Rachel Sambul fled her Polish hometown, surviving the Holocaust in Siberia, while Saul Graf was deported from his home in Hungary and was interned in six concentration camps as a young boy.
During a May 5 Yom Hashoa commemoration at the Young Israel of East Brunswick the two recounted their tales of hardship and loss of their youth, their family, and their friends.
Graf, a Fort Lee resident, stressed that while survivors are still living, “it is our obligation to hear and listen to their firsthand experiences and stories.”
Sambul, a Brooklyn resident, was interviewed by her daughter, congregant Debbie Chustckie, about her family’s flight from her hometown of Gowrowo and her struggles to escape the horrors.
“My mother always considered herself a war survivor but not a Holocaust survivor,” said Chustckie. “A number of survivors who didn’t experience the ghettos and camps don’t consider themselves to be survivors. But, survivors do include the refugees. My mother was a seven-year-old girl chopping wood in Siberia; it was pretty bad.”
After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and began to surround her hometown, Sambul’s family — including her parents, grandparents, brothers, and uncles — fled to Liegnitz. Her mother’s extended family never left and, Chustckie said, “were never heard from again.”
As they left their town, “the road was just full of people,” said Sambul. “I looked back and saw the town on fire, the shul, the houses. Those who remained probably perished.”
After several months, the Russians came to Liegnitz and told them they would be sent to Siberia. They were crammed into cattle cars, Sambul said, and arrived during the winter of 1940, enduring bitter cold and with little food.
“The conditions were very bad,” she said. “My parents and grandparents were sent to the forest to chop wood. We worked very hard and the people suffered disease and malnourishment.”
In 1943, the Russians took the family “from the extreme cold to the extreme hot” of Uzbekistan, where they eked out a living by selling grain, soap, and dried fruit to Russian soldiers.
“I also participated in this,” said Sambul. “I sold a cup of water and charged a ruble, about a dollar.”
When the war ended, the family returned to Poland, where they remained for five years. However, Sambul said, “it was very dangerous for the Yidden; Jews were beaten up.”
In 1950, they left for Israel. She met her husband in 1958, and a year later they came to the United States. The 82-year-old has three children and eight grandchildren.
Graf said that despite increasingly restrictive measures placed on Hungary’s Jews by the Nazi-aligned government, we “believed that what was happening to the Jews all around us in Europe will not happen to us. How wrong we were.”
Just before Passover 1944, the Germans invaded the country, herding Jews into ghettos. To destroy Jewish morale, Graf said, they were ordered to the ghetto’s central yard to watch rabbis forced to walk around with their beards shaven off and the shape of a cross cut into their hair.
One day they were loaded onto cattle cars. After days without food or water, they arrived at Birkenau; they were “greeted,” said Graf, by guards with dogs. He noticed that his father, who suffered from tuberculosis, was lying on the ground.
“I walked over to him. With a weak voice he told me to take his overcoat because he will not need it anymore, and at the same time he told me his final farewell.”
As the newly arrived prisoners were sorted, Graf, who looked older than his age, kept trying to join his mother on the women’s line. But, he said, an inmate kept pushing him into the men’s line.
“This saving angel knew that if I will stay with my mother, both of us will be sent surely to the gas chambers, as happened to all my friends of my age,” said Graf. Instead, he became a slave laborer.
Though he was certain he would never see his mother again, she did survive.
Graf recalled that “day and night, huge chimneys emitted billowing smoke and the smell of burning flesh.”
One day Graf was sent with a group of children from the Lodz ghetto to Auschwitz to be trained as a brick layer, a move that saved him from Birkenau’s gas chambers.
Graf was moved to several more camps, including Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg outside Berlin, before being liberated from Gunskirchen by American forces on May 5, 1945. Graf was extremely sick and weak — a condition which, ironically, saved his life once again. When the American soldiers offered the liberated Jews food from a nearby German warehouse, many of them “literally killed themselves,” said Graf, because after years of starvation, their bodies couldn’t handle the sudden ingestion of so much food.
Suffering from typhus and severe malnutrition, Graf was treated and immigrated to Israel in 1946, where he met his wife, Aviva. They later came to America and raised a family.