When it comes to speaking publicly about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, Sam Harris is not only compelled to teach his audience, but also to stand as human evidence.
“Here is living proof of what has happened,” Harris said, talking of himself. “Here I am, the voice, the witness.”
Harris, an 80-year-old child survivor of the Holocaust, will be speaking as a part of the community Yom HaShoah Commemoration on Sunday, May 1 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The Commemoration is a collaborative effort of the Nathan & Esther Peltz Holocaust Education Resource Center, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
Also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah is a part of a larger reflective period known as Yamim or “days,” and includes Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Day of Remembrance, and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The purpose of Yamim is to remember the history and struggle of the Jewish people.
Born on May 13, 1935 in Deblin, Poland, Harris was the youngest of seven children, and was only four years old when World War II broke out in 1939. Though he lost his parents and five brothers and sisters, who were killed in a Treblinka death camp, Harris managed to survive four years in the Deblin ghetto and in a Czestochowa concentration camp as a young child. “You don’t forget this when you’re four or five-years-old,” Harris said. “They come to the town with their guns and shoot people and beat people. You would see dead bodies everywhere.”
In September of 1947, Harris came to the United States, where he was adopted and grew up in Chicago. But for part of his life, Harris’s painful memories kept him from speaking about any of his experiences.
“I put this brick wall around me consciously and I didn’t want to think about it so I could progress,” Harris said, adding, “I wanted to be an American kid like all other kids.”
Then in the late 1970s, things changed. Harris began speaking out after the publication of “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century” by Arthur Butz, a book refuting the existence of the Holocaust. Harris also devoted his time to help build the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Illinois along with other Holocaust survivors.
“It was very important to me that what happened to me as a child didn’t happen to anyone else, Jewish or not Jewish,” Harris said of his motivation to begin speaking publicly.
Recalling the numerous talks he has given to high school students, Harris remembered a specific question from a student in the audience, who asked, “If you met Hitler and he had five minutes to live, what would you do?”
Harris responded, “I’d wait five minutes.”
Now the author of “Sammy: Child Survivor of the Holocaust” and the subject of a film about his life titled “Sammy the Journey,” Harris continues to speak when he can, hoping that others will learn from his experiences. “People want to hear about the little boy Sammy,” he said, noting “I have to say ‘little boy Sammy’ — if I start thinking about me, I would cry. I just want to deliver the message.”
Harris stated that he wants to bring his unique story to the Yom HaShoah Commemoration in May, and he encourages people to attend so that they can take advantage of the opportunity to hear the firsthand account of a Holocaust survivor.
“When I was a kid, I read a book called “Last of the Mohicans,” Harris said. “I feel that I could very much be one of the last.”
Where: Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay