After 2 long flights originating in Juliaca, Peru, we boarded our third leg (6 hours) from Miami home to California. I was tired, pretty hungry, and ready to sleep.
I boarded the plane, stowed my backpack, and turned off the freezing air blowing onto my seat. The bald man next to me with pants hitched to his chest looked longingly at his freezing air vent, so I volunteered to turn it off for him. And get his blanket out of the plastic wrap. And open his cheese stick. Through all these events, the man struck me as cheerful, grateful and engaged. He was quite chatty and continued to talk until well after take-off. He kept telling me that "Life is Beautiful" and to "always learn from your mistakes." He was talking about how "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade..." I was pinching Scott, cluing him to create a distraction and give me a break from my conversant seat partner. I noticed a tattoo on his arm, but tried not to stare, so I didn't really give it another thought. Scott succeeded in diverting my attention, but it only lasted about 2 minutes. The man was back at it, telling me about his grandson becoming a Rabbi this coming weekend- the purpose for his big trip out west. I finally decided to just engage and give him my full attention.
I asked him where he was born and grew up. That's when things got interesting.
He was born in Poland in 1925 and then his mother died when he was 9 years old, leaving 6 boys and 1 girl behind. Their family lived in the ghetto for a few years before he was taken to a concentration camp... and then sent to 4 more (The 3 I remember were Dachau, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz). He spent a total of 27 months in the camps beginning at age 17. Now understanding his background, he had much more credibility for his "get lemons and make lemonade" talk. Once I realized what an opportunity this was, I eagerly asked every question I could think of. This time I was pinching Scott to "Listen up!" and take advantage of this rare chance we had to learn about a person and an event that have molded history. The next 5 hours flew by (pun intended) and I left feeling motivated, proud, lucky and inspired to live a good life and always choose happiness and faith.
Halfway through our discussion I got out my notebook and just started writing down details as fast as I could. I don't know what I'll do with them, but I knew I didn't want to forget.
(M stands for Me, S stands for Sol.)
M: What was it like when you very first went to the camps?
S: We stand in lines and go forward. When you reach the front you put your arm out, and another prisoner will put this number on you. Now, when people wonder what this number is on my arm, I tell people this is the phone number of my first girlfriend! (He is a jokester!) So then a fellow prisoner puts the number on my arm. This is my number for my first three camps. The last two camps, I had a metal tag that goes on my chest pocket, and on my leg. They said "If you lose your number, you're dead!" When we got to the camps, we went in a shower where they put hot hot burning water that would burn your skin. Then it would suddenly turn to freezing cold water. So cold. It was torture.
M: How did you survive when so many died?
S: Life is beautiful! You must always be positive and believe in yourself. Every single time the Germans would ask who could do a certain job, I would raise my hand up very first. They say "Who knows how to work in the fields?" "I do!" "Who knows how to train horses?" "I do!" (Even though I had no idea...) "Who is good at carrying heavy blocks" "I am!" I always volunteered so they will know I am strong. Also, when you do something, look at people straight in the eyes. For example, Scott, If you want a job, go there and look at them right in the eyes and they will see that your soul is good. That is what I did.
M: Did you always have the desire to live? Were there times when it was just too hard?
S: My mother died when I was 9, my baby sister was 2. We had 6 boys, 1 girl in my family. She was the youngest. When mother died, they took her to an orphanage. After school every day, I would go visit her. She loved me and I loved her. When she was older she came to live with us. Then, on the day we were collected to go to the camps, they said "Women and Children in this line. Men in this line." My baby sister was calling my name. I can hear her voice. She was killed. So all through the camps I desperately wanted to live so that I could take revenge on the Germans and kill a little German girl. So when I was in the camps I wanted to live so I would be liberated and do this. Once I was liberated on "my lucky day" April 19, 1942, I thought to myself, "Why would I kill another innocent little girl??" So I realized not to do that. But, I did have a purpose for living during the time in the camps.
Another time, I was being transferred on a train to a different camp. They gave me a few cans of food for my multi-day journey. As I was boarding the train, the German said, "You have it better than we do." The Germans are so obedient. If you tell a German, "walk straight" and there is a wall coming up, they will walk right into the wall without stopping or turning. They are so diligent, for better or for worse.
M: Were any of the Germans (He never once called them Nazis) nicer than others? Did it seem like they knew what they were doing was wrong?
S: Sometimes, yes. For example, one day I was working out in the field. One German in the front (the place if you weren't a very good Nazi) waved for me to come in. He grabbed me hard by my forearm, and told me "I'll kill you right away." The thing to do is be silent. I only stared directly into his eyes. I was not afraid. When you let fear get in the way you cannot think clearly. Then, he let me go. So always choose to think positive and have faith because then you can think clearly.
Also, the Germans would give us a little food, and water from the toilet.
M: Did you ever come home from a day working and find that your friends who were prisoners had been killed?
S: Not really. I was at work camps. We worked. When they found weak people they transferred them to death camps where they did that. So friends would disappear, but I think to a different camp.
M: How are your English and Spanish, Russian and Polish all so good even though your first language is Hebrew?
S: Learning a language is easy. You just hear a new word and you repeat it over and over and over. If you don't use your skills you will lose them. When learning Spanish, use your skills. If you are doing a sport, practice or you will lose that. If you want to be a good cook, use your skills, or you will lose them. So in bed, use your skills or you will lose them. (TMI, I know.)
M: Is it hard for you to talk about this? To answer my questions, and bring all these memories back into your mind?
S: No! I want to share because I want people to know what happened. This way it will not happen again. After today I want you to tell your daughter and all your people so that they will know what this was like. I do not want people to suffer, so we must learn from the mistakes of the past. Also I want to use my mind to remember. If I don't use my brains, I will lose them!
M: What was it like on the day you were freed?
S: I was liberated on April 29, 1945! This is the day I was born again! I remember they put a large pill on my tongue like this. And then when I woke up it was May 5, 1945. I don't know what happened then, they put me out of it. After I was liberated I went to Palestine. Later my brother sent mail convincing me to go to America. I went to New York and met my wife. She was a waitress in the Bronx. I married her in Brooklyn 69 days after we met. She is Cuban. She wanted to go live in Cuba. So we lived there for 12 years. When Castro came, I thought "Miami is only 80 miles away... no communism there." So I sent my wife and children there, and I sent all my money there. But I stayed in Cuba to finish my business. I sold women's clothing. I was selling all my products for cheap so I could finish the business and go to Miami. But the government liked the taxes from my business, so when they found out that I tried to close my business they put me in jail. But I got out and went to Miami. Then my family moved to Palestine. But my wife didn't like Palestine so we went back to Miami.
Always remember "A SMILE a day keeps the doctor away." Apples are good too, but smiles are better.
I feel really lucky to have had this chance to talk with Sol and for his willingness to share his experience with me. He is an example of choosing happiness even in the worst of circumstances. He has always kept his mind strong and chosen faith instead of fear.