If only Sam Harris’ old leather belt could talk.
Harris was about 5 years old when he found it in a closet at a concentration camp in Demblin, Poland. “It looks handmade,” Harris says. “A craftsman or a shoemaker must have made it. It’s very small. I wore it on the last hole. It was with me through everything.”
That thin strap—now cracked and broken—witnessed a scrawny, starving, sickly Jewish boy survive after Hitler’s army came to his tiny village and killed his parents, four brothers and sisters and just about everybody else he had ever known.
No pictures, no books, no teddy bears, no blankets, nothing else from Harris’ childhood survived the Holocaust with him. Haunting memories and that brittle, broken relic that was around his waist through the horror of two concentration camps are all he has left.
Now 74, Harris, a retired insurance man, is president of the new Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Ill.—a town once home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. The $45 million museum, which opened in April, is the largest Holocaust memorial in the Midwest. Designed by Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, the museum has two wings—one dark and one light, symbols of a horrific past and a hopeful future. The front doors symbolically face east toward Jerusalem. The rear entrance, which most people see from the street, looks like a foreboding concrete prison with bars across the window of a single black steel door.
Inside, you can hear Harris’ story on video and see his belt amid the hundreds of artifacts, including the coat worn by a child at the Madjanek death camp and work permits obtained by Jews posing as Polish Catholics. There’s also a replica of a boxcar used to haul Jews to death camps, a childhood memory Harris recalls all too well.
“I spent three days in cattle cars with no food, no toilets, no water. It was like being in the belly of a monster,” he says. “When I was in the cattle car, we would go through little towns and I could hear dogs barking, little kids laughing. Here I was thirsty, hungry, almost dying. I wished I would be a dog or anything but in a cattle car.”
After being liberated in January 1945, Harris was sent to America two years later by the United States Organization of Rehabilitation of European Children, and eventually lived in a Chicago foster home. A wealthy family in suburban Northbrook adopted him when he was 12 years old.
Harris hated the thought of who he once was—a skinny, lice-covered boy named Sammy who was so scared he wet the bed. He refused to speak of his past once he reached the United States.
“I just wanted to be a regular American kid like all of the other boys. I played baseball and football and joined the Boy Scouts,” Harris says. “I didn’t tell people what I was—an orphan. A kid who the Germans thought was worthless. A kid who was skinny and hungry and diseased, who hid under blankets and beds and bricks to survive. I escaped death so many times. That’s what I was. I didn’t want anything to do with that.”
It wasn’t until 1977 that Harris, then 42, would finally tell his story. That was a year after Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, an argument that the Holocaust never happened.
“My rabbi knew of my history and said, ‘Sam, now is the time to talk,’ ” Harris says. “I agreed.”
In the temple’s basement, Harris for the first time offered his testimony in front of a video camera, which the rabbi later played for the congregation.
“It’s very painful to start putting yourself back there. When I talk about it, I’m there in the middle of death and my father pushing me out of line to escape,” Harris says. “But the timing was right to talk.”
It’s still the right time to talk, and every chance he gets, Harris shares his vivid memory of those terrible times.
“I was 4 years old. Soldiers with helmets on and bayoneted rifles came in trucks. They started to round up the Jewish people out of the houses. If you didn’t go fast enough, they’d stab you, beat you or shoot you,” Harris recalls. “They killed a lot of Jews. They lined all the Jews up in the center of town. I was in that line, right in the middle. My parents were protecting me. All I could do was look into the sky. It was drizzly and I knew I was going to be all right. It was like I was talking to an angel.
“Then my father decided to push me out of line. There was a pile of bricks. He said, ‘Go hide there.’ There was shooting. My sister Sara was already there. We watched as they moved the line forward to the direction of the train. Cattle cars. In my mind that line is still moving. It was the last I saw of my parents, my cousins, my brothers and sisters and neighbors. It only got worse.”
Harris says he’ll tell his story for as long as he can because “we all must learn from the Holocaust.”
And when Harris is gone, he says, his belt, perfectly preserved in a glass case, will continue to tell his story. So what would it say?
“If the belt could speak today as we sit here,” Harris says, “I think it would be mature and say, ‘Sam,’ or ‘partner,’ or ‘kid,’ we made it together, I’m proud of you. You worked hard all this time to be in charge, to volunteer to build this museum. To share with the world what happened.’
“And the belt would say, ‘I’m proud of you, Sam, because now the world will know what has happened with the ultimate purpose of making sure that what happened to you, Sammy, will not happen to other children like you whether they are Polish or black or German or Rwandan or anybody.’ I think that’s what the belt would say.”
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, Ill.
Hours: 10-5 Monday, Tuesday, Wdnesday, Friday; 10 -8 Thursday; 11-4 Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays until July.
Admission: $10; $6 for anyone over 65 or students ages 12 to 22; $5 for children ages 5 to 11. Members free.
More information: Call 847-967-4800 or see the museum’s website.