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Sami Steigmann visited University of the Pacific in January to attest to a ghastly chapter in history that’s fading from the public’s collective memory ─ the Holocaust.

Sami Steigmann visited University of the Pacific in January to attest to a ghastly chapter in history that’s fading from the public’s collective memory ─ the Holocaust.

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Pacific News

Holocaust survivor: Forgive but never forget

Sami Steigmann shares his story at Pacific, urges all fight bigotry
Jan 31, 2019

An elderly man traveled the length of the country to tell his story, one of the rapidly dwindling number of Holocaust survivors still alive.

Sami Steigmann visited University of the Pacific in January to attest to a ghastly chapter in history that's fading from the public's collective memory ─ and the 79-year-old victim of Nazi medical experiments was equally determined to share his life's precepts with anyone who would listen.

"I do not just fight anti-Semitism. I am fighting hatred and hatred encompasses every group," he told a capacity crowd in the DeRosa University Center Ballroom on the Stockton Campus.   

Sporting a brightly colored tie emblazoned with the Star of David, the small man with a benevolent smile recounted in heavily accented English the events in his early childhood that led him to accept his first speaking engagement nearly 11 years ago.

Co-sponsored by student group Hillel of the Pacific, Steigmann's appearance marked his first trip to Northern California and came just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

He was a toddler when his parents were transported in 1941 from their home in the Romanian city of Czernowitz to a Ukrainian labor camp, too young to remember the several years the family spent there before Russian troops liberated the prisoners.

Nor does he have memories of what Nazi doctors did to him. Steigmann knows only that he has suffered a lifetime of chronic pain in his head, neck and back.

And yet during that internment, the little boy experienced a stranger's life-saving act of kindness and courage: A German woman who lived near the camp saw Sami's swollen belly and, recognizing that he was starving, risked everything to bring him milk.

Steigmann champions his benefactor's virtues today as he urges audiences to fight bigotry instead of being bystanders.

Shiri Warshawsky, president of Pacific's Jewish student organization, does just that.

When she hears people making jokes about the Holocaust, the 19-year-old puts a human face on the suffering by telling them that most of her mother's relatives died in concentration camps.

Warshawsky grew up hearing her great aunt and great-grandmother ─ the only girls in their large family who survived ─ recount stories of what they endured as teens.

But just as she has learned not to harbor resentment over her family's struggle, Steigmann, too, encouraged the crowd to practice acceptance and forgiveness.

"Always find a way to let go of the past. Live in the present," he said. "My motto in life is I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to be, and I choose to be a happy person. Everything that you do is a choice and, hopefully, you will make the right choices to have a positive life."

That message resonated with two mothers who brought their young daughters ─ one 7 years old and the other just 5 ─ in hopes they would absorb some of what they heard.

"It's important for them to know their history so it won't repeat itself," said Yessenia Acero, who until then hadn't discussed the Holocaust with her kindergartner.

Both women considered the chance to hear a presentation by anyone who had survived a concentration camp a rare stroke of luck.

"She might not have this opportunity again," Acero said.

The next generation almost certainly will have only secondhand knowledge of the Holocaust as those who lived through it die off.

Many might not know anything at all: Steigmann pointedly noted that an enormous percentage of the world's population today is unfamiliar with that chapter of history.

And then there are those who insist it never happened. But Steigmann prefers to focus his energies on hearts and minds that are open enough for him to reach.

"If I change one person in life I consider myself to have succeeded," he said.

Pacific's Religious and Spiritual Life helped organize Steigmann's talk, one of many campus events that are open to the public and supports the university's value of diversity and inclusion.

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