A SURVIVOR'S STORY
"May we never forget what some of us lost, what we regained and why we have chosen to build our personal and professional lives in ways that honor our history."
Decades after the Holocaust, the admonition "never forget" continues to resonate powerfully. As part of Violins of Hope Cleveland, we wanted to ask survivor and alumnus Dr. Samuel Unger, DMD (DEN '68), to tell his story.
Sadly, he died in July before we could speak with him. Dr. Unger was around 7 years old when Nazis raided his and other Polish towns, including Jedlicze. His family fled into a dense forest. They spent the next four years surviving there and in farmers' barns. Dr. Unger later became a dentist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and served as president of the university's New York Alumni Association chapter.
In 2006, Dr. Unger described some of his experiences in an article he wrote for Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity, the oldest international Jewish medical organization. With the permission of Alpha Omega and Isabelle Unger, Dr. Unger's wife of 61 years, we are honored to share the essay here.
Memories of the Holocaust
As Alpha Omegans, we are united not only by our profession but also by a mission to educate ourselves, and others, about preserving our Jewish heritage. It was with this mission in mind that the Alpha Omegan invited me to share with my fraters a very personal, and painful, account of my boyhood in Poland, where I survived the Holocaust. Among the many gruesome episodes I encountered during the war, two remain vivid in my memories.Although this is not an easy story for me to tell, it is one that ultimately gives me great strength, especially as I prepare to disclose it among my dear friends and colleagues of Alpha Omega. May we never forget what some of us lost, what we regained and why we have chosen to build our personal and professional lives in ways that honor our history.
Before the rise of Hitler, a young man named Chaskel moved from my hometown of Krosno, Poland, to Germany. He lived in Frankfurt, married a Jewish-German girl and built a good business. Before World War II broke, and during Hitler's rise to power, Chaskel returned to Poland. He knew that Hitler would invade our country, but he reasoned that his chances for survival would be better there than in Germany. When Germany eventually invaded and occupied Poland, the Germans were brutal to the Jews. A man named Schmalzler (I am unsure of the spelling) led the Gestapo in Krosno, and 22 of his men were chosen to occupy our community. As the Gestapo's local leader, Schmalzler was rather good to the Jews, compared to his compatriots.
Chaskel's wife, who was Jewish and born in Germany, was fluent in German and was chosen to work as Schmalzler's secretary and also served as a liaison to the Jewish community. Chaskel and another Jew named Shimon were very friendly with Schmalzler. They would often meet with him, and he would feed them information about new orders and the darkening reality of the Jewish people. Because of Schmalzler, Krosno was known to many Jews in other cities as a safer place, relatively speaking, and many Jews from other areas flocked to our town. The Gestapos were given the "privilege" to kill Jews at any time, although Schmalzler tried to intervene, asking his men if they would be willing to rescind this privilege. Twenty agreed, but two did not. Although I hesitate to call it a compromise, it was decided that killings would be limited to two Jews per day.
Those who were killed were often the newcomers, rather than the residents of Krosno. I recall one man who moved from another city; he would quite often come to my grandparents' home to get something to eat. Iremember him telling my grandmother of his life before the war, when he was a balagula, or a person with a horse and buggy who transported goods. I recall him to be a man of anywhere between the age of 30 and 35, tall, with broad shoulders, red-cheeked and strong. One day, as I stood on the sidewalk, the red-cheeked man walked past me in the street and, before my eyes, the Gestapo gunned him down. I remember him falling to the ground and then lying there, blood running from his head. As a boy of nine, I had never seen death. Terrified, I ran from it.
As perilous conditions worsened, many believed that the small towns would be safer and much easier to escape than the larger cities. Consequently, there were many Jews who moved from Krosno to seek sanctuary in smaller communities. Eventually, my family did the same, leaving our home for a tiny town called Jedlicze. Schmalzler advised Chaskel to organize a group of Jews in Jedlicze to work on a large farm that, before the war, belonged to a Polish count. This farm was a few kilometers from Jedlicze and near a large forest. Schmalzler told Chaskel that he might be able to save the Jews working on the farm, because they would be producing food for the German soldiers.
Men and women went to work in the fields every day, receiving only lunch for their labor. Chaskel was in charge of this project, and I was his messenger. One day, Schmalzler informed Chaskel and Shimon that he received an order for the final solution of the Jews in Krosno, Jedlicze and all of the surrounding towns. He told them the day, and the hour, when Krosno and Jedlicze would be surrounded by Germans, and all Jews would be taken away. We were told to expect the raid between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM. That evening, we left the house at midnight and ran for the woods with a few other families, although many stayed behind. My grandmother chose to wait until 2:00 AM to leave, but when the Germans surrounded Jedlicze 2 hours early, at 1:00 AM, she never made it.
Early in the morning, the Jews were rounded up, registered and taken away in trucks. On that day, around noon, my mother asked me to go to town and see if I could find my grandmother. We were in the woods, unaware of what was happening. Because I had very light blond hair and looked like a typical Polish boy, my mother thought I could make my way into town undetected, because the Germans would never suspect that I was Jewish. As I approached the outskirts of Jedlicze, I did not use a road but walked through fields. A gypsy woman was coming from town and recognized me. She told me not to go any further, that the town had been surrounded and the Polish boys who knew me would give me away. She told me that all the Jews, including my grandmother, were taken away.
There was no one left. After telling me to run back to the woods, the gypsy woman left me. I stood alone, looking all around me, at nothing. Suddenly, a man came running toward me, and, as required of all Jews above the age of 12, he wore the Star of David on a band around his arm. I recognized him from town. He was a man of about age 25 or 30, and he told me how the Germans had brutally beaten him and left him for dead. When they left, he had managed to get up and escape.
With his right hand, he grasped my left hand tightly and told me that I had to take him into the woods. He would not let go of my hand. He repeated, "The Germans knocked my brains out &hellips; I do not know where I am or where to go." Quickly, I ran with him toward the forest. I knew that his great height and his Star of David would catch the Germans' attention, even at a distance. We walked through fields and meadows, and by the time we approached the forest, it was late afternoon. The Germans were hunting Jews in the fields, because they knew that some had escaped. They spotted us and fired their shots, hitting this towering man.
As he fell to the ground, his hand still holding mine, the weight of his limp body pulled me down with him. Lying on the ground, I knew enough to stay perfectly motionless, because the Germans would shoot me if they knew I was alive. Lucky for me, they did not bother to confirm our deaths; they presumed that neither of us survived their attack and merely walked away. Lying in the dirt, I did not know if the man whose body had forced me to the ground was wounded, or dead. I whispered to him, although no answer followed. As terror gripped me, I listened to the sounds of shots fired in the distance, presumably delivering similar fates to other people in some other place. Once darkness came, I got up and ran to the woods. Frightened, hungry and traumatized, I stayed in the woods alone until dawn, then returned to the spot where I left my family. Despite Schmalzler's good intentions, the Jews who worked the fields, the ones he thought he could save, were all taken away. He could not even save his own secretary.
Chaskel, my friend who employed me as his messenger, survived the war along with Shimon, and both came to the United States. Chaskel became a wealthy entrepreneur, turning failed New York City hotels into successful businesses. After I had lived in New York for a while, I learned, through channels I have since forgotten, that Chaskel lived nearby. I reunited with him in the late 1960s and met with him for lunch nearly every month at one of his hotels. He filled me with information about the war and its aftermath. As told to me by Chaskel, Schmalzler had been arrested and tried in Germany after the war, but positive testimony from Chaskel and Shimon helped to set him free.
The way I managed to stay alive throughout the war is a story too long for me to even attempt to describe at this time. My involvement in Alpha Omega has always been helpful to me, providing many opportunities to articulate and preserve the Jewish heritage that is very much a part of me. As fraters, we are called upon to fulfill a mission of education, a process that sometimes begins with our own memories.