A survivor’s legacy
Sam Harris lost his childhood to the Holocaust. He’s making sure a new generation of young people can thrive.
Sam Harris is passionate about it. He will meet you, even though he is 88 years old and uses a walker, in the somber industrial entrance of the museum he helped create, an institution dedicated to making sure the awful, important story that he lived is told, years after he is gone and his voice, among the dwindling firsthand accounts, is finally silenced.
That wasn’t always the case.
For many years Harris, a former insurance executive and a member of the Rotary Club of Northbrook, Illinois, didn’t want to talk about how the Nazis had come for him when he was a small boy. He didn’t want to talk about the terrible hunger. The fear. The machine guns. His murdered parents. The cattle cars. The concentration camps. It was old news, ancient history. What would be the point? He was an American now. First an American boy, living in Northbrook, a comfortable suburb north of Chicago. Then an American man who could choose for himself what to discuss. Or not discuss.
His refusal went on for years. “I knew it troubled him, that it was all inside of him,” says his wife of 62 years, Dede. “He just never spoke about his past. I could see it festering.”
The reluctance was complicated. He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. And if he became successful, he wanted it to be because of who he was, not because of what happened to him, he explains, settling into a chair in the small but well-stocked library of his museum. If someone detected an accent and asked where he was from, he’d toss the question back: Where do you think I’m from? And if the person said “New York,” Harris would say, “Yes, exactly! New York.” Or if someone said, “Germany,” he’d say, “Germany, yes, how did you know?” And smile.
A trained social worker, Dede Harris eventually sat her husband down by a crackling fire one evening. “I asked him to tell the story,” Dede recalls. “It seemed to have broken through that impasse. Once he was able to verbalize the feelings, he had to be open to other people.”
It began slowly. At a 1977 meeting of the Rotary Club of Wilmette, Illinois, Harris met a member, Rabbi William Frankel, who grew up in Vienna. Like Harris, Frankel had fled the Nazis, only he used his past as a springboard to a life of activism. Frankel had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and was prominent in Catholic-Jewish outreach efforts. He befriended Harris and convinced him that he owed it to future generations to tell his story.
Around that time, a group of neo-Nazis planned a demonstration in Skokie, a Chicago suburb that was half Jewish at the time and home to many Holocaust survivors. Though a lengthy legal battle prevented the demonstration, activists like Rabbi Frankel believed silence and inaction were no longer an option. Waiting and hoping while evil rises to its feet was never a smart strategy.
Meanwhile, Arthur Butz, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, about 10 miles from where Harris lived, published a book with the claim that the Holocaust was a myth perpetuated by the Allies and Zionists. Frankel called Harris to express his abhorrence of the book. “Sam, I know it’s hard for you, but it’s time for you to talk,” Frankel urged him.
In Frankel’s basement, the rabbi interviewed Harris on video camera. “And it was the first time really, I was able to talk,” says Harris. “I said to myself, I’ll never do this again. But he showed this to everybody in the congregation. And it was packed. And then he passed that around to other rabbis. That was all because of Rotary.”
So more than 30 years removed, Harris opened up about his once unspeakable past.
“I asked him to tell the story. It seemed to have broken through that impasse. Once he was able to verbalize the feelings, he had to be open to other people.”
A living link from that lost prewar Jewish world, through one of the darkest chapters in human history, to today, Harris arrives an exuberant bundle of energy in the lobby of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center — rolling in with a three-wheeled walker, yes, but in a crisp blue shirt, smiling and joking, his wife by his side. He passes a montage of Jewish faces — one of them his own. Many are gone; but he is not. “I have told you this not to weaken you,” reads a line running through the faces, “but to strengthen you.”
The youngest of seven, Harris was born Szlamek Rzeznik in Dęblin, Poland, in 1935. His father was a sofer, a scribe who writes and restores the Torah and other holy writings. At 4, he was just old enough to remember the last moments of normalcy — the Sabbath dinners, weekend visits to his grandparents on a horse and buggy. A final taste of ordinary life, the sweetness of love and laughter that would allow him to endure what was coming.
It was September 1939. “I remember distinctly sitting around having lunch,” he says. “We heard noises in the sky. The German Luftwaffe [air force] was flying in to destroy the Polish air force. Dęblin had an airfield. Soon, those same airplanes came after people. I saw death for the first time.” Nazis quickly occupied Dęblin and Jewish families were forced into a ghetto. Food became scarce. Harris’ elder sister Rosa was forced to work at a slave labor camp at the airfield and was able to bring back a little food for the family.
One day in 1942, trucks carrying Nazi soldiers rolled into the ghetto. Carrying guns with bayonets, they herded Jews to the town’s marketplace. “If someone refused or didn’t walk fast enough, the soldiers would stab or shoot the person,” says Harris.
Cattle cars were waiting nearby to ship Jews to an extermination camp. The destination, Harris believes, was the camp near the village of Treblinka in the east of Poland, where an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Jews were murdered. “I was in the line with my dad who was holding my hand,” says Harris. “Since I was so small, I could only see people’s legs and heard noises of shooting. All I could do was to look up at the sky. I felt that a guardian angel was there to protect me.”
Harris’ father pushed the boy out of the line and instructed him to run. Fortunately, the Nazi soldiers didn’t notice and he sprinted away. He saw his sister Sara hiding behind some bricks. The two children crouched and watched quietly as their parents, cousins, brothers, sisters, and neighbors stepped toward the cattle cars. That was the last time Harris saw them.
Harris and Sara reunited with their older sister Rosa. Since they were constantly hunted, Rosa snuck them into the forced labor camp. Harris was too young to work and would be shot if he was discovered. His job was to hide.
Fate would also intervene. Another prisoner at the camp, an Austrian Jew named Hermann Wenkart, spotted a Nazi soldier whom he had served with in the Austrian army during World War I. The soldier, Eduard Bromofsky, had been wounded in a battle, and Wenkart had saved his life by dragging him to safety. Bromofsky introduced his rescuer to his fellow SS officers, who, impressed by Wenkart’s past bravery, made him head of the prisoners.
In 1944, when the Nazi troops fled the advancing Russians, they moved the Jewish slave laborers to a concentration camp near Częstochowa in southern Poland to make bullets for the front. Before the retreat, Wenkart arranged for an officer to sign a letter to authorities in Częstochowa, asking them to spare the lives of his daughter, Ruthi, and the other children arriving there.
Meanwhile, Harris and his sisters reached Częstochowa, where a guard quickly tried to pull Harris aside. “My sister Rosa was crying and I didn’t want to go,” he recalls. “Well, he [the guard] kicked me right in my little chest.” The guard grabbed Harris and deposited him in a room with four other children, all of whom were to be shot the next day. One of those children was Ruthi.
Wenkart saw that the letter was handed to a Nazi in charge of the camp. Initially, the officer only agreed to spare Ruthi. Wenkart shook his head with a demand: “Either all or none.” The Nazi officer eventually conceded and let the children in the camp.
During the day, Harris existed in shadows. He slept in a women’s dorm and constantly wet his bed because he was afraid of going to the latrine, where prisoners who had attempted to escape were hanged. “My bedding was made from a straw burlap bag and it was getting rotten,” he says. “I lay on top of it and got infected with fleas and lice. They were all over my ears and my whole body was pink.”
In January 1945, the Soviet army liberated the Częstochowa camp. Harris was so hungry that when a fellow prisoner brought him a lump of butter from a kitchen, he ate the whole thing and became sick.
With rags for shoes, Harris hitchhiked back to Dęblin with other survivors, but their homes were occupied by civilians. Harris and Sara were subsequently put in an orphanage after Rosa had married a Viennese Jewish man. In 1946, Rosa managed to smuggle both Sam and Sara from Poland to Austria and arranged for them to be adopted in the U.S. After a rough Atlantic crossing, they arrived in New York in 1947. “The three words I learned on the ship were ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘Coca-Cola,’” Harris remembers.
What was America like to a boy who had grown up in a small Polish town and spent the past five years in one horrific camp or another? “I was chewing gum,” he says. “We had white bread. I remember Americans sitting down with their feet on their desk, leaning back in their chairs, eating steak. I thought it was pretty darn good.” The two siblings were adopted by different families. “Nobody wanted two kids from the concentration camps,” he points out. So, he was adopted by the Harris family and moved to Northbrook, and Sara lived with a family in Chicago.
Growing up, he wanted to be “just an American boy.” He was in every club, president of his class, and popular among classmates, who had no idea what he had been through. “I made a specific thought in my mind that I would build a brick wall, concrete wall around my head, and not talk about it.” That was during the day when he could control his thoughts. But at night, disturbing dreams would break through the wall. “My adoptive mother would sit and cry with me when I was screaming,” he says.
Harris attended college and began building a successful career in the insurance business. As his business grew, he joined Rotary in 1967. A cousin who was a member of the first Rotary club, in Chicago, brought him to a meeting. “I really liked it,” Harris says, “and I’ve been a Rotarian ever since.”
In 1978, NBC ran its miniseries Holocaust over four nights. Watched by over 100 million Americans, it is credited with imprinting the word “Holocaust” into common use. That same year President Jimmy Carter set up a commission that would lead to the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
What would become the Illinois Holocaust Museum was also getting its start. What Harris calls “a small little bitty museum” opened in a storefront in Skokie in 1984. Contributions trickled in. And in 2006, the Glencoe Public Library donated records of the Nuremberg trials.
Harris recorded his story in a book, Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust. But in the 1990s, he realized his storefront, and even his book, weren’t enough. But how would he create a museum? Where to start? Being an active Rotarian was key. “I was at a roundtable with a bunch of Rotarians,” says Harris. “I said, ‘Hey, I just volunteered last night to build a museum.’ They all wanted to be part of it. I had a person who vowed to help me raise the money, a person to find the land, a person to do the architecture. My first committee was in Rotary. They all volunteered to work with me.”
As the museum neared completion, Harris emphasized the importance of it not being a mere memorial, but something alive, part of the community. “The purpose of the museum is to educate people,” says Harris. “The further we are from World War II … gas chambers, killing all these people — people don’t know.”
A recent survey of Americans under 40 found that 12 percent had never heard the word “Holocaust.” Nearly half could not name a concentration camp, and 63 percent didn’t know the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. In the late 1980s, Harris joined a successful campaign to require Illinois public schools to teach the history of the Holocaust.
The museum opened in 2009 in a severe gray and white building, designed by the distinguished architect Stanley Tigerman, who intended the structure to echo the industrial horror of the Holocaust and represent a journey from darkness into light. It combines artifacts — concentration camp uniforms, a cattle car used to transport victims, drawings and other personal effects — with timelines and narratives to help visitors grasp the ungraspable.
Rotary members continue to play an active role in supporting the museum. Rotary clubs in Illinois have sponsored field trips there for Rotary Youth Exchange students, one of whom took Harris’ book home to Japan, where her father translated it. Several clubs organized an event there in 2013 in honor of Sir Nicholas Winton, a Rotarian who helped rescue 669 children, most of them Jewish, during World War II.
Harris became actively involved in youth education through Rotary, with its Interact youth program and with Rotaract. “That was the best thing I did for Rotary,” says Harris. Those young people worked at community and senior centers, raised money, and made contact with other clubs abroad. “I don’t want the brutal tragedy to happen to other children simply because of their race,” says Harris.
As he gives a quick tour of the museum, Harris, who is the institution’s president emeritus, gestures to a cracked brown leather belt — his belt — now an exhibit under glass. “This belt is the only thing that I have left from being in the concentration camps,” he says, pulling open a drawer containing the relic, along with his adoption papers. “It would speak of the hunger in a child’s tummy, it would speak of the deaths and suffering it saw. It broke apart into two pieces. And I tried to show that physical beings can be broken apart, but the human spirit, meaning me, my spirit remains unbroken. And so many others, too.”
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This story originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.