Holocaust survivor said kind people helped him survive

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Holocaust survivor William Samelson, a professor emeritus of the foreign languages department, recounts his experience Tuesday in Oppenheimer during a leadership series for the public administration program. When Samelson was a boy in Poland, he played his violin for Nazis. After about 10 minutes, a Nazi officer smashed the violin on Samelson’s head. His brother later told him he saw several Nazis with tears while he played. Samelson said he played to save lives. Read the story online.  Photo by Daniel Carde

Holocaust survivor William Samelson, a professor emeritus of the foreign languages department, recounts his experience Tuesday in Oppenheimer during a leadership series for the public administration program. When Samelson was a boy in Poland, he played his violin for Nazis. After about 10 minutes, a Nazi officer smashed the violin on Samelson’s head. His brother later told him he saw several Nazis with tears while he played. Samelson said he played to save lives. Photo by Daniel Carde

Professor emeritus described his experience in concentration campus for a public administration leadership event.

By Sabrina Griffith

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

Kindness from captors helped a professor emeritus from this college survive concentration camps during the Holocaust during World War II, he told students March 24 during a lecture that is part of a leadership series for the public administration program.

“Had there not been kind people with kind deeds, we would not have survived,” Dr. William Samelson, retired foreign languages professor, said in Oppenheimer Learning Center.

One of the Nazi supervisors, an engineer, was one of the good people, he said. When Samelson looked in his eyes, he could see kindness.

The engineer asked if he could mop the floor, and Samelson said yes even though he noticed the floor was clean and he had never mopped before.

Samelson said he learned to never say no when asked to do something no matter how difficult the task.

After mopping, he found a newspaper with a sandwich on it, and he was very hungry, so despite the risk, he ate it.

“If I am going to die, I will die with a full stomach,” he said.

The engineer told him he did a good job and to come back tomorrow; the next day there was another sandwich. Samelson said there were 32 tomorrows.

That engineer prolonged lives, but Samelson never got his name.

When Samelson was 10, he began to follow Adolf Hitler’s speeches on the radio.

He said Hitler spoke about hatred and called Jewish people vermin.

Samelson said his family was of modest means. His father was a tailor who made women’s clothing and his mother helped his father’s business in the evenings after she put the children to bed.

Samelson said the Germans first attacked Poland around 5 a.m. Sept. 1, 1939.

“It was a terrifying experience,” Samelson said.

Samelson said the Polish government had made preparations but it was overwhelming and people where running to bomb shelters when they heard the sirens.

Soon bodies were lying on the cobblestone streets, and there was blood everywhere.

Before the attack, he looked at one of the Nazi soldiers and noticed a belt that had an eagle holding a swastika with a saying in German that said “God with us.”

He told his grandpa and grandma he saw people who believe in God so they cannot be evil and will not do his family harm.

When another group of soldiers came, called the Schutzstaffel (SS), so did 40 acres of fence.

The Jewish people who lived around that area were moved into the fenced area called Pioerkow and had to share their apartments. This was the first ghetto established in the war.

They were given food rations and had a few nurses but no doctors.

Samelson said some of the concentration camps set up by the Nazis were labor camps and others were extermination camps.

A schoolmate’s father told them when he went out on job trips he would see what he thought was a factory because there was smoke coming from a chimney, but once he smelled that air, he came to the realization it was burning flesh.

Samelson said the man could never forget that day.

“When you smell that terrible smell, it will never leave your nostrils,” the man told Samelson. “For the first time, we knew we were being exterminated.”

Samelson had separated from his family for the first time, and each moved from one camp to another.

When Samelson and his family were first separated, one of the officers motioned people left and right, and people started to realize the elderly, disabled and mothers with small children were moved to the left, while the healthy were moved to the right.

Samelson said when he was at the front, he was considered “qualified” and was holding a violin his grandfather had taught him to play, and the officer told him to play something. He played all the German composers and Hitler’s favorite songs.

Some of the SS soldiers had tears.

“I thought when I was playing that I would save some lives.”

However, the officer who asked him to play took the violin and smashed it on his head.

Meanwhile, he said his mother was either to go right or left, but to go right she had to “throw away her trash,” and the officer pointed at his little sister.

Instinctively she went to the left, and Samelson and his family never heard from either of them again.

Samelson was transported to a concentration camp where he worked with dangerous chemicals and almost starved. The kind engineer helped him survive.

On May 1, 1945, he and his brother were hiding in a barrack and saw boots that did not belong to Nazis. They realized it was an ally who came to help them.

The man carried both of them to an ambulance. He spent 6 ½ months in rehabilitation.

In 1948, he came to the United States with nothing but a promise to himself to graduate high school with his German peers in about a year and a half.

He had to have a tutor because he hadn’t been to school in 6 ½ years. He said the tutor taught him how to learn academic subjects and how to love again.

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