Sami Steigmann, Holocaust survivor and motivational speaker, had a busy time last week. On Thursday, he spoke to both the seventh and eighth grade classes at the West Tisbury School, and then held a question and answer session with the seventh graders. That same evening, he was back at the school to speak to the community, and it was standing room only in the school library when Mr. Steigmann shared his message of peace and forgiveness.
The following day, he led two workshops with teachers at the school.
His visit changed lives. David Crawford, a computer teacher, noted, “When I first met Sami and shook his hand, I instantly felt very humbled by his presence, and wanted to honor him in any way I could.”
His visit also impressed Sylvie Dole, a special education teacher, and she ran two miles to see him for a third time: “I wanted to shake his hand and tell him face to face what an honor it was to have met a man so filled with such love and compassion.”
Prior to Mr. Steigmann’s arrival, the students had worked on creating identity charts for themselves and on deciding who belonged in their circle of obligation, so they were prepared to discuss the huge questions raised by this raw story of anti-Semitism and where it can lead. It is a difficult question to decide what kind of history should be taught, and discussion has raged over whether students are too young and will be frightened by real history, and whether traumatic events such as the Holocaust are topics best forgotten. The West Tisbury students demonstrated their avid curiosity about Mr. Steigmann and about the crimes of the Holocaust. The questions they asked ranged from military history to very personal issues. The learning experience was authentic, and the impact on the students was one that will help them become better citizens and kinder people.
The impact of genocide begins with ridicule advancing to cruelty, and the final and most deadening stage is denial. There has been a long tradition of blaming the victim to avoid confronting the reality of hatred. The dignity and self-respect of others can easily be taken from them, and the point of Mr. Steigmann’s presentations was that we must stand up for others whom we see being harmed. He pointed out that many non-Germans cooperated in the murder of Jews, sometimes because they felt there was something to gain, and sometimes because they wanted to be part of the winning team. Mr. Steigmann invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Sami Steigmann has no memory of the medical experiments that were carried out on him by a group of Nazi scientists at a labor camp in Ukraine. He was only 18 months old when he was incarcerated. At the end of this period of incarceration, when the SS guards knew that the Soviet Army was on its way, they tried to cover their crimes by simply throwing children to one side, where they would eventually starve to death. Mr. Steigmann was at the point of death when a German woman who brought food to the camp for SS guards gave him milk. She saved his life.
He was released three years later by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, and began, with his parents, the lengthy process of reclaiming his humanity. His father told him that he was the subject of medical experimentation, but he knew no details, and it was not until 2004 that Mr. Steigmann wrote to the German government to claim reparations that he received positive confirmation. Though he had no proof, the German government accepted his claim because their own records showed that he had been the subject of medical experimentation.
Mr. Steigmann has very little information about his incarceration because his parents and so many other victims of the Holocaust refused to talk about it. “They were ashamed,” he told the community meeting in the West Tisbury School library. “They felt guilty because they survived, and that they should have done more to save others. Realistically, there was nothing they could have done, but the dehumanizing experience that they had forever marked them.”
Mr. Steigmann told the crowd of people packed in the school library that he was not a historian, and that he did not intend to interpret the history of the Holocaust. Instead, he just told his own life story. Speaking of forgiveness, he noted that a young German exchange student on Martha’s Vineyard had told him two years ago that he bore a great burden of guilt because his grandfather was a high-ranking Nazi. His response to this young man had been, “But you are not your grandfather.”
That was two years ago, and since that time Mr. Steigmann has visited Germany and became acquainted with the grandchildren of former Nazis. He spoke to his hushed audience about meeting Klaus, the grandson of a Nazi officer, and during their many conversations, Klaus told him that he recognized that he had many prejudices against Russians, Poles, and Jews, and that they reflected his upbringing. “I am not trying to change the world,” said Mr. Steigmann, “just one person at a time.”
The community meeting was sponsored by the West Tisbury School and the African American Heritage Trail, and was packed with an attentive audience. The conversation ranged from comparisons between Nazi Germany and the political climate in the U.S. to specific questions about Mr. Steigmann’s life after the end of WWII. With characteristic humor, Mr. Steigmann, who emigrated to Israel from Romania in the 1950s and then to the U.S., said that in Romania he was a Jew, and in Israel he was a Romanian. “I am an American,” he said; “I have my own story and I am proud of my culture, but I am an American.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Ed.D., is co-founder and board chair of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, serves on the Massachusetts Bias and Sensitivity Committee, and is a member of the teacher advisory board of Facing History & Ourselves.