Yitzhak “Jack” Waksal knew he had seen that face before.
The 97-year-old from Bal Harbour focused on the man leaning against the wall, but couldn’t place how he knew him.
But then the man spoke.
All Sam Ron had to do was say one word — “Pionki” — and Waksal knew the connection right away.
“We worked together on a daily basis,” he said of the labor camp in occupied Poland where they spent about a year together.
Ron was an honorary chair of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s South Florida dinner on March 20 in Boca Raton. And Waksal could barely wait until the prayer before dinner was finished. He popped out of his seat and headed straight to Ron, who is also 97.
“You are my brother,” he told him as they embraced. “We were together in Pionki.”
The unlikely reunion of the two Polish men after 79 years happened only a month before the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom HaShoah. The remembrance day was last week.
Robert Tanen, southeast regional director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the story of Ron and Waksal “is compelling because we know there will come a day when Holocaust survivors won’t be here to stand up and tell us their stories. "
“These two men who had to endure unspeakable hardships to make it through the Holocaust are living witnesses who have dedicated their lives to telling their stories to the next generation in the hopes they will truly learn the lessons and create a better world,” he said.
After the war, both started new lives in two different Ohio cities — about 200 miles apart. Then, unknown to one another again, both retired to Florida, one in Boca Raton, the other in Bal Harbour.
“When I saw you, I said, ‘For goodness sake, I know him,’ " Waksal told Ron during a recent Zoom conversation. The two have kept in touch since they first reunited at the dinner.
Tanen said sharing stories of people who not only survived the Holocaust, but then thrived is especially important now as antisemitism continues to rise. In a report by the Anti-Defamation League released last Tuesday, data showed that incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism increased 34 percent from the previous year nationwide. Florida saw a 50 percent increase, according to the audit.
“We are facing an alarming rise of Holocaust denial and antisemitism,” he said. “We have an obligation to remember this history and not let it go unchecked. There are Holocaust survivors in the Ukraine right now having to relive situations and trying to survive yet again.”
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Sam Ron (his birth name was Rakowski, but it later changed) was born in a town in Poland about 20 miles north of Krakow in July 1924.
He says he was a “happy kid” and a “good student.” His father was in the lumber business and he had a younger brother.
When World War II began, Ron and his family hid in a neighbor’s barn for three months. Then they “smuggled themselves into” the Krakow ghetto because they feared being shot.
When the ghetto was emptied in March 1943, Ron was taken to Plaszow, the forced-labor camp featured in the film “Schindler’s List.” He was then sent to Pionki to work at a munitions plant. When Pionki was dismantled in July 1944, Ron was sent to Sachsenhausen to work in an airplane factory.
Jack Waksal was born in Jedlinsk, Poland, in September 1924. He said he had a good childhood, had friends and loved to play soccer.
He remembers seeing the Nazis burn his synagogue’s Torah scrolls in 1939. He and his family — he had an older brother and sister and a younger sister — lived in the Jedlinsk Ghetto before they were transferred to Krusziny, a forced-labor camp.
Waksal said he somehow escaped death when he was forced to kneel by a mass grave. He said he grabbed a guard’s shirt and they both fell in. Waksal then managed to climb out and escape to the forest. In 1943, he ended up in Pionki.
Time at Pionki
The day began at 6 a.m.
Jews assigned to Pionki would wait in line for coffee. Waksal say’s he wasn’t sure if it was actually coffee, but it kept them warm.
Then they would walk a mile from the barracks to the work area. Waksal took the coal off the trains and Ron delivered the coal to the machines that produced ammunition.
He said no one talked or did anything that would get the attention of the guards.
“We were only allowed to work,” Waksal said. “If you did something else , you’d get punished.”
During their recent conversation, the men talked about their long days, limited food and people who didn’t survive. Waksal asked about a police guard and whether Ron was there when a group of 50 workers were killed.
“We are the fortunate ones who survived,” Waksal said.
In 1944, Waksal and 14 others escaped to the forest. Many in the group died, but Waksal managed to stay alive by stealing food from farmers at night. He was liberated by the Russians in 1945.
After the war
After being liberated, Ron became involved with Bericha, an organization that helped survivors from Eastern Europe go to Israel.
He learned after the war that his parents had survived, but his brother had not. His parents immigrated to the U.S. Ron ended up in Israel, where he met his wife, Bilha. In 1956, they moved to Canton, Ohio.
Ron became a developer and had three children. He began telling his story to children and anyone who wanted to hear it. “I don’t care if you laugh or cry as long as you listen,” he said in a video played at the March dinner event.
The couple moved to the Boca Raton area about 25 years ago.
The Rons donated his family artifacts, including 154 photographs, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Waksal’s parents, brother and sisters did not survive the Holocaust. But after the war, Waksal learned a childhood friend named Sabina survived and he found her and married her. They immigrated to the United States in 1950 with their young son, moving to Dayton, Ohio.
His first job was in a scrapyard. Waksal ended up buying a scrapyard and became a successful businessman. He often volunteered and told his story.
Around 20 years ago, he and his wife, who has since passed away, moved to Hallandale Beach. He now lives in Bal Harbour.
“I never would have dreamed I’d be here,” he said.
Finding a lost brother
Tanen said reunions like those of Ron and Waksal are “so incredibly rare today” and serve an important purpose for the Holocaust museum.
“We understand the stories of the Holocaust through one individual story because we can relate to a human,” Tanen said. “We can understand that this happened to other people. This wasn’t in some alternate universe. This wasn’t somewhere in ancient history. This happened to humans just like you and me in the modern world.”
Waksal, who still has dreams about his time in the Holocaust, said it is “unbelievable” being able to reminisce with someone who truly understands what he went trough.
And while they haven’t spoken in eight decades, they have a lot in common — including geography and their dedication to educating younger generations about the atrocities of the time against the Jewish people of Eastern Europe.
“It’s a beautiful thing that all these years later that they can find someone that had this very, very intense, horrific shared experience that none of us can truly understand,” Tanen said.
“I think it’s amazing that at the young ages of 97 they have friends again. It’s almost like no time has passed. It’s never too late to gain an old friend.”
By Carli Teproff