Following years of nightmares and a self-imposed decision to avoid talking about the Holocaust, survivor Samuel Marder had a change of heart.
Not many people are left to tell the stories of prejudice and evil from nearly 75 years ago, Marder told a group of NYIT medical students recently during a campus lecture. Marder, 85, said he decided to share his concentration camp memories and discuss the dangers of prejudice on behalf of those who were forever silenced.
“There are six million voices and one million children’s voices that will never be heard,” Marder told members of NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Maimonides Society, who invited him to speak at Riland Auditorium.
In a quiet, steady voice, Marder told of how he first encountered prejudice on his first day of school, when neighborhood children pelted him with stones and called him “Jesus killer.” Only a few years later, Nazi soldiers entered his Romanian city, Chernovitz, and created a ghetto ringed by barbed wire.
“Nobody dared to leave – if they tried, they were shot,” he said.
One morning, Marder and his family awoke to soldiers issuing orders to pack their belongings. Loaded into cattle cars and bound for an unknown destination, he and the other prisoners endured cold and crowded conditions without food or sanitary facilities. The 10-year-old Marder watched as soldiers simply opened train doors to remove the bodies of those who died along the way.
“I don’t know how long that trip took us but it felt like a lifetime,” he said.
After a brief stay in the Bessarabia region of Romania, soldiers forced them to march for days through snowy fields and forests. At night, the only sounds he recalled hearing were his own chattering teeth and indiscriminate gunshots when soldiers decided to kill prisoners. The prisoners finally arrived at a camp known as Transnistria. Marder’s father, Berl, died only two weeks after they arrived.
“I felt so completely destroyed that I did not want to be alive,” said Marder.
The trauma sent Marder into a coma from which he awoke, he said, only after seeing his father reassure him in a dream. Surviving only by sneaking out at night to gather food and wood, or depending on the occasional generosity of peasants living nearby, Marder spent three-and-a-half years in the camp before Russian soldiers liberated the prisoners. As they left, Marder recalled seeing ditches and open mass graves that brought his liberators to tears – but did not generate the same feelings in his own heart.
“I did not cry, I did not feel anything anymore,” Marder said, including hatred or feelings of revenge when he saw German soldiers. “Maybe because my father taught me never to hate. I don’t know. What I learned from that was that hate only eats up a human being.”
Marder eventually returned to his hometown and later lived in Poland before arriving in the United States, where he had a lengthy career as an international concert violinist, composer, conductor, and music teacher. He recently played, as he has for years, at Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular show, and is author of the new book, Devils among Angels; A Journey from Paradise and Hell to Life, which includes autobiographical entries, short stories, and poems.
Marder said he feels compelled to speak about his experiences to a generation long removed from the Holocaust. From security-laden urban schools to classrooms in Iowa where students have never met a Jewish person, he says he finds students receptive to a story he believes is crucial for them to hear.
“It is the most important thing I ever did and ever will do in my life,” he said. “So I go wherever I am asked.”