Contact: Zack Plair
STARKVILLE, Miss.—In 2004, the German government sent Sami Steigmann a check for 2,500 marks, at the time equal to more than $5,000 American dollars.
It was a boon to a man living in Manhattan on a paltry Social Security disability check, but that wasn’t the most valuable part for Steigmann. The letter that came with the check read that the Germans acknowledged Steigmann as a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Nazi medical experiments during World War II.
“That meant more to me than the money,” he said.
Steigmann spoke Wednesday [March 23] to a crowd of several hundred gathered in Lee Hall’s Bettersworth Auditorium as part of an event sponsored by Hillel, the Jewish student organization at Mississippi State. Equal parts biographical and motivational, the 76-year-old recounted how being a Holocaust survivor had shaped his life and aimed to inspire audience members to stand up against discrimination.
As a Jew living in Romania, Steigmann was 18 months old when he and his parents were rounded up in 1941 and taken to a Nazi labor camp in Mogilev Podolski, Ukraine, where they spent the next three years before the Russian army liberated the camp. Steigmann was subjected to medical experiments and nearly starved to death. But a German woman, who lived on a farm next to the camp and brought food to the camp guards, saw Steigmann’s malnourished state and risked her life to secretly feed him milk.
After the war, his family resettled in Romania before moving to Israel, where Steigmann served in the Air Force in the 1960s. At age 29, he immigrated to the United States. Though he’s too young to remember the labor camp, and he has no idea what medical experiments he endured, his lifelong bouts with severe headaches and back pain serve as reminders of the terror of the German Third Reich and have also given him a high tolerance for pain.
Calling himself an “accidental motivational speaker,” he didn’t become involved with Holocaust survivor organizations until 2007. Both a survivor and a child of survivors, he said he really didn’t identify with either generation until he told his story to a sixth-grade class in 2008. After that, he said, he felt fully a part of both generations, and he’s since taken every available opportunity to share his story.
“I’ve decided to dedicate my life to reaching as many people as I can,” he said. “I have hope for you (the younger generation) that you will make this world a better place for yourselves, your children and your grandchildren. You have to believe in yourselves, have strong core values and don’t compromise.”
More than 11 million people died during the Holocaust, including more than 6 million Jews. Steigmann said such an atrocity could happen to any minority group, and he implored the audience not to be bystanders to discrimination and other injustices. He also warned against the “politics of personal destruction” where disagreement between cultures or faiths morphs into hatred.
“There is only one race, and that’s the human race,” Steigmann said. “We have different cultures and different nationalities, but we are one race.
“When I was in Romania, they called me a Jew,” he added. “When I went to Israel, they called me Romanian. In America, they called me an Israeli. But I am an American. I hope one day if I see someone here is hurt that they will say ‘an American was hurt’ and not tie it to an ethnic group.”
Hillel also sponsored an event on Monday [March 21] in the Dawg House at Colvard Student Union where two World War II veterans—James Hunt of Columbus and Joseph Johnson, a native of Godway, Alabama—recounted their service on the western European front.
Joseph Metz, the group’s president, said he appreciated such quality speakers coming to campus and sharing their stories. Metz, whose grandfather survived the Holocaust as a prisoner of Auschwitz, said he also realizes the importance of learning the history from firsthand witnesses before they are all gone.
“History repeats itself, so if you don’t learn from World War II and the Holocaust, the same types of things can happen again,” Metz said. “When you have people who can speak well on several subject matters, it compels us to pay attention and really drives the point home.”
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.