On his 15th birthday in 1945, Sol Lurie left Buchenwald, the sixth Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.
To mark his 85th birthday, he went back to Buchenwald, joining other former prisoners and their families, German leaders, and schoolchildren to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German camp’s liberation by American troops.
“I was also at the 65th anniversary, and I’ll be back for the 75th,” Lurie vowed in a phone conversation from his home in Monroe after his return. “Germany has really changed so much. I find there’s less anti-Semitism there than any place in Europe.”
The Lithuanian native was accompanied to the ceremony by Laurie Gang of Monroe, a member of the Henry Riklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
“I’ve been sort of looking out for him since his wife, Raja, died in January, so when his children couldn’t come he asked me,” said Gang. “He was much stronger than I thought he was. In fact, all the survivors I met were so full of life and had such stories to tell. We even met one survivor from Austria who was 102 years old, and he looked great.”
Lurie, who frequently speaks at schools about his experiences, said he tries to teach students respect for others.
“I teach the kids to love, not hate,” said Lurie. “That’s the most important thing. My payment is getting a letter from a child. That’s enough for me.”
Lurie said he could trace his family roots in Lithuania to 1492, when his ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition. At the start of the war, he was living with his parents and three older brothers in the town of Kovno.
Gang said each of the 70 returning survivors was assigned a student volunteer by the German organizing committee to escort them during their April 9-13 stay. Lurie’s student arranged for him and Gang to have a private tour of Buchenwald and for members of the press to meet them there.
Gang said his interview was seen on the TV news in Germany. “It was like he was coming back as royalty.”
Also impressive were the accommodations at the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, which Gang described as “the most beautiful five-star hotel” — and where Hitler kept a suite.
“Can you imagine it was Hitler’s favorite hotel, and it was so thrilling to see all these Jews taking it over while Hitler turned in his grave,” she recalled.
“It was just such an amazing experience,” said Gang. “Sol ran into people he knew from the camp who he remembered because many of them went together to live at an orphanage in France after the war.”
Among the 522 boys taken to the orphanage was author Elie Wiesel, who was in Lurie’s bloc at Buchenwald. The Nobel Prize winner did not attend the commemoration.
“Oh sure, I knew him,” said Lurie, who carries with him a photo showing him in the group with Wiesel at the time of liberation.
Gang said commemoration events included a program involving some of the survivors, including Lurie, who was paired with a former American soldier who refused to call himself a liberator because he “stumbled” on the camp after its gates were open. Although the program was in German, guests were provided with a listening device translating it into a variety of languages.
“What I found fascinating was that it was primarily a young crowd, many of whom had traveled from other parts of Germany,” said Gang.
Lurie’s father and three brothers survived Dachau; his mother was killed two days before liberation. However, the surviving family members returned to Lithuania and got trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
When asked at the orphanage if he had any relatives in America, Lurie recalled he had an uncle living there, and a cousin later saw his name on a list.
“They asked me if I wanted to come to America, so I came in 1947 to the greatest country in the world,” said Lurie.
He didn’t see his father again until 1969, when Lurie was able to get a six-month visa for him to visit, although he had to leave the rest of the family behind to ensure his return. One of Lurie’s brothers was murdered in 1952. Another brother immigrated to Israel in 1973, the other in 1976.
“In my mother’s family of eight brothers and sisters not one survived,” said Lurie. “My father’s siblings were shot at the beginning of the war.”
Lurie settled in Brooklyn and had a career doing home repairs, plumbing, and electrical work before retiring to Monroe. He has three children and several grand- and step-grandchildren.