By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Northborough – The entire 8th grade class at the Robert E. Melican Middle School in Northborough sat hunched forward—almost breathless—during an assembly on May 17. It was Holocaust survivor Sam Weinreb (91) who held their attention.
For a full hour, over-and-over, Weinreb said to them, “I want you to know, I want you to know.”
He told his remarkable story in great detail, as he has to over 300,000 students.
“I never said no when I was asked to speak to a group of people,” said Weinreb.
Since moving to Brookline with his wife Goldie two years ago, Weinreb speaks about once a week. His connection to Melican is his neighbor who is the grandmother of eighth-grade student Lainey Bechta.
Introducing Weinreb, Bechta spoke of how her class read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank.
Like many survivors of the Holocaust, fortitude and luck played a huge role in Weinreb’s survival.
Born April 5, 1926 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Weinreb was almost 13 when the Nazis captured his parents, two brothers, and six-year-old sister. He returned from a bar mitzvah lesson to find his house locked and empty. He never saw them again.
Weinreb escaped to Hungary—by train and on foot—with the help of a non-Jewish neighbor, and two others.
He lived in Budapest with an uncle for a few weeks, until someone reported them to the police. He planned to move on to another contact, but that person was reported as well.
For eight months, Weinreb lived on the streets, eating food from trash bins.
Weinreb said, “Finally, I got so upset that no one would help me that I went to the police station and told them I lost my whole family, and that my grandparents lived in Hungary. The policeman slapped me in the face. Then they sent me to prison, with no charge and no trial.”
He was released after two harsh years.
“I was told that I would stay with my grandparents, who lived in a small remote town. Every Tuesday and Friday I needed to check in with the police. Those days the police called me names and beat me.”
Six months later, the Nazis entered Hungary, and rounded up all of the Jews, including Weinreb. Jammed into cattle cars, they were sent by train to the death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many died—especially children—during the almost four day journey.
At the entrance of Auschwitz, Weinreb, then 17, found himself in the left line, with those sent to work. Everyone in the right line was immediately gassed.
For work, Weinreb carried bricks to a construction site, which in fact, was not a site at all. He survived a job at a coal mine thanks to other prisoners who shoveled coal into his pile. He could not lift the shovel.
With clear memory, Weinreb recalls meeting Elie Wiesel, who advised him how to survive roll calls by moving around the lines at Auschwitz.
Before the war ended, on a freezing cold night, Weinreb and his fellow prisoners were forced out of the camp on a death march. According to Weinreb, “… only 400 of 5,000 survived.”
He decided to escape.
“I thought to myself, ‘I will not let them kill me,’” he told the students.
In the middle of the night, he ran until he reached a forest and collapsed.
Weinreb was told that Russian soldiers found him lying on the ground, unconscious.
“One told me, ‘Son, don’t worry, we are going to take you to a military hospital.’ I weighed 80 pounds then. I spent six weeks there. They saved me,” he said.
When he recovered, Weinreb returned to Bratislava to find his family. He did not, but reunited with his childhood friend Goldie, who later became his wife.
At that time, Weinreb chose to leave Czechoslovakia and move to a displaced person’s camp in Germany, which was supervised by the Americans.
Goldie would not go with him, but they stayed in touch, and she encouraged him to go to America. That happened with the help of an officer from the American Embassy in Munich.
“The officer put his arms around me and said, ‘Son, you are going to America, right now,’” he recalled.
Weinreb eventually brought Goldie to America. They have celebrated their 67th anniversary. They raised a son and daughter in the Pittsburgh area, where Weinreb became an expert watch repairer, and eventually, owner of a jewelry store.
His wife has been living with Alzheimer’s for 14 years, but she is a survivor, and she is still here.
Weinreb wrapped up his talk by saying, “It is now more than 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. That is a very long time. This is a difficult subject. I didn’t have an easy time talking about this in the beginning. Now I can.”
At that point, the eighth graders—witnesses to history thanks to Weinreb’s willingness to share his deeply personal story —all took a deep breath and applauded.