group of civilians being held at gunpoint by armed soldiers

Nazi soldiers force Jewish people out of a ghetto in Poland in 1943. Many of these people are thought to have died in concentration camps.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images


My Story of Survival

Millions of Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. This is the story of one boy who lived.

As You Read, Think About: Why is it important to hear stories like Sammy’s today?

Courtesy of Harris family

Seven-year-old Sammy Harris clutched his father’s hand. They were packed tightly into a crowd of people. It was 1942, in Sammy’s village of Deblin, Poland.

Sammy, his family, and nearly everyone they knew were being herded onto a train by German soldiers called Nazis. No one knew where they were going. But they knew why they were being sent away: because they were Jewish.

As the crush of people edged forward, Sammy’s father pushed him out of the crowd. “Go!” his father cried, pointing to a pile of bricks nearby. “Run!”

Sammy ran and crouched behind the bricks. His sister Sara, age 9, was already hiding there.

It was the last Sammy would see of his parents and three of his siblings. They were among the 6 million Jewish people who were killed in a terrible chapter of history known as the Holocaust. 

But Sammy survived.

Seven-year-old Sammy Harris clutched his father’s hand. They were packed tightly into a crowd of people. It was 1942, in Sammy’s village of Deblin, Poland.

Sammy, his family, and nearly everyone they knew were being herded onto a train by German soldiers called Nazis. No one knew where they were going. But they knew why they were being sent away: because they were Jewish.

The crush of people edged forward. Sammy’s father pushed him out of the crowd. “Go!” his father cried, pointing to a pile of bricks nearby. “Run!”

Sammy ran and crouched behind the bricks. His sister Sara, age 9, was already hiding there.

It was the last Sammy would see of his parents and three of his siblings. They were among the 6 million Jewish people who were killed in a terrible chapter of history known as the Holocaust. 

But Sammy survived.

Shattered Peace

Just three years earlier, Sammy’s life had been peaceful and happy. But that changed in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. As German planes buzzed over Deblin, Sammy ran for his life.

“They were flying low, shooting at people,” Sammy remembers. “And then tanks rolled through town, shaking our little homes.”

The Nazi troops were carrying out the horrifying plan of German leader Adolf Hitler. When he rose to power in 1933, Germany was struggling, and its people were bitter and angry. Millions of German workers could not find a job. Hitler wrongly blamed Jewish people for causing the nation’s problems. He gave hateful speeches filled with lies to convince Germans that their Jewish neighbors were their enemies. Hitler set out to conquer all of Europe—and eliminate its Jewish people.

Just three years earlier, Sammy’s life had been peaceful and happy. But that changed in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. As German planes buzzed over Deblin, Sammy ran for his life.

“They were flying low, shooting at people,” Sammy remembers. “And then tanks rolled through town, shaking our little homes.”

The Nazi troops were carrying out the horrifying plan of German leader Adolf Hitler. When he rose to power in 1933, Germany was struggling. Its people were bitter and angry. Millions of German workers could not find a job. Hitler wrongly blamed Jewish people for causing the nation’s problems. He gave hateful speeches filled with lies. He tried to convince Germans that their Jewish neighbors were their enemies. Hitler set out to conquer all of Europe—and eliminate its Jewish people.

Jim McMahon/MapMan®

List five countries bordering Germany that were taken over by the Nazis during World War II.

Living in Fear

In the months after the Nazis invaded Poland, they took control of much of Europe and persecuted Jewish people across the continent. They destroyed Jewish-owned stores and banned Jewish people from schools, restaurants, and many other public places. Deblin was one of the many towns and cities where Jewish people were forced to live in fenced-in, crowded areas called ghettos. They couldn’t leave without permission and had almost nothing to eat. Sammy’s family survived by smuggling in food from outside.

The Nazis later cleared out the ghettos. Sammy’s parents and most of his siblings were among the millions of Jewish people who were sent to prisons called concentration camps. Many prisoners were killed on arrival. Countless others died from hunger or disease.

Eventually, Sammy, Sara, and their older sister Rosa ended up in a concentration camp that had been built in Deblin. As the oldest, Rosa did all she could to protect her younger siblings. But life there was even worse than in the ghetto. 

The camp was infested with fleas and lice. Sammy and his sisters ate watery soup from a rusty can. If they were lucky, they got a tiny bit of horse meat. They lived in constant fear of being beaten or shot by the guards.

In the months after the Nazis invaded Poland, they took control of much of Europe. They persecuted Jewish people across the continent. They destroyed Jewish-owned stores and banned Jewish people from schools, restaurants, and many other public places. Deblin was one of the many towns and cities where Jewish people were forced to live in fenced-in, crowded areas called ghettos. They couldn’t leave without permission. They had almost nothing to eat. Sammy’s family survived by smuggling in food from outside.

The Nazis later cleared out the ghettos. Millions of Jewish people were sent to prisons called concentration camps. Sammy’s parents and most of his siblings were among them. Many prisoners were killed on arrival. Countless others died from hunger or disease. 

Eventually, Sammy, Sara, and their older sister Rosa ended up in a concentration camp that had been built in Deblin. As the oldest, Rosa did all she could to protect her younger siblings. But life there was even worse than in the ghetto. 

The camp was infested with fleas and lice. Sammy and his sisters ate watery soup from a rusty can. If they were lucky, they got a tiny bit of horse meat. They lived in constant fear of being beaten or shot by the guards.

“All or None”

In 1944, Sammy, Sara, and Rosa were moved to a camp in the town of Czestochowa (chen-stuh-KOH-vuh). When new prisoners arrived at the camp, Nazi soldiers would separate them into two groups: people old enough to work and children. The older prisoners would be forced to make bullets for the Nazis. But children were useless to the Nazis and would soon be shot.

As Rosa held his hand, 9-year-old Sammy stood on his tiptoes, straining to look taller. But it was no use. While his sisters sobbed, he was forced to go with those considered too young to work.

Sammy and four other kids were locked in a building near the camp’s main gate. The father of one of the children soon appeared with a letter from a Nazi leader that approved his daughter’s release. The guard agreed to let the girl go­—but insisted the other kids stay. Sammy says what happened next was a miracle. 

“All five or none!” the Jewish father shouted. He was risking his daughter’s life—and his own—to save four kids he didn’t know. “All or none.”

The Nazi guard shrugged and released all the children. With that simple gesture, Sammy’s life had been saved once more. As he and the other children entered the camp, the adult prisoners cried tears of joy. 

“They hadn’t seen a Jewish child in years,” Sammy explains. “They kissed and hugged me. I will never forget this as long as I live.”

In 1944, Sammy, Sara, and Rosa were moved to a camp in the town of Czestochowa (chen-stuh-KOH-vuh). When new prisoners arrived at the camp, Nazi soldiers would separate them into two groups: people old enough to work and children. The older prisoners would be forced to make bullets for the Nazis. But children were useless to the Nazis. They would soon be shot.

As Rosa held his hand, 9-year-old Sammy stood on his tiptoes. He strained to look taller. But it was no use. While his sisters sobbed, he was forced to go with those considered too young to work.

Sammy and four other kids were locked in a building near the camp’s main gate. The father of one of the children soon appeared with a letter from a Nazi leader. The letter approved his daughter’s release. The guard agreed to let the girl go—but insisted the other kids stay. Sammy says what happened next was a miracle. 

“All five or none!” the Jewish father shouted. He was risking his daughter’s life—and his own—to save four kids he didn’t know. “All or none.”

The Nazi guard shrugged. He released all the children. With that simple gesture, Sammy’s life had been saved once more. As he and the other children entered the camp, the adult prisoners cried tears of joy. 

“They hadn’t seen a Jewish child in years,” Sammy explains. “They kissed and hugged me. I will never forget this as long as I live.”

Shawshots/Alamy Stock Photo

These are some of the 7,000 prisoners who were freed from Auschwitz in Poland, the biggest Nazi concentration camp, in January 1945. More than 1 million prisoners died there.

Finally Free

Sammy and his sisters suffered for nearly a year in the camp. On January 17, 1945—almost exactly 75 years ago—Sammy watched the sky light up with red, pink, and white explosions. They were from bombs being dropped by the Soviet Union, one of the countries that had been fighting Germany.

The Nazis fled the camp, leaving the gate wide open. All around Sammy, people cheered and cried. Though Sammy had only rags on his feet, he and his sisters stepped through the gate, to freedom.

“We began to dare to think of a new beginning,” Sammy says.

In May 1945, the Germans surrendered. By then, Sammy and Sara were living in an orphanage. A few months later, they reunited with Rosa in Austria, a nearby country. But life wasn’t easy. There was still enormous prejudice against Jewish people in Europe. It became clear that Sammy and Sara would have a better life in America. When Sammy was 12, he was adopted by a family in Illinois. Sara lived with a different family nearby.

Sammy and his sisters suffered for nearly a year in the camp. On January 17, 1945—almost exactly 75 years ago—Sammy watched the sky light up with red, pink, and white explosions. They were from bombs being dropped by the Soviet Union. That was one of the countries that had been fighting Germany.

The Nazis fled the camp, leaving the gate wide open. All around Sammy, people cheered and cried. Sammy had only rags on his feet. But he and his sisters stepped through the gate, to freedom.

“We began to dare to think of a new beginning,” Sammy says.

In May 1945, the Germans surrendered. By then, Sammy and Sara were living in an orphanage. A few months later, they reunited with Rosa in Austria, a nearby country. But life wasn’t easy. There was still enormous prejudice against Jewish people in Europe. It became clear that Sammy and Sara would have a better life in America. When Sammy was 12, he was adopted by a family in Illinois. Sara lived with a different family nearby.

An American Teenager

In many ways, Sammy was a typical American teenager. He joined the Boy Scouts and played football and baseball. For years, he never spoke of the Holocaust, because he wanted to forget. But as he grew older, he began to find the words to describe his experiences. 

Today, Sammy is 84 and lives near Chicago with his wife, Dede. His daughter and grandchildren live nearby. He helped found the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Sammy often gives speeches and interviews about his lost childhood. He says it never gets easier to talk about that painful, terrifying time, but he knows it’s important to do so.

“I was saved,” Sammy says. 

“I had a good life, while 1.5 million Jewish children died. I owe it to them to share my story.”

In many ways, Sammy was a typical American teenager. He joined the Boy Scouts. He played football and baseball. For years, he never spoke of the Holocaust. He wanted to forget. But as he grew older, he began to find the words to describe his experiences.

Today, Sammy is 84 and lives near Chicago with his wife, Dede. His daughter and grandchildren live nearby. He helped found the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Sammy often gives speeches and interviews about his lost childhood. He says it never gets easier to talk about that painful, terrifying time. But he knows it’s important to do so.

“I was saved,” Sammy says. “I had a good life, while 1.5 million Jewish children died. I owe it to them to share my story.”

1. Why were Germans “angry” in 1933? How did Hitler use that anger to target Jewish people?

2. What were some ways the Nazis persecuted Jewish people?

3. According to Sammy Harris, what was the miracle that happened in the camp?

1. Why were Germans “angry” in 1933? How did Hitler use that anger to target Jewish people?

2. What were some ways the Nazis persecuted Jewish people?

3. According to Sammy Harris, what was the miracle that happened in the camp?

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