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Steve Uhlfelder

Out of horrors, a role model

I knew little about my grandparents' deaths in the Nazi camps of the Holocaust until my cousin Sam told me. Hardly anyone in my family ever discussed the horror so many of them suffered.

Sam, who is a survivor of four camps, became my closest friend. He entered his first camp, in 1941, at just 2 years old and was freed at age 7 from Bergen-Belsen. Of the millions of children who suffered in concentration camps, Sam and his remarkable brother, Peter, were among the very few child survivors.

My cousins and my aunt and uncle experienced trauma that no human being should ever have to know. Sam told me about the unimaginable suffering and mass murders he witnessed. They left him with constant fear. To survive in the camps, one had to be vigilant and imaginative. But trauma struck even the smartest and craftiest of people.

Parents were suddenly taken away and killed, as Sam's father was.

For a child of the Holocaust, survival meant suppressing your feelings. How did a 4-year-old child like Sam muster the strength — not to mention the courage — to drag fleshless bodies across barren fields and place them in open graves? How did a child live with gas chambers within yards of where he slept? The stench of the dead and the smoke of the incinerated could be smelled for miles around the camps.

As a parent, you cannot help but think about your own 3-year-old child being forced to witness the murders of family members. I listened to Sam's stories and asked myself what sheer terror must feel like. I tried to imagine my young grandchildren in his place, but it was impossible.

One might think that this lingering nightmare would have made Sam a bitter person, but nothing is further from the truth. He is a loving and caring human being.

Who would have thought that a boy who experienced four years of horror and death would become such an exceptional role model? He is my hero.

Like most survivors, Sam has inner strength and an undying will to live. After they arrived in the United States, Sam and Peter proved to be gifted students and eventually teachers. Sam went on to become a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Despite Sam's strength, the Holocaust remains with him every day. He has many sleepless nights and bouts of severe depression, two of the many vestiges of his years in the camps.

Even though my father escaped internment in the camps before his own parents were killed, I saw some of the same signs in him that I saw in Sam when I was growing up.

Although it is difficult to assess what shaped who I am, I have always believed that the Holocaust is central to who I am. Since they were so young when they entered the camps, my cousins may be among the last survivors. Unless they tell their stories while they are living, those stories will go unwritten, untold, unspoken.

The day will come when we celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Week with only books, pictures and descendants to tell the stories. I want my cousins to live long lives and tell their tales often. I want them to cry out openly when they reveal their memories. I want them to speak loudly about their fellow victims in the camps, those who were killed for no reason other than being Jewish. I want all the remaining survivors, like Sam, to speak of horrors that no one can fathom today.

The Holocaust defied all conventional definitions of trauma. It left millions emotionally wounded. Is it ever possible to heal?

We should remember that no country wanted the Jews . Even though many knew of the horror, very few acted.

We should learn from the lives destroyed. No one speaks more clearly than witnesses and survivors like Sam. Soon there will be no Sams left to tell their stories. We must learn from them now and pass on their legacies.

Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee attorney, is a founder of a national Holocaust Essay Program and the FSU Holocaust Institute. He served as a chair of the Florida Board of Regents and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Out of horrors, a role model 04/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 7:00pm]
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