was introduced by Darryle Clott, a Holocaust educator at Viterbo University of La Crosse, Wis., and a friend of Harris.

Clott emphasized the importance of survivor stories.

"One day no one will be left to say, 'I was there, I saw, I remember what happened,'" Clott said. "All that will be left will be books of research and literature, pictures, films and a multitude of testimonies from survivors."

Survivor stories also give credence to human resiliency.

"Survivors bear witness to the endurance of the human spirit," Clott said.

People realize that if it is possible for someone to survive the Holocaust, surely people today can survive challenges that come their way, she said.

Harris said he came to Fort McCoy to share the story of what happened during World War II to a child named Sammy.

Harris was born Szlamek Rzeznik in 1935 in Deblin, Poland, and has fond memories of his childhood prior to the Nazi invasion of his hometown.

Harris warmly recounted celebrating holidays with his Family, going with his father everywhere and trying to be like him, visiting his grandparents and eating his grandmother's freshly baked challah bread.

He also remembers lying in the barn when it would rain and smelling the hay.

It would be a barn, many decades later, in Mauston, Wis., that would inspire him to begin writing the stories of his experiences.
While traveling with his wife and children through Mauston, he came across a barn and asked his Family to go inside with him. It was there, for the first time, he shared his experiences with his Family.

Soon after, he began writing his stories and would, eventually, with the encouragement of his wife, publish his book, Harris said.
Harris always had been reluctant to talk about his experiences.

When he was adopted by American parents in 1948, he resolved to try to be a "normal" American boy.

"I decided to leave the memories of my horrendous past behind me. I put a brick wall around myself and decided I only would think about the present and the future and would forget about the past," he said.

It wasn't until a rabbi friend of his told him about a professor at Northwestern University who wrote the book, "Hoax of the 20th Century," which denies the Holocaust occurred.

Harris came to find out that at the time, 1977, there were more than 300 books about the denial of the Holocaust.

He knew he had to help educate people so these types of atrocities wouldn't happen again.

"Education will keep us from repeating what happened in the past," Harris said. "There are genocides now, and the only solution is through education."

Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. Harris recalled many acts of violence the Nazis committed against his Family and neighbors.

He remembers a Nazi striking an older Jew in the face with the butt of his gun, and airplanes firing down and shooting people in his town.

His father was taken into the woods and was beaten into unconsciousness by four Nazis. On another occasion, a Nazi came to their home requesting hot tea. When Harris' father brought out the cup of tea the Nazi tossed it in his father's face.

Harris recalled the last day he saw his parents and siblings.

"The Nazi trucks came into town and forced all the Jewish people to go to the marketplace area of town. If they didn't move fast enough, they'd be shot," he said.

Once in the marketplace, his father told him to run and hide behind a pile of bricks. Two of his sisters, Rosa and Sarah, hid with him. The rest of his Family was marched into awaiting cattle cars, and he never saw them again.

"To this day I still see them walking in the direction of the cattle cars. They were my parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, neighbors; they were all walking (toward the cars)."

"My sister Rosa, she is the one who saved my life," Harris said. Rosa was 14 years old at the time.

When the Nazis returned to Deblin to capture any remaining Jews, Rosa told him to run.

They hid from the Nazi's in an outhouse and in a barn.

"We buried ourselves in the straw, and there we lay," he said. "The Nazis came and started yelling 'Jews come out.' We did not breathe. They looked and they looked but didn't find us."

With nowhere else to go, Harris and his sisters returned to Deblin, where a concentration camp had been established.

Rosa was able to work and get food there. She snuck in her siblings and hid them from the Nazis at the camp because they were too young to work.

One day the Jews at the camp were transported to another camp to work at an ammunition factory. They were transported by cattle car.

"It was terrible," Harris said. "They squeezed 75 or 100 people in there. You had no food, no toilets, people were crying; it was bad."

During the transport, Harris remembers coming to railroad crossings and hearing bells at the crossings. He would hear children laughing and dogs barking, and all he could do was wish he was out there.

"Every time I see a railroad car my mind goes back to that," he said.

Upon arrival at the concentration camp, Harris was spotted by Nazis, despite his attempt to look taller than he was, and he was taken from his sisters. He, along with four other children, was taken away from the concentration camp to a holding room before they would be taken into the woods to be shot, Harris said.

It was by stroke of luck he was saved by an Austrian man who had fought in World War I and saved one of the Nazis who was working at the camp. Through this act of luck, the Austrian was able to save his own daughter as well as Harris and the other children.

When Harris and the children were taken back to the main area of the concentration camp they were embraced by all the people there.

"They hadn't seen a Jewish child in all these years. A million-and-half Jewish children were already killed, and here we were coming," Harris said. "This is one of the reasons I speak — so they have a voice through me."

During his time at the concentration camp, Harris stayed hidden from Nazis to avoid being killed until he, along with the other Jews at the concentration camp, was liberated by the Russian Army.

As an adult, Harris has been a driving force in the building of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, the passage of government policies requiring the teaching of Holocaust and genocide education in public schools, and the education of the Holocaust through his extensive speaking engagements. Harris' achievements, most recently, have led to him being awarded the 2014 Ellis Island Medal.

Harris concluded his visit at Fort McCoy with a meet-and-greet and book signing at McCoy's Community Club.