A Holocaust survivor who takes positives from the pain

HOW do you speak about the unspeakable? For more than six decades Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann did not talk about his ordeal in a Nazi labour camp. He would not tell anyone about the medical experiments he was subjected to, the starvation that very nearly ended his life or the terrifying nightmares that followed.

A Holocaust survivor who takes positives from the pain

But a chance encounter with a man of a similar age from the same labour camp at an event in Washington DC changed his outlook.

The 76-year-old Romanian now speaks freely about the subject, giving talks to hundreds of schoolchildren on a weekly basis about hope and forgiveness. He also volunteers for 18 different organisations in New York, his home for the last 25 years.

'We did not deny what happened, we just tried to ignore it and get on with life,' he says, speaking from the home of Islander Angela Francey, his friend who organised his trip to speak at this year's Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Jersey.

'Seldom did my parents talk about any of their experiences. When I was growing up, if they met somebody – friends that were in the same camp or other survivors that they knew – they shielded me away so I could not hear the stories.

'Until 2003, I felt exactly the same way. If someone said, "Your attitude and your behaviour are because of the war", I would say, "What are you talking about?" – I just tried to ignore it.

'I am part of two generations. I am a survivor but I am also a child of Holocaust survivors. For 63 years I did not think I belonged to either generation – I felt I was caught in between.'

Although he says he was too young to remember what occurred when he, his mother and his father were rounded up by Romanian troops and taken to Mogilev Podolski Nazi labour camp in what is now Ukraine, he has learned certain details.

'Fortunately for me, I don't remember anything, and this is a blessing in disguise because I don't have to relive those horrors on a daily basis,' he said. 'From what I was told, my life was extended because I was subjected to medical experiments. I do not know what was done to me, but the side-effects – the head, neck and back problems – I still feel today.

'My parents told me I was dying of starvation and that not far away from the camp there was a farm owned by Germans. One of the women from the farm brought food for the SS and for the Ukrainian guards, and when she saw me, she risked her and her family's lives by giving me milk.'

Mr Steigmann has never managed to learn the name of the woman, to find her in any record books or memorials, let alone meet her, but he says he will be forever grateful for her selfless actions.

'I know that I am alive only because of her. When I was in the garden at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, I saw a stone honouring the unknown people. It made me feel very good that in an indirect way, she was honoured.'

Throughout this interview, Mr Steigmann gives frequent broad smiles and proudly draws attention to his Holocaust survivor badge, pinned to his lapel. But how does he really feel about the genocide of more than six million Jews – is this just a brave face hiding resentment and anger beneath the surface?

'The toughest thing I have ever had to do is to learn not to hate,' he said. 'In my particular case I received reparations from the German government. It was not based on my proof – I do not know of the experiments and what they did to me, I have no documents and I have no witnesses because everybody was gone.

'It was important to me because it was done based on their records and it was a symbolic acknowledgement of what happened.

'People who cannot forgive, cannot forgive themselves – they become angry or depressed. My father's generation could not forgive the Nazis, but most importantly they could not forgive themselves. You meet some survivors who say they will never go to Germany and will never buy a German product. They feel guilty – how come they are alive and so many others aren't? They feel they could have done more to help their friends to survive.

'I had to be separate from my father, because when I was with him I felt the same way. I met a German friend of mine just the other day and we were both laughing. He decided that he was going back to Germany. He invited me and I said I am willing to come.

'I am a Big Apple greeter – I show my city to visitors. I can take whoever I want and I take a lot of German people. German people ask me if I am comfortable to be with them, and I say if I wasn't comfortable, I wouldn't take them on the tour.'

The traumatising events of his early years are not the only hardships he has had to endure during his life. After leaving the labour camp he returned to Romania, growing up in Transylvania. The family later moved to Israel and he went into the armed forces as an engineer, working on aircraft.

As he neared his 30th birthday he moved to America and became an accountant and later a pharmaceutical representative working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He married a Canadian woman and they had a son, but following a bitter divorce, the family became estranged. He very rarely speaks to his son, and it was only through Facebook that he found out he was a grandfather.

'The problem is not that I do not have a relationship with him, it is that he is denying his children the chance to have a relationship with their grandfather,' he said. 'I have tried all kinds of things to get in touch. There is nothing more that I can do.

'As a grandparent, when I go to schools I teach and share, and for those two or three hours, those children become my grandchildren.'

When he moved to New York, he was dealt yet another cruel hand. 'One of my best friends got into trouble and I decided to bail him out and I had to borrow quite a lot of money. Not only did he not repay the money, but I had to repay the bank, and I was left homeless. He really hurt me because he was a person that I would have given my life for.

'I had two options. The first was to think of revenge, and in the process it would have destroyed my life. The second was to forgive him, and in the process to forgive myself.'

Needless to say, he chose the latter.

'Looking back, becoming homeless is the best thing that ever happened in my life. I decided to give back to the city when things changed. I now teach young people not to dwell on the past, but to enjoy the present. When I look in the mirror and I see that person, I like him.'

Given all he has been through, Mr Steigmann's unwavering positivity is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his most remarkable life.

'I am happy. People look at me and they can't believe it,' he said, smiling once more.

'I somehow have that innate ability to bring out the best from the kids. A lot of kids tell me that they changed their perspective on life and that they want to do things that they previously thought they could never do. That makes it all worthwhile. It makes me continue what I am doing.'

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