Sam Harris was born in May 1935 in Deblin, Poland. He was a healthy four-year old when WWII broke out in 1939. He spent time with his family, played with friends and was a happy child until Nazi soldiers invaded his village in September 1939. The town was turned into a ghetto and later into a concentration camp. His father told him to hide behind a pile of bricks while his parents, brothers and four sisters were loaded onto railcars, and shipped to gas chambers. With the help of two remaining sisters, he survived by hiding in the barracks for six years, escaping notice of the guards.
In 1948, at age 13, he was adopted by a couple from Chicago. From that point on, he did everything he could to forget the child who lived through the horror. At night he would have nightmares and cry in his sleep. His mother would come into his room, sit on the edge of the bed and cry with him, but she never asked him to talk about it.
His best friends at school knew only that he had been born in Europe. A popular student, he was elected class president, graduated and went on to a successful career in insurance, fell in love, got married, had a family. He had put his past behind him. One day his wife, DeDe, came home from work, sat down at the kitchen table, and said, “It’s time. Tell me about that little boy, Sammy.” And he did.
With DeDe’s encouragement, he came to see that Sammy wasn’t the dirty, skinny, ignorant boy he had tried all those years to forget, but rather a brave and resourceful boy who had looked down the barrels of Nazi guns, had faced terror and death and found a way to survive it all. She helped him bring the boy and the man back together. “I became whole,” said Sam.
He will never forgive the people who committed the Holocaust crimes, but he cannot hate the entire German race for the misguided actions of a few. He is a firm believer that good will prevail over evil in the long run. He witnessed firsthand how evil the human race can be, but also saw the compassionate side of others. “Hate Hitler, but don’t hate the Germans. Remember the past, but don’t repeat it in the future,” Harris says.
For Sam, education of today’s youth is the key to preventing something like the Holocaust from ever happening again. He refuses to spend his time being angry, which he says is unproductive. “It might be a tough road to get there, but the power to change things begins with one,” Harris says. Sam currently serves as President Emeritus of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. He was the driving force behind the opening of the Illinois Museum and Education Center on April 19, 2009. The motto of the museum is, “Remember the past, transform the future.” Sam continues to speak extensively on the local, state, national and international levels about the lessons of the Holocaust and his experiences during that time. By doing so he is carrying out the motto of the museum he so loves. Sam Harris did not merely survive; he managed to go on to love and be loved and live a fully human life.