Holocaust survivor was determined to make it out aliveAn audience full of teenagers might seem a tough room to some, but not to Sam Rafowitz. The Holocaust survivor had their rapt attention from the moment he took to the microphone. Rafowitz spent four years in five concentration camps.
Sam Rafowitz spent four years in five concentration camps.
An audience full of teenagers might seem a tough room to some, but not to Sam Rafowitz. The Holocaust survivor had their rapt attention from the moment he took to the microphone.
Rafowitz has a compelling story to tell. When he was just 15, he, along with most of the Jewish community in his native Warsaw, Poland, were forced to leave their homes and move into the ghetto by the invading Nazis. As part of a work detail, he was forced to clean out the homes they left behind to prepare them for Nazis and their families. At first the work earned them some extra food and they were returned to the ghetto at the end of the day.
“But one day when we were finished, we didn’t go back. Instead they took us to be loaded onto trucks and we ended up in Majdanek, Lublin, a terrible concentration camp,” said Rafowitz.
Majdanek was the first of five camps Rafowitz spent the next four years surviving including Dora, Buna, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. From the start, he planned on surviving. He told the students that he decided early on that if you could keep from “getting a bullet,” he would make it out alive.
“So I made it a point to avoid any situation that might be trouble — fights or plans to escape or run-ins with the guards. And I worked. There was a selection process that happened. They would line us up with no clothes on and assess our bodies to see if we were fit to work. If it looked like we could, you were motioned to the right. If they sent you to the left, well, you never saw that person again. They went to their deaths… but if you could work you would survive. They needed us.”
When asked if he ever tried to escape, Rafowitz explained that there was nowhere to go. “We all wore these striped suits and there was nowhere to hide. No one would help outside the camps. They couldn’t risk it. If they were caught, their families would be killed, shot without mercy. Why would families with children do that? I couldn’t blame them. I waited and did what I needed to be done to stay alive.”
“You can’t always be a hero. Sometimes it is heroic just to survive.”
When asked if there were any moments of joy or happiness while he was imprisoned, he said he found a needle and thread and a scissor and, from a pair of discarded pants, he made a beret. He gave it to a “kapo,” a prisoner who was assigned to supervise forced laborers, for some extra bread.
“He liked it so I made others and got bread for myself and my friends. It was something I liked doing and after I came to this country, I started my own hat business and it is still around today.”
Rafowitz told the students that while most of the prisoners in the camps he was in were Jewish, there were also others including German citizens who were imprisoned for standing up against the Nazis. One of his best friends in the camps was a German from Dusseldorf who said one day he would return to his home and run the city.
“He did it. He became the mayor of Dusseldorf. I visited him…it wasn’t the German people who did this. It was the Nazis.”
When asked if he had forgiven those responsible for what happened to him and some six million others, Rafowitz was adamant, “Never, never, never, never, never, never….” For him forgiveness is akin to forgetting. “I saw my aunt and her twin little girls sent to the crematorium. How can you forgive and forget such a thing?”
When asked about his faith in God after what he experienced, Rafowitz did not mince words. He recalled being confined to the barracks at Auschwitz for a week. They noticed the smoke stacks of the crematorium operating around the clock and found out that thousands of gypsies, whole families, were being brought in to be exterminated.
“We sat on our bunks and wondered where is God? How could he let this happen to human beings? Up to today I am still asking the same question. Is there a God?”
Rafowitz weighed only 78 pounds when he was liberated by the British in April 1945. The two weeks prior to liberation there was nothing to eat for anyone including the soldiers guarding the camps. He was 19 and was taken to a hospital where nuns helped him recuperate. When he was well enough, he went in search of his sister who he finally found in Italy. More than 100 members of their extended family “disappeared” in the camps.
Rafowitz said Hitler and the Nazis tried to get rid of the Jewish nation and they might have succeeded but ran out of time. “They didn’t make it. That’s why I am here to tell you my story.”
Rafowitz is retired and lives in Minnetonka. He is the subject of a documentary entitled “Sam Rafowitz: Remaking a Life.” For more information, go to American Jewish News at www.AJWnews.com.