Survivors meet in Skokie after more than 60 years
Sam Harris (right), President Emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, talks with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, both survivors of the Czestochowa concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust, at an event at the museum on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. Both Harri
Updated: December 23, 2012 12:33PM
SKOKIE — Chabad rabbis from many of the 35 Chabad Houses throughout Illinois gathered Sunday to witness the long-anticipated and historic first-time meeting of two men who survived the Holocaust in the Czestochowa concentration camp in Poland during 1944 as young boys.
Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and chairman of Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, traveled from Israel to the Illinois Holocaust Museum to meet Sam Harris, president emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, for the first time.
More than 60 years since both men lost most of their families to the Holocaust, Harris and Lau told harrowing stories of narrowly surviving the concentration camps between 1942 and 1945. A packed room of rabbis and Jewish followers listened intently, some tearing up at their heartbreaking stories of survival and loss.
Lau is known as one of the youngest survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was freed in 1945 as an 8-year-old child after everyone in his family was murdered, except for his older brother, half-brother and uncle.
Harris lost his parents and four brothers and sisters in 1942, and later survived four years in the Czestochowa and Deblin camps.
Harris and Lau had never met while at Czestochowa, but, bound by similar tragedies, seemed like old friends, if not brothers, when they met.
Lau is an author regarded as a world-renowned Jewish ambassador. He was also in town to talk about his recent book, “Out of the Depths,” which is the English-translation of his 2000 book “Do Not Raise a Hand Against the Boy,” a memoir about his experiences in the Holocaust.
Following Harris and Lau’s reunion, more than 1,000 people packed the auditorium at Niles North High School to listen to Lau’s lecture.
The rabbi was invited to Skokie by the Jewish Learning Institute of Metropolitan Chicago, which sponsors a different keynote speaker for an annual lecture.
Lau’s reputation as an inspiration to the Jewish community stems from one moment described in his book in when he was lined up at Czestochowa with 10 other children and told by a guard that they would be murdered because they were “useless.”
The 7-year-old Lau stepped forward and delivered a brave speech that would save all of their lives.
In that speech he described the 12-hour work days he endured pushing a cart filled with 60 bottles of water up and down a hill during the frigid winter at Hortensia, a glass factory in Piotrkow.
“Now I’m older and I can do more,” Lau wrote in his book. “I, the youngest, and my friends who are older than I am – we have a right to live, too.”
Rabbi Meir Moscowitz of Lubavitch Chabad in Northbrook described the significance of Lau’s visit in his own words.
“He has an amazing ability to tell his life story and talk about his experiences,” Moscowitz said. “It’s so important for people to continue to learn about or recent past and apply the knowledge of those experiences toward living a better life every day.”
Evanston resident Esther Altman, 81, was born in Altenberg, Germany. Her father escaped the concentration camps with the help of a German farmer who hid him from the Nazis in a barrel.
“(Lau) is such an inspirational speaker and teacher,” Altman said. “His book gives people hope. I think when you come out of an experience like that you can choose to be negative or you can use it to put hope in people’s lives.”