WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – More than 73 years ago during World War II, Samuel Heider was liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust, after spending years in a ghetto, concentration camps, losing his entire family and being on the verge of death every day.
Recently, he was the featured speaker during the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Wingman Day activities here, where he talked about his experiences before, during and after the Holocaust.
For nearly an hour, Heider spoke about his life in Poland where he was born in 1924, to a family of Jewish farmers who lived in a small village.
In 1941, occupying German forces confiscated the farm and sent the family to live in a nearby ghetto. Heider escaped – leaving his family – and went to live with a Christian family who passed him off as their nephew.
Upon being discovered by the Gestapo, he fled back to the ghetto. Shortly after, he was sent to a work camp, while his mother, father, three sisters, three brothers and a nephew were sent to Treblinka. He never saw them again.
During his time in Radom, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, he endured beatings, disease, starvation, and witnessed the murder of innocent people.
Some of his many close calls with death included the selection process at Auschwitz, where Josef Mengele, also known as the “Angel of Death,” determined which prisoners would live or be sent to the gas chambers to die.
“We were standing five in a row for a long time, waiting for his [Mengele] decision,” said Heider. “I kept pinching my cheeks to make myself look healthy. Finally he came to my row looked me in the eyes and had me raise my arms. He then motioned me to the right. Had he motioned me to the left, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Describing some of the horrors at Dachau, Heider said that “in order to go out to get water or soup, we had to climb over piles of dead bodies, and we didn’t know if the smell was from the soup or the dead remains of the people.”
As Heider told his story, audience members were visibly moved.
“The story was very emotional and very grounding,” said Capt. Logan Pals, executive officer, AFLCMC director of staff. “It put things into perspective. Going from the ghetto to concentration camps to being in a train for five days [without food, water or access to a toilet], that’s the definition of being resilient.”
As he concluded his talk, Heider thanked the coalition of allies that ended the war and liberated the concentration camps. He also thanked the audience for attending and for their service in the military, adding “it’s because of you that I am here today.”
“I always heard about the Holocaust when I was growing up, but I never heard it to the detail that he [Heider] gave us,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michelle Thorsteinson-Richards, AFLCMC command chief, and one of the audience members. “For me, the biggest take away is that people can really make a difference. In his case, it was the Polish family that hid him and the individual that gave him water when he was going through typhus. You can’t get a better resilience story than what we heard today.”