One of the youngest living survivors of the Holocaust, Samuel Harris, has dedicated his life to sharing the lessons of the Holocaust. His memoir Sammy: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust revisits those historical years and details his personal experience. Today, Sam serves as the President Emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. It is truly remarkable to see how Sam has turned tragedy into triumph!
I recently had the honor of interviewing him and wanted to share his deep wisdom with the Positively Positive readers.
Angella Nazarian (AN): Can you tell me a bit about your journey?
Samuel Harris (SH): My journey started in 1935 in a little stetl in Poland, the youngest of seven children. I had a happy life until Hitler came to our town, at age four, in September of 1939. An unforgettable time was when I was in line to be taken to the cattle cars with the rest of my family. My father pushed me out of line and told me to run and hide. I listened to my father and ran. I heard screaming, crying, and shooting behind me. I crouched and watched as the SS guarded line disappeared into the cattle cars. That was the last I saw of my parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors. I survived and was later adopted into a family in the United States.
No matter how difficult the experience has been for me, I firmly believe that people are intrinsically good. I have dedicated my life to spreading hope and the message of tolerance.
AN: What has been your proudest moment?
SH: I volunteered to be the chairman to build the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. On April 19, 2009, with over 12,000 in attendance, the museum held a Grand Opening. President Clinton, Ellie Weisel, and The German Ambassador to the U.S. were among the speakers that day. I was privileged to receive a standing ovation as I walked to the podium and another one as I left the stage. My wife and so many others were crying with joy. They realized this was the realization of a dream I dared to dream.
AN: Can you remember what was your lowest point?
SH: One of the many low points was when after everyone was taken to the cattle cars; I was put in a dark potato cellar with strangers, alone, cold and scared. There was a small sliver of an opening where children would yell down “dirty Jew.” Our fear was that the Nazis might discover us and take us away as well.
AN: If you had a message to share with everyone, what would it be?
SH: In seventh grade, whenever there was frost and snow, all the children went to a nearby hill. At the bottom of the hill there was a pond.
I noticed those sleds that went fast went right over the pond onto dry land, and those that went slow got stuck in the middle of the pond and began to sink. I applied this philosophy to the rest of my life.
I kept moving forward and involved in worthwhile activities. This kept me from sinking. This would be one of my messages to those who have had difficult problems and have tried to cope with bad experiences.
AN: Who are the people in your life that won’t let you fail?
SH: My wife, Dede, for fifty-one years, has always been there to support me. She has the courage to hold up a mirror to me so I can see the truth. She tells the truth with sensitivity, even when she knows it might hurt me, but does so for my own good, so I won’t fail. I trust Dede. In addition to Dede, I can count on my children and several other close friends.
AN: What is the one characteristic that you would say defines you best?
SH: When I first meet someone, I like them. I find that each person possesses a likable quality. I choose to see what is positive about a person and that helps me in my relationships with people in general. I listen to people and remember what they have told to me. In return, I receive a certain amount of love and respect from them, which nourishes my soul.
AN: What nourishes you and gives you strength?
SH: Watching the sky from my hammock, walking in the woods, watching the birds in one of my ten different bird feeders, and listening to classical music.
AN: Do you have any words of advice for someone trying to heal him/herself?
SH: The advice I have is to realize that human beings are much stronger than we think.
AN: You talk about living a life that has unlimited potential. What are the steps to unlocking our potential?
SH: Somewhere along the way, I learned the following quote, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, man can achieve.” I use this quote to motivate myself and others.
Come up with your own dreams. Follow them. Be obsessed.
AN: How did you go about raising the capital needed to build the Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois?
SH: We found a professional fundraiser. We hired a lobbyist to procure money from the state. We encouraged trusted friends and community business leaders, with the help of Holocaust survivors, to become committed to the same cause. The best strategy is to find a resourceful, well-respected leader in the community who will become passionately involved with the project. Many of his friends will soon follow.
AN: What is your motto?
SH: Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, man can achieve.
AN: What is a dream that you would like to achieve in your lifetime?
SH: Reduce anti-semitism and genocide.
Angella Nazarian is a bestselling author and noted speaker. Both of her books Life as a Visitor and the newly released Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World have become bestsellers for the publisher and have garnered glowing reviews from Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, Martha Stewart, and Diane von Furstenberg. To learn more about Angella, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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