On Tuesday, December 15, Blanco High School had a visit from a special guest speaker. His name was William Samuelson; he lives in Boerne, but he’s traveled all across the United States telling his extraordinary tale.
His story is of how he, a Jewish boy of only 11, and his family journeyed from their small Polish border town to Buchenwalt (a Nazi concentration camp) and, eventually, to America during the time of the Great War. He is a survivor of the Holocaust.
We, student body and faculty alike, attended his speech and listened intently as he told us about how he and his family had run from their hometown to the center of Poland when Hitler was coming into power, thinking that outside allies would defend them before Poland was captured. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Soon, enemy dive-bombers initiated a dreaded blitzkrieg upon the city, obliterating buildings and scattering innocent people. Calmly, he told us how people rushed toward bomb shelters, only to be captured by oncoming foot soldiers.
He went into depth on how the “ghettos” they were forced to inhabit functioned. With little food and tight conditions, these ghettos were constantly monitored. Speaking of rebellion or blasphemy was harshly punished. Anyone who was fortunate enough to escape the boundaries of these areas was to be found and hanged at a central square to prevent recurrence. As he spoke, you could clearly imagine how much a loaf of bread and meat, given as reward to people who cooperated with SS officers, meant to people in such conditions. Although these conditions were intense, things became even worse for these people; after a while, they were told they were being relocated to better facilities with better living conditions, when instead, block by block, people were loaded onto trucks with up to 50 pounds of belongings, and deceived.
These trucks led to railroad stations where the passengers were loaded into boxcars, with standing room only, up to 125 people per boxcar, only to be shipped away with their things left behind. The air in our cool little high school cafeteria was tense as he described how they were unloaded to one of the camps. Disbelief filled his voice and my mind as he illustrated the sight he beheld that day: one man standing in front of a line pointing those incapable of work in one direction, the able to the other. As he stood in line, he said that it occured to him that this man carried the power of life and death in just one finger. The ones who were able to work continued to the camp. The ones who were not were sent to an incinerator.
Those in the audience became emotional, with tears welling up in their eyes, as he related to us how he and his brother were separated from their mother and young sister. He, his brother, and his mother were deemed capable of working; however, his seven-year-old sister was too short. Although his mother was given a reprieve, she chose to accompany her daughter into the incinerator.
The brutality of this solemn time in history is only realized fully when a man who experienced this so many years ago is reduced to tears, even after telling the story many times. The fact that height was enough to execute somebody brings the evil into perspective; the reality of the atrocities was harsher than my previous understanding. In all of this darkness, though, he tells us that not every soldier was evil. The main reason he and a few others survived the next few months is because of one special officer. This officer relieved him from his assigned job of producing triggers for rocket launchers to make him clean his office every day. The sanction he offered from labor wasn’t what helped him survive, though; it was a sandwich. Every day this man would leave William a sandwich in a coat that he left on his coat-rack to eat and split with the others he lived with. This continued until Samuelson was liberated a few months later. He never learned his savior’s name.
Dr. Samuelson concluded his speech by telling us that his first priority upon being freed was to continue his education. He did so, and, after a while, found his father, who then came with him to America. He has written several books and now appears at schools such as mine to educate people about the Holocaust and share his experiences.