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June 26, 2018

My Day With a Holocaust Survivor

By John Sanidopoulos

In our days words like "Nazi" and "Concentration Camp" are used in a very ignorant fashion, especially by those in America who stand on the political left, which leaves me with the understanding that they have no clue what a Nazi or Concentration Camp was. On the other end you have holocaust deniers, who I would consider to possess the same ignorance. This has prompted me to write this brief article on a day I once spent with a holocaust survivor, and what he told me about his ordeal.

I was an eighteen year old college student at the time, working with my dad as an electrician on Saturdays to make some extra money, a job I had been doing since I was around eight years old. Now that I was older, I was more hanging around at work sites, and if there was someone interesting my father thought I would be interested in talking to, or something I would be interested in doing in general, he would tell me to stop working and go and talk to so and so or do this and that. This led to some interesting conversations, one of which that was particularly memorable was a six hour conversation I had with a pleasant and talkative guy in the Italian mafia in Boston's North End. But the most memorable conversation I had was with a holocaust survivor named Jimmy.

We were doing some electrical work at the house of a family acquaintance, and my father introduced me to a man I had known since childhood but never talked to. He was a Greek Jew who had married a Greek woman that converted to Judaism for him, thus forsaking her Greek Orthodox upbringing. My father brought him over to me and told me that Jimmy was a holocaust survivor, and as he said this Jimmy showed me his tattoo number identification given to him by the Nazis on his arm. I found it quite fascinating, as it was something I had only seen in television documentaries and holocaust movies. With this, my father then asked him to tell me his story. He gladly accepted, and thus began a seven hour conversation about his experiences with the Nazis and his imprisonment at Auschwitz.

What Jimmy told me in summary is the following, according to my faint memory which has had to hold many details of his story for the past twenty-four years. He was born and raised as a Jew in Thessaloniki, where Christians and Jews lived in harmony and peace and respect. When Thessaloniki was invaded by the Nazis during World War 2, he was teenager. At first the Nazis separated the Christians from the Jews, placing the Jews in a ghetto from which they could not leave. This is when the Nazis gave him the tattoo number identification. A Greek family helped him and his sister escape the ghetto by night, and they took them into their house. The Nazi's however soon closed in on them, and while the sister managed to escape in a car with the help of some other Greek family, Jimmy for some reason that I can't remember did not manage to escape, and was taken by the Nazis.

Now in the hands of the Nazis, he was a prisoner and made to march from Thessaloniki to Poland with other prisoners. Throughout this very long march, he was bound to another prisoner side by side. Many of the prisoners did not survive this death march, and as they fell from exhaustion, they were not treated by the Nazi soldiers, but shot in the head as the rest moved on. If you became sick or were too slow, you were shot in the head and left unburied at the spot. Jimmy, although exhausted by this unforgiving march, tried to muster up his strength every day to survive this life or death march. Finally they arrived in Poland and held at Auschwitz concentration camp.

At Auschwitz Jimmy was made to labor hard daily on very little rations of food. This caused many of the Jewish prisoners to grow weak or sick, and many died. Once a week the prisoners were gathered together by the Nazi soldiers, and one by one they were chosen to stand in one of two lines - one line was for those who were weak or ill and the other line was for the healthy. Every week Jimmy was sent to the healthy line, and those who were weak or ill were taken away and never to be seen again. This made him realize that they were exterminating somehow those who were weak and ill, just like they did on his march up north.

One day Jimmy became very sick. He was almost to the point of death. Knowing that if the Nazis found out about this that he would be killed, he mustered up all his strength and did his daily work, trying to look as strong and healthy as possible. But then the day came to divide the healthy from the sick. As Nazi soldiers ordered each prisoner one by one into a line, Jimmy tried to look as healthy and strong as possible, but one soldier came to him and saw that he was clearly deathly ill and told him to go to the line of the sick. As he stood there, he panicked. He knew he was going to die, and he had to escape. So at a split second when all the soldiers were looking away from him, he jumped into the healthy line and tried to look as healthy and strong as possible. This time he managed to do it. The sick were then all taken away, never to be heard from again. It was only after the war that he was informed of the horrors that awaited them in the ovens.

To make a long story short, Jimmy obviously survived the holocaust. He told me how happy he and the surviving prisoners were when the Americans came and liberated them. It was hard to believe that he survived. From Poland he went to Italy, where he met his future Greek bride in Rome. They married and came to America, where they settled outside Boston with other family members. When I talked to him, he was still a strong and healthy man with children and grandchildren. But the memory of his ordeals were still very vivid to him, though they did not affect him in any emotional or mental way. He believed God had blessed him with a good life, although he never reunited with his family again after the holocaust nor did he ever return to Greece.

After we talked, Jimmy and I met my dad who was working and we went to his house and had lunch. His wife told me how it was difficult on her family for abandoning her Greek Orthodox faith, but she didn't see anything wrong with it as she still had faith in God. After that I went home, and still got payed for the day, but it was a day I would not forget.