Preserving my grandfather’s memory

How a young boy survived the Nazi concentration camps and lived to see his granddaughter fulfill his dream to serve in the IDF.

By
April 4, 2018 12:58
Samuel Gutman in his US army uniform

Samuel Gutman in his US army uniform. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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It's hard enough when people get old and lose their strength. But how can you come to terms with the reality that someone who survived the Holocaust and fought so hard as a child is bound to surrender and disappear from the world as we know it? Last July, a hero, a survivor, and a warrior was taken from this world. Samuel Gutman, Holocaust survivor, US veteran, beloved husband, father, grandfather, or as I call him Zaidy, succumbed to cancer at the age of 84.

My Zaidy was a very likable man and growing up I could never imagine how he could have been tortured by the Nazis and not show a sign of pain on his face. Always happy to see me, with a joke or two up his sleeve, if my mom didn’t constantly remind me of what he went through before immigrating to America, I would have no clue.

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The subject of the Holocaust was barely brought up in front of him out of fear that we would bring up memories that he wanted to forget. My mother tells a story how he never said a word about the horrors he suffered as a child under Nazi Germany rule until they were on a family trip to Israel. They were boating on the Sea of Galilee when a group of Christian tourists beside my family said that they couldn’t imagine the Holocaust could have happened. That was the first time my mom heard my Zaidy’s painful story firsthand.

After spending a year in Israel following high school and experiencing Holocaust Remembrance Day along with Israel’s Remembrance Day and Independence Day, I developed a new outlook on the Holocaust and fully understood that my grandfather’s story must never be forgotten. When I got back to the States, I asked him all the tough questions that I never had the courage to ask, or hear, and recorded his account so that his story will forever be passed on and never forgotten.

 

Born in 1933 in Kelme, Lithuania, Zaidy was just a child when Hitler rose to power.

He grew up as the second to youngest of six children, all girls except for him. There he lived a prosperous life in a prominent Jewish community until he and his family were incarcerated in the Shavel ghetto in 1942.

In the ghetto, Mike Herman, a 16-yearold teenager, instructed Zaidy to lie about his age and say that he was a carpenter so the Germans would send him to work and not kill him. So at the age of 9, my grandfather pretended to be fifteen and a carpenter.

He would wake up at 1 a.m. every morning and work on the railroad tracks outside of the ghetto. After working on the railroad for a couple of months, he went on to work in an airport, which was a five-mile walk from Shavel. Once, on the trek from the airport, Zaidy was punched in the face with an iron glove by an SS officer and got his teeth knocked out. But that was minor, he told me, compared to what happened to the people who couldn’t make the walk and whom the SS officers would “shoot them dead, get rid of them.”

While in Shavel, Zaidy and the rest of his family were able to get together in the evenings. Zaidy’s eldest sister Chaya, who worked on a farm near Shavel so it would be easier for their family to get food, was shot to death in the field by Germans. That was the first member of his family to die as a result of Nazi rule.

In 1944, the Russians were advancing so his family was shipped to Germany in cattle cars, where he was left alone with his father and separated from his mother Sara and his sisters Hindi, Taiba and Leah.

He and his father arrived at Kaufering concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau, located near Landsberg, Germany. There, his father worked as an interpreter in an office so he sometimes was given extra food from the Germans and shared it with my grandfather.

Zaidy barely elaborated on the time he spent in the concentration camp, probably because it was the hardest point of the suffering.

When I asked him more about what it was like in Kaufering, he would skip to another part of the story, likely choosing not to force himself to remember the torture he went through there.

In 1945, Germany understood that they were losing the war and sent Zaidy and his father in a cattle car to the death camps.

While on the train, the Americans bombed the tracks and the Nazis shot everyone trying to run away to the forest and rounded up everyone back into the cattle cars. At the time, Zaidy was sick with typhus and was very weak. He passed out on the road and had bodies upon bodies piled on top him.

Then a miracle happened. A French soldier saw Zaidy, a twelve-year-old body, moving under the pile of corpses and pulled him out by the feet. The French soldier brought him to a farm, where he lived with his girlfriend, and nursed him back to health after two weeks.

ONCE ZAIDY felt better, the war was basically over and he went to find his father in the nearby town of Landsberg. When the two reunited, my great-grandfather fainted.

The last time he had seen his son, there had been a pile of dead bodies on top of him.


 

Together, they went to Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp, where they tried to restart their life. When Zaidy would talk about Feldafing, you would think he was talking about summer camp. The excitement in his voice as he described the experience of driving an ambulance and serving as a police officer can only be understood by the fact that this was his childhood.

His father remarried at the camp, after seeing records showing that my great-grandmother died in 1944. “They killed Jews like nothing but kept records of everything,” were Zaidy’s words about finding out his mother was dead.

 

After four years in Feldafing, Zaidy, his father and stepmother arrived in New York on December 29, 1949, after a 12-day boat ride. It was a Friday night so they decided to go to synagogue. The first one they went to was mixed women and men, which they weren’t used to, so they walked a little more to find another. They went to another shul where my great-grandfather immediately recognized the rabbi as Rabbi Stam of Kelme.

After prayers, they went to Rabbi Stam who escaped to America before the people of Kelme were sent to Shavel. The rabbi helped my great-grandfather get a job at a nearby synagogue, and that was their start in the land of the free.

Zaidy’s first job in the US was fixing watch bands at 75 cents an hour, and then later got promoted to cap maker. At 19, he joined the US Army where he was sent back to Germany as an interpreter. After being honorably discharged as a sergeant, he went to vocational school through the military to learn to be an electrician. He excelled at his profession and worked on some of the largest buildings in New York City. After all, he had been working since he was 9 years old – now at least for compensation.

 

In 1959, he moved with his father and stepmother to Boro Park, Brooklyn. Every day at 4 p.m., Zaidy would come back from work with a newspaper in hand as a 5-yearold girl down the block would wait and wave to him from the window as he walked by. One day, the young girl’s father waited with his daughter to see who the mysterious man is. When her father saw Zaidy, he couldn’t believe his eyes, and neither could Zaidy: Mike Herman, one of the reasons why he is alive today, lives down the block from him in Brooklyn.

While in the land of the free, the terrors Zaidy underwent in Eastern Europe did not disappear. He was always afraid of unprecedented change and sudden instability.

My mother tells me of freezing winter days that he would be the only one to show up to work in fear of losing his job. There was a fear engraved inside of him that suddenly everything can change, and all the good can turn terrible so fast.

When I went into the IDF, Zaidy and I developed a special bond. He told me how proud he was of me and I saw that I was fulfilling my Zaidy’s dream. He was not able to come to Israel after the war, and he has a special appreciation for the State of Israel.

He was excited to talk to me about his time in the US Army, and compare gun models from basic training.

When I came back to New York for a vacation during my service, Zaidy gave me a collage that he made of newspaper clippings and old photos of me in my IDF uniform and him in his US Army uniform.

While simple and made from photocopies, this was one of the most meaningful and precious gifts anyone has ever given me.

The time, thought and intention that went into making me the collage still warms my heart whenever I think about it, and I am forever grateful that I will always have a part of him with me.

 

His loss still stings inside of me, and I don’t think it will go away anytime soon.

Zaidy, thank you for being the best grandfather in the world, for fighting till your very last day, for your courage to carry on and make the best out of life. And I will remember every day.

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