'I am not what happened, I am what I choose to be'

As Holocaust memory fades, survivor asks German youth to be justice ‘upstanders’

During a recent multiple-city speaking tour, lecture halls filled to capacity to hear Sami Steigmann talk about what happens when their country doesn’t stand up to bigotry

Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann addresses students on a recent lecture tour of multiple cities across Germany. (Courtesy)
Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann addresses students on a recent lecture tour of multiple cities across Germany. (Courtesy)

Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann doesn’t believe in collective guilt — and he said as much to hundreds of young students during a recent speaking tour of numerous cities in Germany.

He undertook the journey under the auspices of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP), a German organization devoted to confronting the nation’s legacy of Nazism, telling students in Berlin, Leipzig, Jena and Erfurt that he doesn’t hold them responsible for what their grandparents and parents did.

His focus, Steigmann told The Times of Israel, was to educate the students about their responsibilities as human beings and make them into “upstanders — people who are willing to fight injustice and hatred wherever they encounter it.”

“Bullying, for example, stupid jokes, slurs against any ethnic group — Jews, Muslims, Christians. It doesn’t matter how the rest of the group reacts to it,” he said. The question he posed to the high school and college students he met on his journey was: “What are you going to do about it?”

Steigmann, now 79, was only an infant when he was deported along with his parents to the Mogilev-Podolsky labor camp in Ukraine from their home in Romania. At the camp Steigmann was subjected to horrific medical experiments whose legacy has been a lifetime of pain.

Ironically, it was a German woman who saved his life. The infant Steigmann had been starving and close to death when the woman risked her own life to infiltrate the camp and give him milk.

Steigmann never learned the woman’s name, but when he went to Israel’s national Yad Vashem Holocaust museum he placed a stone marker at the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in her honor. That woman’s kindness is one of the reasons why Steigmann doesn’t believe in collective guilt.

Illustrative: Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. (Courtesy)

‘Silence is complicity’

Steigmann’s message is particularly urgent as anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe. According to a 2018 study by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, 89 percent of Jews living in Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands feel threatened by increased violence rooted in anti-Semitism.

A recent survey in France by its National Human Rights Advisory Committee said anti-Semitic acts in the country rose more than 70%. German officials also said that in 2018, anti-Semitic crimes including hate speech rose by 20%.

“Silence is complicity,” said Steigmann, who served in Israel’s Air Force during the 1960s. “Doing nothing is something. That is being complicit, and hatred can work only in an atmosphere where it is not opposed.”

Steigmann believes that if a community can work together, anything is possible.

“The best example is how some neighborhoods have become free of drugs,” he said. “They became free because the community opposed it. They stood up as one. That is how we can fight hatred. The kids must become active, not bystanders, wherever they encounter injustice and hatred.”

While Steigmann’s talks drew crowds everywhere he went, his experience in Leipzig was the most memorable.

Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann addresses students on a recent lecture tour of multiple cities across Germany. (Courtesy)

“They had arranged for me to speak in a room that could only hold 80 students. The lecture drew 300, with students sitting on the floor and in the hallway,” said Steigmann.

“There was not only curiosity. They really wanted to hear from someone who went through it. They wanted to meet someone who had been there and come out,” he said, referring to the Holocaust.

They wanted to meet someone who had been there and come out

This isn’t Steigmann’s first time in Germany. Last year, he was invited to Tübingen by the TOS Ministries, an organization devoted to reaching Holocaust survivors all over the world, and who organize the March of Life Memorial and Reconciliation walks worldwide.

At first, Steigmann was apprehensive to go to Germany, but he found that being there was a positive experience for him, and was able to feel at peace there.

But the nature of that trip was different.

“In Tubingen I was more of a spectator,” he said. “Here I was on a mission. In Tubingen it was more about being in sync with my head and my heart.”

It was bashert

Steigmann is a charismatic and entertaining speaker who fills his lectures with humor, even as he aims to change hearts and minds with his own life experiences and mission to educate.

Kids Steigmann has spoken with the world over send him heartfelt letters telling him how much his talks meant to them and how he has changed their lives. After a lecture, the young listeners usually line up to shake his hand and ask for hugs; many are given and received.

Students surround Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann following a lecture he gave as part of a multi-city tour in Germany. (Courtesy)

Steigmann’s personal story, which has involved much hardship and suffering, is one of the reasons he has had such success with students. At one point he was homeless – an experience that he said has changed his life in a powerful way.

Due to his onetime homelessness, Steigmann sees himself not only as a Holocaust educator, but also a motivational speaker.

His motto, “I am not what happened, I am what I choose to be,” particularly resonated with some German students, said Steigmann, and many came up to him after his lectures to speak privately with him.

When he speaks, Steigmann said, he never uses a script and never asks for money. Any future donations will go directly to his own foundation, The Steigmann Tolerance Foundation, which every year acknowledges an upstanding student or adult.

“It’s a way of honoring my parents,” Steigmann said.

Steigmann has only been talking about the Holocaust since 2008 — less than 12 years. For 60 years he kept silent, never telling anyone about the medical experiments, the deportation, or the nightmares he had for years after the war.

That all changed in 2003 when Steigmann went to a gathering for Holocaust survivors, as well as their families and liberators, at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

A view onto lower Chernivtsi, where the Jewish ghetto began in World War II. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Miraculously, Steigmann found himself sitting next to a man who had been deported from the same town as he — formerly known as Chernowitz in the Bukovina region, currently Chernivtsi, Ukraine. The man had also been sent as an infant to the same camp, and had similarly subjected to horrific medical experiments. The encounter, which Steigmann has called “bashert,” or meant to be, changed his life, making him realize that he, too, had a story to tell.

Since that time, he has spoken to thousands of children and young adults and has received numerous awards for his work, including a citation from the New York State Assembly and the Harmony Power Award, which he received in 2016 at the former Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan.

Living without fear

In May of this year, Dr. Felix Klein, the German Commissioner for anti-Semitism, recommended that Jews should at times avoid wearing religious symbols in public. Steigmann believes that’s the wrong message.

Jews in Germany must embrace their religious heritage, not hide it, Steigmann said.

“Jews should not be afraid to express their Judaism — like the Muslims or any other group — and to be proud of their heritage,” he said.

He sees parallels to what is transpiring on the European continent in the United States, as well.

Germany’s special envoy on anti-Semitism Felix Klein. (Courtesy German Interior Ministry)

“The media are complicit in it,” said Steigmann, referring to rising anti-Semitism on both continents, “because they are not talking about it — and they are minimizing it.”

Steigmann believes Holocaust education is essential and recently filmed a video imploring US President Donald Trump to issue an executive order to make it compulsory in every state. Currently, only 11 states have made Holocaust education mandatory in schools.

“Kids in the US now are totally clueless,” Steigmann said.

Kids in the US now are totally clueless

Recent US polls reflect Steigmann’s diagnosis. A 2018 study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims showed that 41% of American respondents over the age of 18 had never heard of Auschwitz.

A CNN poll of seven European countries revealed that one-third of 7,000 respondents knew “just a little or nothing at all about the Holocaust.”

Steigmann is also concerned over the casual use of the word Holocaust.

“Holocaust and genocide are totally separate. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a group of people. But the Holocaust was a unique moment in history – an annihilation of a people. You cannot put them together,” Steigmann said. “This is part of my mission – to educate people about that.”

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