Holocaust survivor Sam Ponczak visited Randolph-Macon Academy Middle School on May 10, 2017 to share his memories of what he and his Jewish family experienced living in Poland when World War II broke out.
His parents quickly recognized the danger they were in. While his father headed towards the Russian side of Poland, Sam and his mother went to the section of Poland that later became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Once his mother made the decision to rejoin his father, the trip was fraught with peril–his mother wore the armband identifying her as a Jew. Somehow, though Ponczak was unsure how, he and his mother made it onto a train. They were almost caught there, but a kindly priest urged her to remove the armband and then claimed them as his parishioners, allowing them safe passage.
Next, Ponczak and his mother had to cross a frozen river. She carried the young boy as she slipped and slid across the ice. Describing himself as a “stupid child” who didn’t know any better, Ponczak admitted that he laughed and giggled, thinking it was great fun. To keep him quiet and save them both from discovery, his mother gave him some photos to hold onto. But when they finally reached the other side of the river, the photos were no more. In his childhood innocence, he had torn them apart.
The family was eventually reconnected. They were then put on a cattle car to a labor camp in Siberia. “It was a place you couldn’t escape from,” Ponczak said. There his father, who was a tailor by trade, was forced to become a lumberjack with the other Jewish men. “I have a picture in my mind of the people who were in the labor camp. There were sad faces. Angry faces.” Later he asked his father why the people there never smiled, and it was then he learned about the truth that had been hidden from him as a child—the 12 hours per day of hard physical labor, the lack of the tobacco and alcohol luxuries the people had once enjoyed, and the shortage of food.
From there, he and his family were sent north to Komi, where his father—and eventually his mother–had to go to work in a factory. It was there, he recalled, that his twin brothers were born and died. It was also where he began kindergarten, and learned Russian. His family was moved to the Ukraine, then, after the war was over, they were moved to Poland. “It was my first experience with a sort of ethnic cleansing,” he said. He described how the residents were being forced to move out for the new residents. He and his family moved in with an elderly German woman. “It was the first time I knew such a thing as an apartment existed,” he said. Although the young boy now thought he was living in the most amazing, luxurious place ever, the scars from the war remained. He was afraid to use something fascinating, something that he had never seen before, something that the R-MA students take for granted—the bathroom. “I was afraid that man Hitler would come out of the dark and stab me,” he said. “I was afraid to be alone.”
The family next moved—this time voluntarily—to France, then Buenos Aires, and finally arrived in the U.S. in 1964. Ponczak recalled the emotional voyage into New York Harbor and admitted that he teared up at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. He eventually earned a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from Rutgers University, and went onto a career with RCA in New Jersey. He and his wife had three children together and he is expecting his eighth grandchild. Now retired, he is a volunteer in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Ponczak, who still speaks at least a little of each of the seven languages he learned over the years, left the R-MA students with one last piece of advice. “Don’t be a bully. And when you see something that is wrong, don’t ignore it. The Holocaust happened because people ignored what was going on. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”