The 'Other Planet' of Sam Halpern
By: Gad Nahshon
"I was liberated by the Red Army on March 22, 1944. Only God decided that this day will end the 'other planet' of Sam Halpern a man for all the seasons, a unique personality who is celebrating his fiftieth anniversary. He married his beloved wife in Bayreuth. He and his wife Geadys were two Holocaust survivors, two displaced persons, two lovers, two Jews who made up their mind not to give Hitler a victory : upon the ashes and darkness of all they endured Sam and Geardys, full of hope raised a family and became involved in the Jewish community's future both in the United States and in Israel.
Sam Halpern today is a famous celebrity and a successful businessman in New Jersey. He is first of all an Orthodox Jew and a great philanthropist. The spiritual-intellectual of Sam Halpern is based on his childhood education, on his family tradition, on his life as a young man in his shtltel, the town of Chorostkow near the Russian-Polish border, on Hasidut, Yiddishkiet and Zionism as well.
Sam Halpern loves his people, loves Israel, loves to give to any Jewish cause and he is a zealous defender of Israel and the Jewish people. Sam Halpern is a Holocaust survivor. He will never forget the past. For many years he has supported projects such as Yad Vesham in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He, also, helped Oskar Schindler. Halpern has erected monuments of 'Remember, Do not Forget', in East-European countries. He has done everything he could to prevent another Holocaust: Never Again! And it should be noted again that he believes that only a strong Israel is the guarantee of the future of the Jews all over the world. The same he believes in the returning of all the Jews back to the synagogues. All these convictions are originated in Sam Halpern's 'other planet' on his personal nightmare-hell which began in July 1941 when the German demons of death and destruction entered his town of Chorostkow and ended on March 22 1944. Like many survivors Sam Halpern decided to tell his unique story with moving testimony to the world. Today one can buy his breath taking autobiography entitled 'Darkness and Hope', by Shengold Publishers Inc. New York 1996.
Many critics already have praised this book whose title expresses Sam's heritage, perhaps, a miracle. Sam Halpern's friend the famous Elie Wiesel described 'Darkness and Hope' as a : "poignant and moving narrative about his wartime and post-wartime experiences", Many wrote memoir's but "Halpern's is special" stressed Wiesel, and points out also that Halpern's achievements prove that "it is possible to build on ruin. They constitute an unusual testimony. I hope it will be read by Jews and Gentiles." Sam lost his family. His father was murdered in Belzel with 600,000 Jews. His mother and many relatives were murdered on the street of Chorostkow or in the Aktion in other places. But Sam, nineteen years old and his brother Arie survived. Sam was taken to Kamionka a forced labor camp in the area of his home town. He survived the horrors and public humiliations of this camp. He was lucky to be the water carrier and the boot shiner of the camp's commander. He managed to bring Arie, his brother, to this camp. Then when they learned that Kamionka was to be liquidated they decided to run away. They wandered in the area until they found a Christian family that they could trust. During the next eight months, before the Red Army liberated the region the two brothers lived hidden by the Gonniak family in their barn outside their hometown.
Sam Halpern is an honest man: In his book he tells the truth objectively. He decried the Germans and their collaborators the Gentile population : "Aunt Sheindel, for example was betrayed for 5 kilos of sugar. The Ukrainians loved to kill Jews or betray them to the Germans but Halpern never will forget those righteous Gentiles such as Jan, Josefa, Tatyana and Michael Gorniak. And he remarked in his book :"But were it not for such Poles, unfortunately, a very tiny percentage of the population, I, my brother, my wife, and countless others would not be alive today to tell the story of what happened." Halpern, also, pointed out that most of the right-hous Gentiles have remained unknown. After reading this book 'Darkness and Hope' I met Sam Halpern in his Gramercy Park office in Manhattan and I asked him a few questions concerning his unique life experience: Can you explain the secret of your survival in the German Hell? "First I believed that God gave me life. Of course we have the courage to run away and survive against all the odds. In my town there were many Jews rich, smart and powerful and they did not manage to survive the war. In the camps there were many Polish and Russian prisoners of war and they were killed. They did not fight back. Also I must point out that we were trained to survive economically but not to fight. And, of course we were isolated. Even in the forests Gentile partisans were hostile to Jews."
Halpern resents these kind of Israeli macho questions. They are simply irrelevant. In his eyes there is only one conclusion or lesson to draw from the Holocaust syndrome : Israel must remain strong forever.
Why did you wait so long with the publishing of your testimony?
"It was not easy to write after the traumatic experience. It was hard to speak or to open yourself. I and many other survivors were busy with building life, family and business. My life in business was also a sort of mental therapy. Do not forget that the world did not want to listen to us after the war. Many doors were closed. So I waited. Thank God today there are many books and research in the field. I am active in the Federal Commission on the Holocaust. George Bush appointed me as a member. Recently I went to a ceremony in the White House and President Clinton said that every person must see 'Schindlers List'. this is a big achievement for developing Holocaust conscience in America."
Did you try to be open about your experience with your own children?
"Well it was not easy. My children knew about my life and the life of their mother Gladys. One day my child even saw me crying out of excitement. I will just tell you a story: I took my son Jack to see Auschwitz. The visit to this notorious camp, the gas chambers, shocked my son. He refused to eat in the hotel. He was so quiet, speechless that I almost regret my idea to confront him with this horrible evidence. Well I spoke to him. I urged him to dance with a girl. He calmed down. I must repeat, here, my conviction. If we will cry forever or give in to the sorrow and the trauma of the past we will give Hitler a new victory."
What do you think about the future of the Jewish community in America?
"In 1949 I did not see young people in synagogues. Today I see many of them in New Jersey. I am an Orthodox. I believe in religious education. I support yeshivas such as the one of Rabbi Pinchas Teitz. I support Yeshiva University. Of course I am worried about the rising of mixed marriages in America but I am an optimist. I believe in a Jewish awakening in the future. I believe in the unity of the Jewish people. I am optimistic. We must allocate much more budgeting for Jewish education and Torah learning."
There is one more lesson that Sam Halpern draw from his experience during the Holocaust. It is a burning question that still, today, one does not really know the answer it is still a sensitive question but Sam Halpern, the courageous man felt a need to ask when he attended a special International leadership Reunion of the United Jewish Appeal held in Geneva in 1990. Among the participants were the prominent giver of the U.J.A. In page 95 of 'Darkness and Hope' Halpern described the evening when he was invited to speak. "I have to ask you something, a painful question, which I have lived with for decades now! Where were you as a community of American Jews during the Holocaust?" My voice became lower as my emotions grew stronger. 'Europe's Jews were desperate for your help. You had the means, you had the power. As we dropped off one by one in the labor and concentration camps, or hid in haylofts behind false walls, in cellars and attics, starving, frightened, almost beyond hope, as we survived on forged Gentile papers, we waited daily, even hourly, in the ghettos and camps for our brethren in America to do all they could to help liberate us. but where were you?' Today, you help strengthen Israel with time and effort. But where were you fifty years ago, when nothing was done to prevent the extermination of a third of our people?"
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