Sam was born in 1929 in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland. He was one of six children with four sisters and one brother. His parents owned a building with twenty-four tenants and a thriving retail textile business. Sam experienced anti-Semitism even before WWII began. He attended public school, where he was teased and bullied for being Jewish.
The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the day Sam was supposed to start 4th grade. Anti-Semitic laws were enacted, which included that Jews could not attend a school or receive an education. Polish intelligence, including the mayor, were arrested and sent away to an unknown location; many never returned.
In May 1940, during Shabbat, Sam saw Jews being beaten on their way to synagogue. Nazis beat Jews on the street and cut the men’s sacred beards with bayonets. The following day, Nazis burned the temple to the ground. Sam witnessed Jews running in and out of the building, trying to save as many Torah scrolls as possible. The Germans turned the destroyed synagogue into stables for their horses. With the absence of temples, Jews were forced to organize religious services in different Jewish homes, a dangerous act since Jews were prohibited from gathering in groups.
In 1940, Nazi sympathizers took over his family’s textile business. Sam’s family hid the most expensive textiles in their basement. These textiles became crucial for their survival. In 1941, Jews were ordered to enter an open ghetto located in the outskirts of town near the Jewish cemetery. At that time, Jews were still free to move around but ordered to wear an armband with the Star of David. Sam would remove his armband and sell the textiles to other tailors on the street to acquire money for food.
In July 1942, life for Jews became progressively worse. Following a Nazi order, the Jewish council requested all Jews to surrender themselves. Jews were lined up and counted. Anyone who did not show up would be severely punished. The Nazis instructed all the young children and elderly to stand in a line on the left. Sam and his parents were among them. His older sister Chana decided to join them. The rest of Sam’s siblings were sent to the right where they could provide working papers since they were lucky enough to work in a German airforce uniform factory.
Sam sensed that something was wrong. During this selection, trucks with Nazi uniformed men came pointing machine guns. Panicked, people abandoned the lines and began to run. Sam was able to join his siblings without the opportunity to say goodbye to his parents and sister, Chana.
Sam’s parents were forced to wait for their transport in an orphanage in the neighboring town. Luckily, his sister Chaya saw Sam’s father through a window and informed him that Sam was alive. It would be years later that Sam would find out their unfortunate fate. A man who was part of the Sonnderkommando, a Jewish work unit that worked in the crematoriums of Auschwitz, would reveal that his parents’ group was immediately gassed upon arrival at the camp.
Sam and his siblings were required to move to a ghetto. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment with very few rations. Every day, his brother and sisters would work in the airforce uniform factory. They were required to line up outside and march to work under heavy guard. When his siblings were at work, Sam would roam around and prepare meals when they returned, usually consisting of potatoes and cabbage. Sam was secretly able to buy kosher meat on the black market from the money he received selling textiles. If he were caught, Sam would be severely punished or killed.
In the summer of 1943, Jews no longer had access to newspapers or communications with the outside world. The Jewish council announced that they had to evacuate without belongings and march to another neighborhood. After a 2-hour walk, they arrived at the ghetto and were assigned a one-bedroom apartment to live with two or three other families. They could see the police station from their window and quickly learned that if you saw the light on at night, it meant that there would be a selection the following day, and Jews would be shipped off to an unknown place. They set up a 24-hour guard. When the light went on, they would go into hiding in a basement with very little air or space to move.
After three weeks, the council announced that the Nazis demanded that all the Jews surrender themselves once again. They refused. Sam and his siblings concealed all of their remaining jewelry in a coffee can in the basement. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place just a few months before, in April, and the Nazis wanted to make sure this would not happen again and were prepared in full gear.
Jews were marched to another town, where they remained for the night. They slept in homes that deported Jews had already vacated. The following day they were ordered to march to the railroad, where empty cattle cars were waiting to be loaded. They were unsure of their destination, but rumors of Auschwitz had already been circulating. Conditions in the cattle cars were unfathomable. There was very little standing room, food, or water, and unbearable heat. After traveling for seven hours, they arrived at a railroad station with a sign that read “Oswiecim.” Their fears of the rumored death camp were slowly becoming a reality.
Sam was only thirteen when the train arrived at Auschwitz. Jews were forced to exit the train as quickly as possible. Anyone who did not move fast enough was immediately shot. Men and women were separated into two lines. At this time, his older sister Chaya, sensing the imminent danger, instructed Sam to contact relatives in the US or Palestine if he survived. This encounter was the last he would have with Chaya.
Since Sam was small for his age, he knew he needed to be with his brother to survive. Standing next to his brother, Yehudah, he tried to appear bigger than he was. They were ordered to undress and searched to make sure they were not hiding any valuables. They were then ordered to march to Birkenau, stark naked, wearing only their shoes. Sam and Yehudah were tattooed, and their heads shaved. Without hair, Sam could hardly recognize his brother.
All the prisoners were to remain quarantined for four to five weeks to see who was fit for labor. Sam was assigned to barrack 13. The barrack was so overcrowded that ten prisoners slept across one bunk. Thirsty from days without water, the prisoners soaked rags in puddles that pooled from the previous day’s rain. The prisoners used the same rags to alleviate the pain of open wounds caused by merciless beatings. Curfew was at 8 pm, after which speaking amongst one another was prohibited. The guards would hold roll call each morning. Sam’s uncle, who was in the same barrack, was hard of hearing. Sam would signal to his uncle when the guards announced his number. Anyone who did not answer when the guards called their number would be beaten or killed. Unfortunately, like so many others, Sam’s uncle did not survive quarantine and was sent to the gas chamber.
There was a call for tailors to mend German uniforms. Sam and his brother raised their hands, but only Yehudah was chosen. Sam followed Yehudah in hopes that he, too, will able to work. Miraculously, Sam went unnoticed. A shop supervisor took a particular interest in Sam, reminding him of his son. He spoke to Sam in Yiddish and gave him extra food, which he shared with Yehudah. The supervisor taught him how to use a sewing machine, even threading the needles on Sam’s machine. The supervisor’s kindness saved Sam’s life.
Selection took place twice a day. Anyone who seemed unfit to work was pulled out of the line and thrown into waiting trucks. Sam made sure always to stand next to Yehudah, who taught him to stand straight and stick out his chest to appear more robust.
In early 1945, the Nazis moved the sewing factory to a location outside the camp. During his time in the factory, air raids began, and planes flew over the buildings daily. One day a bomb hit the factory as they were working. By sheer luck, Sam had just moved to the other side of the building and was unharmed.
On January 15, the prisoners heard large explosions but were unsure of what was happening. The following day they were woken up at 4 am, and quickly ordered out of the building, and set on a death march. They marched for days, in frigid weather, deep into Germany. The Nazis killed any prisoner unable to keep up. The cruelty continued. Prisoners were given cans with food rations but not given any means to open them, leaving the starving prisoners to open the cans with their teeth.
Once again, they were loaded onto cattle cars, which took them to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Sam saw the devastation and mountain of dead bodies and believed they would not survive. Luckily, the Germans needed machinists and asked if there were any among the prisoners. Although Sam was not a machinist, he volunteered. Sam was sent to Hamburg. It was Easter Sunday, and the German townspeople were exiting the church dressed in their best clothing. Starving and desperate, the prisoners tore into the garbage that sat on the side of the road.
The Nazis knew the war would soon end. They gathered all the children to shower and get cleaned to appear well-groomed and looked after. During this process, Sam had not seen Yehudah in days. Tragically, Yehudah died during this separation. To this day, Sam does not know the circumstances of his death. Sam would be liberated two days later.
On May 1, 1945, his 16th birthday, Sam was liberated from a subcamp of Bergen-Belsen. The British had set up tents for the newly liberated survivors. Sam was ill and malnourished, weighing only 68 pounds and barely able to walk. The Swedish red cross sponsored 10,000 Survivors to travel to Sweden. Recovered, Sam was among the lucky ones chosen. The journey to Sweden took two days. In Sweden, they were greeted by kind faces and a playing orchestra, unlike the one they heard in Auschwitz. The exhausted Survivors found great comfort in this warm welcome.
After the war, all letters from Survivors seeking relatives in the US were directed to The New York Times, which had daily listings of Survivors looking for relatives. A relative in the US recognized Sam’s name and immediately asked Sam to live with them. Sam was sixteen years old and knew he needed to get an education. He decided to stay in Sweden and attend a vocational school to become a machinist and graduated four years later. In June 1949, Sam traveled to his family in the US, where he was welcomed with open arms.
Sam married Bella and had three children. He has three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
What does Auschwitz mean to you?
Auschwitz represents only awful memories. It is a cemetery to me. My will to survive Auschwitz was very strong with the hope that maybe someone from my immediate family would survive. Unfortunately, that hope and belief did not come true. At the age of 16, I was left an orphan, to face the world alone.
My message for future generations is…
My message to the future generations is that as Jews we need to hold true to our roots and know who we are. The Jewish people must support a strong State of Israel so that this cannot happen to them again. The global escalation in anti-semitism is extremely disturbing. We must use technology and social media to spread messages of tolerance, inclusion, and as vehicles to extinguish anti-Israel/anti-semitic rhetoric. Join groups. Take action now!
Who will be accompanying you on this journey?
Bill Bradin, my son, and Rebecca Konigsberg, my partner, will be accompanying me on this journey.
Bill Bradin, my son, was born in the Bronx, NY in 1955. After high school, he made Aliya to Israel and served in the IDF. He is a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel (in the Arava Desert), and built a family in Israel: Ditza Igali, his wife, and his two sons . Bill resides in Suffern, NY and was president of Congregation Shaarey Israel.
Rebecca Konigsberg is my partner of ten years. She escaped Poland in 1940 with her parents when she was five years old. They were in Russia (Siberia) during the holocaust. After the war, she was in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Babenhausen, Germany where her twin brother and sister were born. Her deceased husband, Willie Konigsberg, was an Auschwitz survivor from Czechoslovakia. Rebecca resides in Bayside, NY, and has two sons, four grandchildren, and one great grandchild.