Sam Rozencwajg (photo by Drew Tapley)
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In a decade from now, there will be virtually no one alive with a living memory of this time in history.
Sam Rozencwajg not only lived through this time, but through the worst of it – being captured and imprisoned in various Nazi concentration camps of central Europe, including Auschwitz.
Rozencwajg, who lives in a long-term care community in Toronto, immigrated to Canada in 1952 and is very clear about what “The True North strong and free!” means to him.
“Canada is the best country in the world, where a Jew can live free and be respected,” he said, wearing a baseball hat with a red maple leaf on it.
The youngest of six siblings, Sam was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1926. He was 14 years old when German soldiers invaded his city in 1940, and his memory of the day he was taken from his home is vivid.
“When the Germans came, they put all the Jewish people in a ghetto. They didn’t tell us anything. We didn’t know where we were going. They just counted and counted us. I remember how my heart was pounding from being scared. Every Jew was scared.
“They called out to everyone to open their doors because they didn’t want to smash them in.”
One day, everyone in the ghetto was told to gather in a central location.
“They made us a lot of soup, with potatoes in it. Back then, potatoes were like diamonds because they were very hard to get. We were allowed to eat as much as we wanted because the Germans needed us to be quiet and satisfied so they wouldn’t have to fight us.
“When we were fed, they put us on trucks, which went straight to the train station. On each door of the train was a German soldier. We didn’t know where we were going.”
Sam was on the train by himself. The rest of his family was either in different carriages or different trains; and his parents were the first to be taken away.
“They took my mother and father in a truck, and I never saw them again. After the war, I looked for them, but I knew they didn’t survive.”
Sam’s twin sisters were separated. “Which probably saved their lives,” he said, “as they would likely have had medical experiments done on them.”
Both sisters survived the camps, and Sam was able to briefly see one of his three brothers again. But the reunion was bittersweet.
“I saw my oldest brother in Auschwitz, and he had a rash all over his face. I asked him what had happened, and he didn’t know what to tell me. I know he went to the gas chamber after that.”
Sam was transferred to different camps during the war. He doesn’t remember the names, but remembers them by their numbers – especially Dachau, which was divided into a series of smaller work camps with the explicit purpose of forced labor, brutality and systematic medical experiments. More than 30,000 people died there, and thousands were sick or dying when the camp was liberated in 1945.
“They didn’t know what to do with us. We were marched every day to do labor, two hours each way. The German soldiers were dressed in warm, thick coats and hats. The Jews were dressed in thin cotton pants and shirts with wooden clogs not meant for marching in.
“They made us do work just to punish us: digging holes, throwing in bodies. My father and mother could have been among the bodies. It was miserable to do those things.
“If one of the prisoners fainted, we had to carry them. They would count us out and back again to make sure no one escaped. If you managed to get away, the guards would contact the police and they would find you. It was obvious from our clothes that we came from a camp.”
During the winter, as he walked through snow and ice, the back of his clogs broke off and he came close to losing a foot to frostbite when his heel froze.
“There was a German civilian at the side of the road. I asked him, ‘Can I rest here? Look at my feet, I cannot walk.’ I spoke a little German, and showed him my foot, which was blue. He couldn’t believe it. A guard told me to move on, but the man insisted I be allowed to rest. He was a nice man. I’m not saying all the Germans were bad. Not all of them were Nazis.”
Sam said, “The buildings in the camp were built so that the Allies couldn’t see them from above. The one I was in was like a bunker with a green roof. There were maybe 20 or 25 people in one room, and I slept on wood and straw, with lice biting my body throughout the night.
“You could never speak to the guards…. Because I could understand German, I heard the words they sang about us as they marched. They hated Jewish people. They called us ‘Dirty Jew,’ but didn’t give us the facilities to wash. I remember one day I passed by a shower building and someone told me, ‘Do not be lured in there. They will tell you that you can have a shower, but instead of water they put gas.’”
Sam said that, while millions of Jews and other prisoners died in Nazi gas chambers, most of the prisoners in the camps he was held at died of either starvation or forced labor.
“We were so hungry and thought of food constantly,” he said. “I remember a little boy crying to the Germans, asking them to kill him. He couldn’t suffer anymore, and wanted them to take his life. But I was determined to stay alive and, to this day, I honestly don’t know how I did. You lived minute to minute.”
Sam was so delirious and emaciated by the time his camp was liberated that he retells it like something out of a dream.
“I woke up one day in a real bed with a white bed sheet and pillowcase. I couldn’t believe it.
Three blurred figures stood over me examining my body. Bright lights came from their bodies. I thought I had died and was in heaven.”
It was 1945, and these blurred figures were American soldiers with light reflecting off the buttons on their uniforms.
“I didn’t know that they were American at the time,” said Sam. “I had no knowledge of anything. They asked me, ‘Who did this to you?’ I was just skin and bone. Not a piece of flesh was on my body. I cannot imagine how I survived, and praise God day and night that I could live and build my own family.”
Sam was taken to a liberation camp, but was so sick that he couldn’t walk or digest food.
“I was given real food, but the next day, I had chronic diarrhea. My stomach couldn’t take good food. It happened to all of us like this.”
He soon discovered that his freedom meant there was no going back to the city and the home he once knew.
“We had no homes to go back to because Polish gentiles now occupied them. A nephew of mine went back to Poland, and I asked him to go to the house I used to live in. They had changed the locks and wouldn’t open the door to him. At the time, there was a program where you could go to a lawyer and make a claim to get your home back.”
After Sam gained more strength and weight, he was given passage to Karlstad, Sweden, with the Red Cross, where he lived with a family and was given a job pressing wedding gowns in a factory. He had mastered several languages at this point, which came in useful.
“They treated me like a son,” he said, referring to his adopted family in Sweden. “My wife worked across from me in that factory. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and thought to myself that I must take her out. We went dancing, and soon fell in love.”
Sam’s wife was from Hungary and came from a family of rabbis. They got married in Stockholm, and lived in Sweden for seven years before coming to Canada.
Like his imprisonment, liberation and evacuation to Sweden, the decision to immigrate to Canada was also something that came about suddenly when he found one of his sisters again in the street.
“We found each other, just like that; each thinking the other was dead. She was getting married and moving to Israel (then Palestine) with her new husband. At that time, Israel was calling out to the Jewish people to go and build it as a Jewish land.”
It was then that he discovered his other sister had settled in Canada, where there was a Jewish committee set up to welcome displaced Jews to work as tailors and seamstresses. He got in touch with her, and she arranged for him to come over by boat with his wife and son.
“I was glad to get out of Europe,” he said.
Sam worked in a clothing factory in downtown Toronto until he retired. He had two more sons, and has seven grandchildren.
“Lots of people came out of those camps in really poor health, and I developed a congestive heart condition that I’ve had to live with for the rest of my life,” he said. “The American authorities forced Germany to pay Jewish people restitution, and I still receive a monthly payment that goes a long way to paying for my expenses.”
Despite the hardships he endured, Sam maintains a positive outlook.
“You have to get used to this world to enjoy life,” he said. “I survived because my will was to survive. I didn’t think I would get married and have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I praise God for this. I have learned that every minute can change your life…. It is very important to me to explain my story. I’m not ashamed of it. Let Hitler be ashamed of it.”
Drew Tapley is a Toronto-based journalist.