Students at both Mississippi State University and Starkville High School were able to hear from a survivor of one of humanity’s darkest hours Thursday.
Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann gave a talk to a group of SHS students and later, a public lecture on the MSU campus discussing his experiences and sharing his views of the current world. Steigmann also allowed the students to ask him questions about his life and experience.
Steigmann was born in 1939 in Czernovitz, Bukovina, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire belonging to Romania and located in present-day Ukraine.
In 1941, Steigmann and his parents were sent to the Mogilev-Podolsky labor camp in Ukraine, where the family remained until 1944 when the Soviet Army liberated the camp. As he was too young to work, Steigmann was subjected to numerous Nazi medical experiments. While he has no recollection of the experiments, he suffered several health issues throughout his life as a result. He eventually received compensation from the German government for the harm caused to him by the Nazis. He began speaking about his experiences in 2008.
He discussed the struggles of being both a Holocaust survivor and the child of Holocaust survivors.
“For 63 years, I felt that I did not belong to either generation,” Steigmann said. “By the way, you are the last generation that will have the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor. Once my generation’s gone, it’s only from the books and the movies.”
He said for many years, he did not remember the significance of his story, saying he did not remember much from his time in the camp and his parents never discussed their experiences.
“I would say I have no memory of that period of my life, but the first memory that I had is actually of the war,” Steigmann said. “I was close to seven years old, and I had a nightmare. In my nightmare, I was in the corner of a building, pitch dark. The only sound that I heard, the only lights that I saw were from explosions.”
He also remembered an unknown German woman risking her life to save him from starvation at the camp after the Germans had finished using him for experiments.
“Not far away from the camp was a farm owned by the Germans, and a German woman brought food to the guards and the SS,” Steigmann said. “After she saw the physical signs of starvation, big head, swollen stomach, swollen feet, she decided to give me milk. It’s relatively easy to make a decision when only your life is at stake, but it’s a totally different idea when you put at risk your entire family. If this woman would have been caught giving me milk, her entire family would’ve been killed.”
Steigmann never learned the woman’s identity, but was overjoyed to see a memorial in Israel to the thousands of unknown people who aided imprisoned Jews during the Holocaust.
After the war, his family moved to the Transylvania region of Romania, where he grew up, before the family was deported from Romania and moved to Israel. After serving in the Israeli Air Force in the 1960s, Steigmann came to the U.S., where he settled in Milwaukee. He returned to Israel in 1983, before returning to the U.S. five years later and settling in New York City. For part of his time in the U.S., he was homeless.
He urged the students not to believe everything they heard or read without doing their own research, and also said all systematic violence began with bullying.
“Not everything that they hear, that they read, that they see is the gospel truth,” Steigmann said. “A lot of people use the internet to promote hatred. Secondly, I do hope that they will educate themselves. You cannot make a change in this country unless you are active.”
He said being active was the only way change would come.
“All the revolutions, every change that happened, happened because people were active, starting with students,” Steigmann said. "Especially right now, my goal is for them to be prepared for the future, for the university. I want them to become active.”
He also said it was important to fight battles based on information, not emotion.
“This is not a Jewish issue, it is a humanitarian issue,” Steigmann said. “It is a universal issue, and we have to learn from the past so history will not repeat itself.”
Steigmann said he has spoken to groups as young as fourth graders, and emphasized the importance of sharing his experiences with young people.
Steigmann also spoke at Mississippi State University for a second time Thursday as a guest of Hillel, the MSU Jewish Student Association and MSU’s Holmes Cultural Diversity Center. He first came to the university to speak three years ago.
Holmes Cultural Diversity Center Director Ra’Sheda Forbes spoke to the importance of students hearing from a person with Steigmann’s experiences.
“This is the last generation of Holocaust survivors that exist, so we thought that it would be particularly important to capture the voices of the last set of Holocaust survivors that we have living,” Forbes said.