When Sam Harris '58 was a student at Grinnell, he did not talk about the first 12 years of his life.
At Grinnell, Sam was a popular, well-liked, social kind of guy. He studied hard, having transferred from the University of Michigan after just one year because fraternity life there left him with a less than stellar grade point average.
"I worked pretty hard at Grinnell, because there was nothing else to do," Sam laughs. But still, he says, "It's very close to my heart, Grinnell. It was the best place in the world for me—I could be me."
But still, he kept his secrets.
"I wanted to put a cement wall around my head," he says.
Behind the Wall
What—or who—did Sam keep locked up behind that cement wall?
A little boy, ragged, thin—starving, in fact. A little boy named Sammy, Sam's younger self. A four-year-old boy whose life changed forever when he looked up into the sky above his little Polish town of Deblin to see Nazi aircraft overhead.
"The planes started shooting at us," Sam says. "That's when my life began to change."
Sammy's sister Sara saved him then, pulling him to safety when he would have continued staring at the planes, fascinated. It was the first of many times one of his sisters would save him.
The little Polish town where Sammy had been so happy living with his family changed dramatically when the Nazis arrived. The Germans brought with them brutality and hate. "They particularly picked on my father because he was a holy man," Sammy says. His father was a scribe who spent his days painstakingly copying the Torah, letter by letter.
Life within the Jewish ghetto in Deblin was appalling—crowded, isolated, and hungry. The Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing, and if they were caught outside the ghetto without the star, it meant almost certain death. But without food, death came as well.
"You had to be brave," Sammy says. He and his brothers and sisters would sneak out of the ghetto to find food, mostly potatoes. Sammy, being small, became an expert at potato stealing. He could fit into small places where older people could not.
In 1942 the Germans rounded up the Deblin Jews who had not starved or died of disease and lined them up to board the cattle cars that would carry them to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Sammy and his family were packed into those lines, with little Sammy pressed so tightly in the crowd that he had to look straight up in order to breathe.
Sam later wrote, "As I stared into that sky, I remember thinking and praying. Something told me that I would live and be okay. This is the only time I really prayed so deeply and felt some communication and assurance. It was as though an angel was reassuring me."
Sammy's father pushed the little boy out of the line and urged him to run and hide with his sister Sara, who was crouched behind some bricks. The two children watched as almost everyone they knew trudged, crying and wailing, onto the cars.
It was the last time they saw their father, two sisters, and a brother.
Rosa, the Angel
Sammy and Sara's older sister Rosa became their savior. Smart, strong, and resourceful, Rosa was chosen to work in a nearby slave camp. Although the work was brutal and conditions were dreadful, it was actually a relatively good place for a Jew to be in those times. "She would share her food—very little—with us," Sam remembers. "She's the one who saved me—without her, I'm dead."
At first, Sammy and Sara tried to hide from the Germans outside the camp. The murderous Nazi sweeps through the community left piles of the dead lying in the streets, and Rosa, who now lived inside the concentration camp, smuggled Sammy inside to comparative safety. Since children could not work, he spent his days and nights hiding from the guards, who would shoot children on sight.
Jews who tried to escape were hung, their bodies left swinging as a warning to the others. Those hanging bodies frightened Sammy so badly he was afraid to leave the barracks at night to use the latrine. Bedwetting was nothing compared to confronting the dead bodies outside. But lying on the wet burlap and straw, dripping on the bunk underneath, brought Sammy lice, pain, and infection, as well as the wrath of the person beneath. "I do not remember the physical pain, but the fears and embarrassment I felt then were the worst of my life," Sam later wrote.
Sammy was able to put his skills as a potato thief to work in the camp as he had in the ghetto. Occasionally a freight car full of potatoes would roll into an area just outside the barbed wire gates. Sammy could slip through the barbed wire, climb to the top of the potato car, and bring back as many potatoes as he could carry. Of course, the risk was great.
Sam later recalled, "Suddenly from nowhere a soldier yelled, grabbed me by the arm and held his revolver right in front of my eyes. I was shaking frantically, filled with fear. Looking into his eyes, I saw the most cold, reptilian look I had ever seen in a human being. I didn't know what to do. Then the soldier let go of my arm. His revolver was still pointing at my eyes. I wondered if I would die. Instead, I turned and ran as quickly as my feet would carry me. He chased me. I ran into a wide and deep ditch and had trouble climbing out at the other end. The soldier stopped in front of the ditch just as I made it over the other side. He must have decided to let the little scared fellow go. I can still see the barrel of his revolver. I shake to this day when I think of it."
One of Those Lucky Guys
In 1944 the Germans moved the Jewish workers from the camp at Deblin to Czestochowa, where they worked in a bullet factory. As 1945 arrived, the Jews could hear the fighting outside the camp and see the Germans inside becoming nervous and uncertain. On Jan. 17, 1945, Sammy and his sisters were among those lined up to board the cars to Auschwitz and almost certain death, farther from the fighting. At that moment, the Russian army arrived, led by a general who pushed farther and faster than his comrades. The Germans had to run.
Sammy and his sisters were liberated.
"The luck is so phenomenal," he says. "Maybe I'm one of these lucky guys."
Certainly he was one of very few children to survive the Holocaust.
Sammy, Sara, and Rosa survived difficult times after the liberation, but nothing like what they had already been through. Reluctantly, Rosa put Sammy and Sara in an orphanage in Lublin, promising to come back for them as soon as possible. She made good on her promise after she saved enough money to bribe the Russians to get them out. They were smuggled out in a truckload of barrels of oil and gas.
The two children lived for a time with Rosa and her husband, Walter, in Vienna. But again, Rosa unwillingly decided that it would be best for Sammy and Sara to leave post-war Europe, which was anything but kind to the Jews.
Sammy was 12 when he left for the United States to be adopted under the auspices of the U.S. Committee for Care of European Children. He arrived in New York City knowing three words of English: yes, no, and Coca-Cola.
An American Kid
Sam was adopted by a Jewish family in Northbrook, Ill., Dr. Ellis Harris and his wife Harriet Golden Harris. He had a little sister, Sue, and a dog, Jimmy. Sam describes the first time he saw his new home in America: "We walked around the beautiful grounds. Many tall yellow daffodils were blooming in the wooded lot next to dense forest. Other spring flowers were beginning to bloom. The air was cool and crisp. I was walking with my new dad, trying to stand tall and pretending to understand what he was saying. I walked around my new home. It was a piece of heaven.
"It's like a bird being kept in a cage," he says. "Suddenly you're out—wow!"
At that moment, Sam left his old life and the poor hungry bedraggled little Sammy behind. "I was like other children at last."
His new mother wrote to the social worker: "He unpacked his clothing with dispatch, showed us his few treasures and pictures brought from Europe, gave to Susan little things he said he didn't want, and when he was finished, gave me his two suitcases with instructions to throw them out because he never wanted to see them again. He definitely was locking the door to his past."
That's when Sam erected the cement wall around his head, around the part of him that had lived through worst the Nazis could devise.
From then on, nothing could stop 12-year-old Sam. He quickly learned English, made friends, and became good at sports. He studied hard at school. "I had a lot of catching up to do," Sam says.
He excelled in Boy Scouts and won the coveted American Legion Award at his school. Sam went on to attend New Trier High School, in Winnetka, Ill., a school of excellent reputation. "I took advantage of everything the school had to offer," Sam says. He played sports, appeared in plays, and served on the student council and as president of his class.
After graduation and a one-year stint at the University of Michigan, Sam arrived at Grinnell. He worked hard and flourished, but told no one of his early life. He read and wrote a bit slower than some of his classmates, since English was not his native language, but none of his professors knew why. Sam recalls an essay exam he took in Darby Gym in which he revealed that he was not originally from the United States. Upon reading it, the professor remarked, "Ah ha! So that's why you have trouble with essay tests!"
I Owe It—I Survived
After Grinnell, Sam says, he wasn't quite sure what to do with himself. After losing one job opportunity because a written test was required, Sam applied for a job with the Equitable Life Assurance Company. "Don't give me a test, and I'll be the best guy you have," Sam told the interviewer.
He got the job, and made good on his promise.
Sam rose from agent to district manager and eventually agency manager. He became a life member of the Million Dollar Round Table and qualified for the Equitable Hall of Fame.
"I had goals big enough to get excited about," Sam says.
But business did not consume his life. Sam and his wife Dede raised a family, David and Julie, and later became grandparents. They have been married 39 years.
Sam remains extremely active in his community. "I feel I owe it. I owe it—I survived," Sam says. He served on the boards of Spertus College, Forest Hospital, and South Central Bank. He was an active Rotarian and president of Northbrook United Way. He was a commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America for the northern suburbs of Chicago and vice president of the local chapter of B'nai Brith. Sam is vice president of the board of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, and has recently been elected to be in charge of creating a Holocaust museum in the Chicago area.
I'm Here, I'm Happy
But through it all, little Sammy remained behind the cement wall. Sam never spoke of him. Sammy was left behind.
It took Dede, Sam's wife, to reunite the man and the little boy. Dede, a social worker, teacher, and artist, recognized that something was missing in all Sam's success. She gently asked Sam about "little Sammy," carefully probing behind and beyond the wall.
"She asked me about 'this little Sammy I never liked,'" Sam remembers. "She kind of put together the little boy and the man."
With Dede's help, Sam was able to look beyond what he saw as the ugly, pathetic, skinny little wretch and recognize the bravery, heroism, and perseverance of the little boy. "He became sort of a part of me," Sam says.
Sam's sisters, Sara and Rosa, both survived the war. Sara was also adopted by a Chicago-area family. She still lives there today with her husband Herb, with whom she raised three children. They have five grandchildren. Rosa still lives in Vienna, and although her husband Walter is dead, she is near her two sons and her grandchildren.
Sam went on to write a book for children about his experiences, titled Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust. He frequently speaks to young people at schools and other organizations, and his message is poignantly clear: Life is good if you let it be.
In 1985 Sam attended a gathering of Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia, and he was interviewed by U.S. News & World Report. "America made everything possible for me. I wrestled in high school and college, played football and baseball. I was an American kid. It was easy for me to forget, and I did for 40 years. But I really care that it should not happen to other children—Jewish, black, or Christian. Democracy is the only thing that can help us prevent it. When I went to Philadelphia, I went to mourn the deaths of 6 million—but also to celebrate for those of us who are alive. I feel we outwitted the evil that always tries to win over good but never seems to in the long run.
"If any SS are still around—tell them I'm here, I'm happy."
Sammy tells the story of the move to Czestochowa in Chapter Five of his book Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2008