Sami Steigmann was born in 1939 in Czernowitz, Bukovina. During World War II, he and his parents were placed in a labor camp called Mogilev-Podolsky, which was eventually liberated by the Soviets.
Although he was too young to remember, his parents informed him late in life that he had been subjected to experimentation by the Nazis.
Over the last 70 years, Steigmann has lived in Transylvania, Israel, and the United States. He currently resides in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Decades of nightmares and incredibly difficult circumstances eventually led the Holocaust survivor to become a motivational speaker.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Steigmann.
At the top of our conversation, I asked Steigmann to recount some of his personal story. He began by expressing how unusual it felt to be in between generations. While a survivor of the Holocaust himself, he is also the child of survivors:
Well, I belong to two generations. I’m a survivor but I’m also a child of Holocaust survivors. My parents and I were deported by the Romanians and not by the Germans to Transnistria and a camp named Mogilev-Podolsky. I have no memories of that period of time and my parents did not talk about it; they didn’t speak to me about their Holocaust survival experience. Only after 1961, after the Eichmann trial, did the survivors start to speak; before that, they felt guilty, ashamed, like victims.
I also felt I don’t belong to the second generation because most of the children were born after the war. So, for 63 years, I knew I’m a survivor but I just ignored it – but something happened on the first and second of November 2003. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. closed its doors to the general public for two days, and opened up only to the Holocaust survivors, their children, and their liberators. There were over 8,000 people from all over the world.
Speaking about something being meant to be, at the table where I was sitting, I met a man born in the same city, been in the same camp, the same years, 1941-1944. He was taken when he was 8 months old. I was taken when I was a year and a half.
This is the difference with history and living history. By meeting him, it prompted me not to ignore it anymore, but to do something about it. In 2007, I joined the Museum of Jewish Heritage, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, here in New York, which also happens to be the second largest Holocaust museum in the country. On March 11, 2008, I was given my first assignment to speak to sixth graders.
Steigmann noted that speaking before an audience for the first time was “not the best,” but that something remarkable happened after he delivered his first speech:
I did not have a story. I did not know that I could tell a story. I did not have any idea what impact I would have on sixth graders, but again, it was meant to be. They sent me thank-you letters – each one better than the other one – but one sixth grader changed my life forever. She wrote, “P.S. Your story was overwhelming, and I promise I’ll pass it on to my children.” Because of her, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to reach as many young people as I can nationally and internationally.
When I asked Steigmann about the importance of young people being educated about the Holocaust, he replied:
Well, first of all, just to preface. I was subjected to medical experiments by the Nazis, yet it was a German woman who saved my life. So, I’m also teaching young people not to stereotype.
Whether you know it or not, one half of the world population does not know that the Holocaust happened; one third believe that it’s a myth, exaggerated; and most of the young people are totally unaware of it. They do not understand that the Holocaust is not only a Jewish issue, because although six million people that were murdered were Jews, they forget that five million non-Jewish people were murdered as well. So, all in all, it is an international issue.
The biggest problem we are having, or having here in the country, and it’s happening again, is that people have forgotten to disagree in a civil way and people react emotionally, and when you are reacting in an emotional way, the facts are blurred. That causes a lot of animosity and hatred.
As a Jewish person, I do not fight anti-Semitism, which may surprise you, because that refers only to one group of people. I fight hatred. No group of people, no person, should be persecuted or should be demonized.
I’ve been invited to go to Germany, and in my opinion the children and grandchildren of the high-ranking Nazi criminals are not guilty of anything. However, what I want to do is I want to make sure that the young people will not follow in the footsteps of their parents or grandparents.
To know the history of the Holocaust is mandatory because without knowing the history, they will not be able to understand it and to fight it.
Steigmann remarked that young people need to know that the Holocaust wasn’t something that happened in another time, far removed from ours:
I believe it was a sixth grader maybe, he looked at me and said, “You look so young.” He realized for the first time that this was something that happened not long ago. It’s not history that happened centuries ago.
He went on to state that there are many atrocities in the world, from the Armenian genocide to modern-day terrorist attacks, but the “Holocaust is a unique moment in history.”
Although there were many groups of people murdered in World War II, only one group was slated to be completely annihilated from the face of the earth initially in Europe and then the rest of the world, and those were the Jewish people.
Steigmann added that to compare the Holocaust with the current refugee issue is “absolutely and totally inappropriate,” and that such comparisons “diminish what the Holocaust really means.”
When I asked Steigmann to speak about a recurring nightmare he describes on his website, and how it impacted his life, he said:
For whatever reason I was naked in the corner of a building. It was pitch dark and the only lights that I saw, the sounds that I heard, were from the explosions, and it felt that I’m in a void, there is nobody there to help me. It’s a nightmare, and although I lived in a very loving family, that feeling of being alone in the void lasted for many, many years. As a matter of fact, even when I was in grade school, I would very seldom associate with children my age; it was always with older ones, teenagers and adults, because that gave me the feeling of being protected. It took many, many years for the nightmare to finally disappear.
In part two of my interview will Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann, which will drop today at 5 p.m. EST, we discuss using education as a means of diminishing evil ideologies, the oppression of an ethnic minority in China, and Steigmann asks me a question of his own.