Sam Weinreich was born on September 3, 1919 in Lodz, Poland. Lodz, had the second largest Jewish population in Poland. Sam’s family consisted of nine children (5 boys and 4 girls) and he was the sixth child. His father as well as all of his married siblings and their spouses worked in the furniture business. Each one owned their own store in which they sold new and used furniture, crystals, figurines and other such things.
Sam’s father prayed in a religious steibel. Growing up, Sam was a member of the synagogue choir, singing for many years at one of the most famous synagogues in Lodz. Lodz had three of the nicest and largest synagogues in all of Poland.
The first day that the Germans invaded Lodz in 1939, the janitor of the apartment house in which they lived, knocked on the door. It was early in the morning, and he told everyone to look outside and see how red the sky was from the burning synagogues. It wasn’t long after this incident that they received another knock on the door. A man from the Polish government announced that everyone who was able to bear arms should march toward Warsaw where the Germans were currently situated. Sam’s father refused to go, saying “Whatever will be, will be.” Sam and his younger brother immediately began the long journey towards Warsaw on foot. As multitudes of people were walking on the road, Germans flying in planes, shot machine guns on all those below. Everyone quickly laid on the side of the road until they saw it was safe to continue their journey by night in the dark. They later learned that the man that knocked on the doors advising that they all make this journey, was in fact a German spy who saw this as an easy opportunity to launch an attack on the Jews. After 3 days of walking, they finally reached Warsaw. Sam and his brother went to stay by their grandfather who lived there. Weary from the long journey, they went to sleep. They slept heavily and were awakened by the apartment they were in being bombed with half the building torn to shreds. Luckily, Sam and his brother were not hurt. After a few days, the people of Warsaw grew worried because their food rations were very meager and with all of those who had journeyed from Lodz, there was not enough food to spare. The people from Lodz were encouraged to return home.
On the way back to Lodz, Sam and his brother had no choice but to travel through German lines on the outskirts of Warsaw. They were captured by the Germans and gathered into a big barn with other travelers. The barn became full of people and there was only room for standing. Rumors began to circulate that the Germans were going to set the barn on fire. However, morning came, and to their surprise, all the people were freed. Sam and his brother returned home safely . While they were gone, they learned their sister would go everyday to check dead bodies to see if any could be them.
For a short while, life went back to whatever was normal at that time. Soon a curfew was declared stating that Jews were only allowed out from eight in the morning until five in the evening. They were ordered to wear yellow stars on their clothing as well.
At the beginning of 1940, a decree was issued that Jews must abandon their homes and businesses and move into the Lodz Ghetto. Two of Sam’s married brothers and their families moved in with them. The Lodz Ghetto functioned like a small self-government. The Jewish head of the Ghetto was called Rumkowski, Part of his job included giving over elderly people and children to the Germans. Everyone living in the ghetto had to be useful in some way. Since Sam had a lot of experience in the furniture business, he worked in a furniture finishing shop.
In 1944, a decree was issued that everyone in the ghetto was going to move to a new location where they would be working in better conditions. Every day, more and more people were evacuated from the ghetto. Sam’s mother and several siblings had already died from hunger in the ghetto. Sam’s father felt he was to old to travel anywhere and Sam’s sister decided to stay behind with him. Sam put on his best suit and walked to the train where he received a loaf of bread and some honey and was put in the cattle cars going to Auschwitz.
When the transport arrived in Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp Auschwitz, the doors of the cattle car were opened and they were greeted by Dr. Mengele and his dogs while they went through a selection process. Sam was sent “right” , and that meant he was sent to a barrack to strip. He then had his head shaved and was sent to the shower. Afterwards, they had to run wet and naked to another building. There they received a jacket and a pair of pants. The jacket had a number on it and that became his new identity. The next morning, everyone stood in line to receive a bowl of soup to pass around. They weren’t given a spoon and had to sip it. By the time it reached the last person, there was usually none left.
Three days after arriving in Auschwitz, Sam was sent to Kaufering, one of the eleven branches of Dachau. By the end of the war, only two branches of Dachau remained. In Kaufering, Sam worked building airplane hangars out of concrete and steel. The work was three stories high and everyone was carrying at least fifty pounds of cement on their backs. The work was very tiring and many jumped to their deaths into the cement.
One day when Sam was walking to work, a farmer who lived nearby threw some potatoes and carrots over the fence. Sam picked up a potato and hid it in his pant leg that was tied at the bottom with a string. When they were walking back to camp, a guard noticed he had something hidden, The guard searched him and the potato fell out. The guard knocked Sam to the ground and kicked him in the mouth, knocking out seven of his teeth.
On Sundays in the camp, there was no work. A fellow prisoner who recognized Sam from singing with him in the Lodz synagogue choir, told Sam to come with him to sing for some Jewish Czechoslovakian doctors. The doctors were treated better than everyone else in the camp and received more food. Every time Sam would sing for them, he would receive an extra piece of bread and extra soup. Sam credits these extra food portions with his survival.
As the Russians were advancing, the Germans tried to liquidate the camps. They told the prisoners to take a blanket and run towards an open top train that was waiting for them. As the train was traveling, it was shot at from planes above and came to a stop. People quickly jumped off and some ran into the forest. After the shooting stopped the Germans called everyone back. While some went back, Sam and another prisoner went deep into the forest where they laid down and covered themselves with their blankets. They remained in the forest for two days in the pouring rain. When they finally saw that it was safe, they got up from their hiding place and walked until they saw a farmhouse and a soldier standing nearby. They were not sure if it was a German Soldier or an American soldier, but at that point, they no longer cared. As they got closer, with their hands raised in the air, they realized it was an American soldier. He brought them inside to the kitchen and got an American Jewish soldier who was able to speak to them in Yiddish. This is when they realized they were liberated. Slowly, they were fed special foods to they could regain their strength.
Sam then went to live in a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. The camp functioned like a small city and had it own police, government and even a theatre. Sam worked there as part of the sanitation police. He also performed in several plays while he lived there. In the displaced persons camp he met another survivor who would be come his wife and life partner, Frieda Gola. They married on September 3, 1946 and just celebrated their 73rd anniversary on the same day that Sam celebrated his 100th birthday.
Sam and Frieda were both the sole survivors of their respective families. They were relocated to Memphis, Tennessee because there were many furniture factories there where Sam would be able to find work, since he was a furniture finisher. Sam and Frieda built a nice life for themselves in Memphis, Tennessee and raised their family of 3 daughters and 2 sons there. They still live in Memphis and are active in the community and speak about their experiences during the Holocaust in schools and other venues around the city.
What does Auschwitz mean to you?
I lost my freedom, I had to obey orders, I became a slave. After the selections, I knew it was a death camp.
My message for future generations is…
People should eradicate hate towards other nationalities. There should be no more wars…no hate.
Who will be accompanying you on this journey?
Elaine Katz, my youngest daughter.