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Holocaust survivor speaks at Penn State

| Thursday, April 19, 2007

It has been more than seven decades since Sam Gottesman had the images of starvation, fear and decaying bodies burnt into his memory.

The putrid images were acquired from the five concentration camps that Gottesman, of Pittsburgh, called home during the Holocaust, including Aushwitz, the Nazi death camp where millions of Jews across Europe were taken to die.

Reluctant to relive those painful memories, Gottesman spoke to a group of students and Valley residents Wednesday afternoon at Penn State New Kensington's annual program, "Holocaust, in Remembrance."

English professor Lois Rubin and the Office of Student Affairs have brought a dozen Holocaust survivors to the campus each April since 1992 to speak about their experiences.

"The number of people from the World War II generation are shrinking," Rubin said. "As, too, is the list of survivors from the Holocaust. It is important that we don't forget."

Gottesman was born and lived in eastern Czechoslovakia. The son of a hardware store owner, he was one of nine in his family.

He, his father and a sister were the only three family members to survive the Holocaust.

"I can remember in 1933 when Hitler took over Germany and the Nazi Party was nominated," Gottesman said. "It was then that everything was the fault of the Jews."

Less than a decade later, his father was no longer able to operate the family business. His family was picked up and ordered to move across the border into Germany.

In 1943, he was forced to join the Hungarian army.

Gottesman said it was not until 1944 that "things got really, really bad."

"One day we were told to meet in the courtyard by noon taking anything we could carry," he said. "We didn't know where we were going."

Gottesman and his family were taken to a ghetto camp where they were forced to live with several other families in a single house.

A week later, the family was robbed of all their cash and jewelry prior to boarding a train, Gottesman said.

"When we got off the train a day later, we were ordered to walk into a brick lumberyard where 30,000 people were surrounded by guards," he said.

From there, Gottesman found himself boarding one of the infamous box cars to Aushwitz.

The next day he was unloaded from the box car, assigned an identification number -- 37052 -- stripped down, shaved and sterilized.

Gottesman said each prisoner was entitled to a cup of a black coffee-like substance in the mornings and a ladle of soup, three to four pieces of bread, a tablespoon of marmalade, a pad of margarine, a triangle of cheese and imitation honey in the evenings.

"This is what kept us going," he said. "We had to adjust to a life unknown to us."

He said a truck would visit the camp every Friday to pick up bodies. Life expectancy, if a prisoner did not fall ill, was three to four months.

In 1945, Gottesman participated in a week-long Nazi death march where he ended up at a camp littered with the dead.

It was there that he witnessed three trenches being dug to bury more than 30,000 prisoners. On April 6, 1945, Gottesman's camp was liberated by the Americans.

"We were the first camp that the Americans came upon," he said. "That is when they began taking care of us."

Gottesman believes he cheated death on several occasions. The most memorable was when he begged the leader of his camp to have his name removed from a children's list.

"I did not want my father to watch me suffer so I lied and placed my name on a list for young children who they promised would be taken to work indoors," he said. "It was then that I realized I had just committed suicide. The little ones were going back to Aushwitz to the gas chambers."

Gottesman tried to explain to the camp leader that he was too old to be on the list and the man next to him offered to place his name on the list for him. Air raid sirens prevented the removal of his name on his first visit to the camp leader.

"The second time I went to the head of the camp he asked for my identification number and struck out my name," he said.

"One strike on a piece of paper and that was all it took for me to be standing here."

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