In the Deblin concentration camp in the spring of 1944, nine-year-old Sammy sensed that something different was happening. He heard people talking with excitement and he could hear vibrations. The war was closing in on Deblin.
The Germans decided to move the Jewish workers from the Deblin camp to Czestochowa, a camp farther away. In that camp the Jews were forced to make bullets for the war.
There were two transports from Deblin to Czestochowa at this time. Most of the Jews were taken in the first transport, about a thousand in all, including most of the 20 children who were in the Deblin camp. All but five children were taken in the first train. The Jews were put on a cattle car and taken away. The people who were leaving were crying and didn't want to go. They knew that the Deblin camp was as good a place as you could be if you were a Jew in Poland, and everyone knew were all of those cars were going that kept passing by.
There was a little Yiddish song about the journey:
Fur jeden Yid ein bitteren ort
Wer geht shon hin
Er kommt nicht raus
Unsere yiden in
Yene seit yam
Sie kennen nicht feelin
Unsere bitter schmerz
Treblinka over there for every Jew a bitter place
Whoever goes in doesn't come out.
Our Jews on the other side of the ocean
They cannot feel our terrible pain.
No one really knew if the first transport was taking people to Treblinka or to Czestochowa. Even young Sammy realized he and his sisters were fortunate not to have to go on that first transport. His new brother-in-law, Walter, a Viennese Jew, was in charge of the bathhouse where the disinfection took place, and this was considered a very important position. Also, he spoke German, and the Germans needed him.
The remaining Jewish laborers, including Walter, Rosa, Sammy and Sara, went on a second train to Czestochowa as the Russians were approaching. They were locked into the cattle cars.
Most of the cars were completely enclosed with barbed wires in the little windows near the top of the cars. I was in an open car with no top. There were a lot of people in there with little room to move around. As we approached the railroad crossing, I could hear bells starting softly and getting louder as we got closer to the crossing. Then quickly the bells would fade away.
Sammy was aware of the constant rhythm of the train, ta tum ta tum ta tum ta tum, as it hit each rail. He could hear the puffing and chugging of the engine. The outside seemed so silent, and everyone was so very cold and hungry.
When they would come close to the crossroads, Sammy heard the children yelling, playing, having fun and the dogs barking. How he wished that he could be out there! Anywhere but here! He wished he were a dog or anything, but not on a train feeling hungry and scared. He didn't want to be one of those people being carried away on the cattle trains with their hands hanging out and crying and shouting. He knew that wherever he was going, it probably was not good.
We were riding at night. When I looked up at the stars, I do not remember seeing the moon. Sometime early in the morning, the train stopped. We were told to be very quiet. When one man stepped on another man's shoulder to look over the side of the car, we heard a shot fired by a German guard. The man was not hit, but he said there was nothing but woods out there. It was quiet and peaceful, almost ominous. After awhile the train started to move and the soot and sparks of the engine sprayed on us again. Our next and last stop was not so quiet. I could hear voices speaking and yelling in German. Then the heavy doors of those freight cars were opened.
Sammy saw people being pushed down a steep wooden ramp from the car, and hit and pushed by the Germans who carried bayoneted guns and whips. Some of them had barking dogs held on leashes.
When the first transport came into Czestochowa camp, a man appeared. It was his job to separate the people, children to the left and others to the right. The children were loaded onto a truck and taken to the woods where they were shot by the German soldiers.
On the second transport from Deblin, Sammy got out of the cattle car, and he was forced to go to the left even though he had stood on the tips of his toes. Knowing he could be taken away if he as too small, Rosa and Walter told him to stand on his tiptoes. That way he would look big enough to be a worker. Sammy strained and strained and tried to look as tall as possible, but the German pulled him away from his sisters and forced him to go to the left along with four other children. Rosa and Sara could only watch and cry.
This was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. People were pushed into separate lines, men in one line, women in another, and children in a third line. There were only five children and I was one of them. The children's relatives were screaming and crying but they were beaten away. I was kicked in the chest by a German. I still remember that shiny boot that was tailored around his leg. I don't remember the pain, just the boot.
The children were placed in a room just outside the barbed wire gates leading into the main camp. Sammy could see the gates through a window in that room. The adults were leaning on the gates, crying, yelling and glaring in the direction of the children's window about a hundred yards away, hoping to see the five children who were taken from them. They knew that the children would soon be taken by truck to the woods and be shot.
Sammy was entirely aware of the seriousness of his situation and distraught at being separated from his sisters. Yet he continued to feel that somehow he would be all right.
In my mind, I did not think of death. I still had faith in my survival with thoughts of crossing the nearby river I saw through the window, of jumping from the trucks and just running. I gave the Ukrainian soldier guarding us a little note to give to my sisters when they were crying by the barbed wire gate. The note, written in Yiddish, said not to worry about me. I would be all right. My sisters still talk about this note.
The children stayed in that room for several days. Crying people continued to flock to the gate, waiting, waving and praying for their release.
One evening, there was a commotion outside. A Jew was arguing in German with an SS officer.
"The papers say Ruthie is to be allowed to stay with me!" shouted the Jew, who happened to be a man of some importance to the Germans. Because of his position, he had been given papers before leaving Deblin that said his daughter would be allowed to stay with him in Czestochowa.
"What is said in Deblin does not matter here!" shouted back the SS officer.
"Then look at the signature and tell me you don't care about that signature!" The Jew thrust the papers at the officer.
The German looked at the papers and then sulkingly shook his head. "OK, she can go with you. But the others stay!"
"ALL THE CHILDREN OR NONE!" shouted the Jew, hoping to allow all the children to be spared. Everyone held their breath, knowing that this man was risking his own daughter's life to save the other children.
"ALL OR NONE!" he shouted again.
This time the German just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Then with a motion of his hand, he nodded to a guard to let the children out.
The children were taken out of the room and led toward the main concentration camp. The people, many of whom had lost their own children, were overjoyed at seeing these little people. Many were crying and praying out loud.
As Sammy passed the barbed wire gates into the camp, he was lifted up, kissed and hugged, and passed overhead from hand to hand. These men and women, who hadn't seen a Jewish child in years, reverently passed Sammy from one person to another, in like manner as the Torah is handed from person to person on the festival Simchas Torah.
The Torah must feel the same as I did when passed from hand to hand. I can still see their faces, feel their love. I have always felt the responsibility, weight and burden of fulfilling their hope. Every year at the celebration of Simchas Torah, I think of the gift of life given to me in the Czestochowa concentration camp.
Excerpted from Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust, © Samuel R. Harris, All Rights Reserved. Bluebird Publishing, 1999.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2008