Samuel Heider lost three sisters, three brothers, his mother and father, and an infant nephew in Nazi concentration camps.
He was the only one in his family who survived.
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Heider, 92, of Dayton, spoke emotionally of his treacherous journey through the depths of the atrocities of Nazi run concentration camps over five years at a “Voices of the Holocaust” forum Wednesday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
German dictator Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime killed more than 6 million Jews and millions of others in concentration camps in World War II.
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Along with Heider, Renate Frydman, of Dayton, whose family fled Germany when she was an infant as the Holocaust unfolded, and Ira Segalewitz, 81, of Kettering, related his own and his mother’s survival in a Russian work camp during the war to more than 400 people at the museum.
Frydman told of her late husband, Charlie, who survived Nazi work camps and fled into the forests of Poland for three years where he fought the Germans until the war’s end.
“The stories of the Holocaust are so amazing and have to be told as long as we can tell them,” she said.
Atrocities of the Holocaust
Heider was born in Poland but never returned after surviving the Holocaust. He endured beatings, disease and death marches that killed many while in captivity.
For decades, he said, he could not talk about what happened to him or his family.
In his first brush with the Gestapo, the matriarch of a Polish family jumped in front of him with German guns drawn on him after she inadvertently said his Jewish name while they worked in a farm field.
“She saved my life by risking her own,” he said.
Heider would soon never see his family again.
In 1941, the Nazis confiscated his family’s farm. They were sent with thousands of others to a Jewish ghetto in Bialobrzegi in Nazi-occupied Poland until they were dispersed to concentration camps and faced near certain prospects of death from gas chambers or guns. “From then on, I never saw my mother or my whole family ever again,” he said.
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When he learned of his parents’ deaths at the concentration camp at Treblinka, “I was crying and crying until there was no more tears in my eyes,” he said.
In 1942, he was sent to a munitions factory in Radom. “We were making guns for the Germans so they could kill Jews,” he said.
He was beaten by police.
With Russian troops advancing on Radom, in 1944 he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Decades later, he remembered how he was given a half of loaf of bread when he and his fellow prisoners arrived.
“We said to ourselves, ‘This cannot be Auschwitz,’” he said. “But this was German psychology. They would give us bread in the morning, and send us to the crematoriums to the evening.”
While at Auschwitz, Heider came face to face with Nazi doctor and “angel of death” Josef Mengele, known for his medical experiments on concentration camp victims.
Menglele decided “whether I should live or be put in the gas chambers,” Heider said. He stood in for hours waiting for his fate with rows of people. The Nazi doctor ordered Heider to a line on the right. “Had he motioned me to the left, I wouldn’t be here today.”
In 1945, with the American Army approaching Auschwitz, he was sent to Dachau near Munich, Germany, surviving a death march and train ride to get there. “In Dachau, we didn’t work. We were just waiting to be sent to the gas chambers.”
Concentration camp life was inhumane, he said.
“We lived like animals. No sanitary facilities, no hot water, no showers, no shirts, no underwear, just a camp uniform,” he said. “While being in a concentration camp, we lost all human dignity.”
In 1945, he was liberated. He weighed 75 pounds. “It was a miracle of miracles I survived those five years.”
Repeatedly, he asked Wednesday, why the world and millions in Germany stayed silent in the midst of the Holocaust.
Fleeing the Nazis
As a young boy, Segalewitz lived in Poland, but the Nazi occupation of that country pushed his Jewish family into Russia.
He and his mother survived a German plane’s deadly strafing a cattle car his father had put them on to escape Poland. When the two fled the train during the attack, his mother thought her son was killed when she saw an explosion near him. She found him not moving near a hole.
“She fell on top of me and she’s shaking me, she’s screaming and I opened up my eyes at that point and I said to her, ‘Why are you screaming, mommy,’ he said. “She hugged me so hard I can sometimes still feel her hug.”
They first lived and worked for food on a farm, but with the Germans on the march again, they relocated a second time to a work camp in the Ural Mountains. His mother worked in a factory, he attended school, and they lived in a “flimsy” barracks. They survived on rations of potatoes, flour and bread.
When the war ended, the two returned to their hometown in Poland.
“My mother couldn’t find the house we were living in,” she said. “It was just rubble.”
The Nazis had rounded up and killed 14,000 people who lived in the area, claiming many of his relatives, he said.
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