Holocaust survivor says joining Rotary best decision of his life
Sam Harris, a member of the Rotary Club of Northbrook, Illinois, USA, and board president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, stands in front of the museum, which celebrated its grand opening 19 April. Photo by Joel Lerner/Kring Lerner Group
F or many years, Rotarian Sam Harris kept his memories of surviving a Nazi concentration camp to himself, seldom sharing his childhood experiences.
But the friendships Harris forged through Rotary gave him the courage to tell his story publicly. Rotarians also gave him and a group of local Holocaust survivors the encouragement they needed to begin planning a museum that would keep their memories alive.
Harris, 73, a member of the Rotary Club of Northbrook, Illinois, USA, since 1970, is board president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, which celebrated its grand opening 19 April with a ceremony featuring former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel as speakers.
The 65,000-square-foot building houses 2,000 recorded testimonies from survivors, mostly local residents, as well as photographs, artifacts, and an original volume of the Nuremberg trial transcripts. It also features a Nazi-era rail car, the same type used to relocate people to concentration camps, which Harris helped secure.
Harris says he befriended Rabbi William Frankel at a club meeting in 1977. Frankel convinced him that his story would be a vital tool in educating future generations about the atrocities that occurred during World War II.
"I want to make sure we learn from our history, so something like the Holocaust will never happen again," says Harris. "Rotary was always there for me personally and played an important role in our dream of building a Holocaust museum."
Harris joined a group of area survivors called the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1988. He remembers vividly the first time he mentioned the group’s decision to build a new museum, about 10 years ago, to the Northbrook club.
"Minutes after I talked about the museum, practically the whole table I was sitting at volunteered to help. And by the end of the meeting many more members volunteered, and before I knew it I had a committee," he says. "Rotary was there from the beginning. This thing wouldn't have been the way it is without Rotarian support."
Harris lost his parents and most of his siblings in concentration camps. After the war, he and his sister Sara were sent to the United States by their older sister Rosa, who had married in the camps, and they lived in a foster home in Chicago. Both were eventually adopted, and he was raised by a Northbrook family.
Joining Rotary in 1970 was one of the best things to happen in his life, says Harris.
"Being a Rotarian has guided my life. Of all the things I've been involved in, Rotary has been the best," he explains. "Everyone I've met has been such high-quality people."
He is working on raising funds to have a plaque recognizing Rotary in the museum.
"I cannot think of anything in the world that better exemplifies what this museum is about or the sacrifices that were made for me and other survivors than Rotary's motto: Service Above Self."