Professor emeritus survived Holocaust with faith, kindness

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Violent and hateful ideas are attributed to early childhood bullying.

By Lionel Ramos

Not all enemies are evil, a Holocaust survivor and professor emeritus said Nov. 8 in a lecture in Moody Learning Center.

“Some of them are kind and angels,” Dr. William Samelson said to about 50 students and staff while speaking at a ceremony honoring him with the Community Building Award presented by the public administration program.

The award is for positively impacting students and faculty through his work at this college and his many years of sharing experiences, said public administration Coordinator Sylvia De Leon.

Samelson was the department chair of the foreign languages department at this college for about 30 years and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

He was born in Poland, and at about 10 years old was sent to various labor and concentration camps from 1939 until he was liberated by American forces in 1945.

After liberation, he spent 16 months at a school in Wiesbaden, Germany, and two semesters under the wing of philosopher Karl Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg. He traveled to the U.S. in 1948 and earned a Ph. D. at the University of Texas at Austin. He later served in the Korean War.

Samelson credited his survival of the Holocaust to two things: faith and kindness.

“The enemy can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your faith,” he said.

He described a Nazi engineer who asked him to mop the floors in his office.

“If he would have asked if I could fly — I could fly,” he said.

“His soul was given in an angelic way,” he mentioned, pointing out that the Nazi secretly wrapped a sandwich in a newspaper and hid it inside a coat pocket.

Samelson reached for the newspaper excitedly because it was an opportunity to know what was happening in the outside world.

“We did not read or write anything; we knew nothing,” he said. “We thought the Nazis ruled the world.”

“’Come back tomorrow,’” the Nazi told Samelson.

With tears in his eyes, Samelson said, “There were 31 tomorrows, and 31 more sandwiches.”

“He wanted to give others what he had,” Samelson said, referring to what he thought the Nazi’s motives were for helping him, “He had freedom, food, education, everything I didn’t have, and he gave me one more thing: He made me a new human being. I was not a human being, I was a number … ‘Untermensch’ they called us.”

“Untermensch” is German for “subhuman creature” and was widely used by Nazis to refer to Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and people of color.

The people committed to concentration camps never referred to each other as their number.

“Among us, we were human beings,” he said.

He said his grandfather was an academic and religious scholar and that his belief in knowledge and faith in God pushed Samelson though the difficult times he faced in adolescence.

“Education was the price of life in our family,” he said. “If you’re not educated, then everybody is above you. You have to dedicate your life to education.”

Samelson linked ideas such as anti-Semitism and racism to childhood bullying.

“People bully other people,” he said, noting he was bullied as a first- to third -grader in Poland. “Things like that put pressure on a human being, and if you don’t know how to walk away from it, then you stand with it.”

For more information on Samelson and a link to purchase his books, go to


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