A Survivors role in repairing the world


29 April 2009 A Survivors role in repairing the world As World ORT enters its 130th anniversary year, Dr Sam Goetz, this years recipient of ORT Americas Tikkun Olam Award, is about to clock up his own milestone. Next week will mark 64 years since his liberation from the Ebensee concentration camp. In the years since a light tank of the US 3rd Cavalry smashed down the gate of what is considered to have been one of the most diabolic concentration camps built, Dr Goetz has run ORT activities in a Displaced Persons camp in Italy, built a career as an optometrist in California, raised a family, and played a leading role in the commemoration and understanding of the Holocaust. But, as one of a dwindling band of Survivors from Ebensee, Dr Goetz said he did not plan to do anything special to mark his liberation day on May 6. Of course I take a moment to reflect every time. Its etched in my memory; I remember every moment, he said. But there are few of my friends who were liberated with me and none of them are in Los Angeles. He remembers how the SS tried to persuade the camps 18,000 emaciated inmates to enter the tunnels they had carved out of the picturesque Austrian Alps for safety in light of the looming battle that would be fought with the advancing Allies. The tunnels had been used to build tank engines out of reach of aerial bombardment but the news had leaked out of the commandants office that they had been dynamited. Strengthened by the prospect of their abusers imminent defeat, the prisoners refused to move. And despite being confronted with open mutiny the guards, who were notorious for their whimsical murder sprees, did not open fire. And he remembers how the next day he had been commandeered by guards to work outside the gate when an American tank broke through and a tall, young man climbed down to announce that everyone was free. That man was Iowa-raised Bob Persinger, then aged 19. Dr Goetz was 16 and spent his first weeks of freedom in hospital being treated for malnutrition. But by his 17th birthday things could not have been more different. The lice, corpses and stench of Ebensee had been exchanged for the warmth and security of the Displaced Persons camp at Santa Maria di Bagni in southern Italy where 2,300 Holocaust Survivors were housed in properties which once belonged to Fascists. Since the age of 14, when his parents were ripped from the Tarnow Ghetto, near Krakow, and shoved into the gas chambers of Belzec, Dr Goetz had effectively been on his own. Knowing there was no-one to search for at the wars end he spent his time in the Santa Maria and later the Barletta DP camp working, first for the United Nations and then for ORT. Between 1945 and 1951, ORT trained and educated some 80,000 Holocaust Survivors at 78 centres in Austria, Germany and Italy. At its peak, in 1947, ORT was providing 597 courses in various trades and subjects and employing more than 900 instructors. Thanks partly to his command of English, which enabled him to liaise with the British military administration, Dr Goetz was appointed secretary for the ORT schools in his camps. Eventually, aged only 18, he was running the whole ORT operation in Barletta as Acting Director. He even found time to do one of its courses, agronomy, which had been hurriedly introduced to allow Jews to acquire skills as farm workers which would then qualify them for a visa to America. The initial euphoria of liberation had given way to a bleaker reality. People were depressed because they were trapped, Dr Goetz said. There were limited quotas to get to Australia, America, [Eretz Yisrael] and other countries. I had two uncles in America and it didnt help me a bit. So ORT was a great help. By building schools and teaching trades we were provided with an incentive. By giving people something to do ORT was a ray of hope; it uplifted the spirits. For Dr Goetz, working for ORT was far more than simply earning a little money or relieving the boredom that plagued the DP camps. It was very uplifting; I realised the importance of it. Looking back, it gave me the opportunity to create and to help, he said. In 1949, Dr Goetz finally received his visa to America and made his way to California to join his fianc e (now wife of 58 years) Gertie whom he had met in the Italian DP camps. While DPs there had been little talk of the shared experience of escaping extermination. It was too close, Dr Goetz said. To discuss the details of the horror that came later. Then, it was too raw. But in the 1970s all that changed. As he told the Los Angeles Times, it was then that these Holocaust deniers began to surface with all their talk about the lies of the 6 million. I couldnt keep quiet. I said education is the only way we can leave our legacy. So, in 1977, Dr Goetz initiated the establishment of an Endowment Chair on Holocaust Studies at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), where he had studied 20 years earlier. The chair, currently held by Professor Saul Friedlander, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, marked the creation of the first Holocaust Studies programme at an American public university. A past president of the 1939 Club one of the worlds largest Holocaust Survivors groups he served on the content committee of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1987 until its opening in 1992 and chaired the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. And he tells his own story of survival in the book I Never Saw My Face. Earlier this year, actor Ed Asner presented Dr Goetz with ORT Americas highest honour, the Tikkun Olam Award, for his contributions to making the world a better place. World ORT Director General Robert Singer met him at the ORT America Annual Meeting and was deeply moved by his story. His ability to rise above the cruelty inflicted upon him and to bring the world up with him is exceptional, Mr Singer said. His contribution to the Jewish People and to humanity as a whole is inspiring. For Dr Goetz, receiving the award came as a surprise. But, he added, it was very gratifying to be able to share with the people at the ORT America Annual Meeting the importance of ORTs work after the war. While he modestly deflected the spotlight back onto ORT it is hard not to appreciate the extraordinary importance of his own work, particularly in the light of resurging antisemitism and officially sanctioned Holocaust denial. And although he may be an agnostic, there is a sense that Dr Goetz (who admits that a belief in God helped sustain him during the war) has spent the past 30 years fulfilling a mission which had been set out for him in September 1942 when his identity card was withdrawn a sign that he had been earmarked for deportation from the Tarnow Ghetto and death. In the early hours of the morning of the planned mass deportation he crept to the administration building where he found thousands of nullified cards littering the ground. I picked one up and it had the blue rubber stamp on it which meant life. Even though it had been crossed out and the photograph was of someone else, I took it. At 6am I was at the assembly point. It was not until 7pm that I took my turn to file past the SS to show my identity. By that time they werent looking carefully at the pictures. The others went to Belzec and death; I lived. Somebody wanted me to live.