Conversations about Creativity
An Interview with Sam Harris:
Positivity Waiting for an Opportunity
April 28, 2017
Sam Harris, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, endured immense cruelty as a child and lost most of the members of his family. Between the ages of seven and nine-and-a-half, he hid in two concentration camps. If he had been found, he would have been killed. He wrote about his life in his book, SAMMY – CHILD SURVIVOR OF THE HOLOCAUST, and in 2014, knowing that it was imperative that Sam’s remarkable story of both surviving and thriving be captured in a movie, filmmaker Eric Cosh and I made an 87-minute documentary feature film about him: SAMMY THE JOURNEY. We explored the history of this remarkable man. The movie subsequently played to full houses and had standing ovations at a number of International Film Festivals. Sam Harris was fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust when other prisoners did not. Embracing the opportunities as they presented, he recreated himself in the U.S.A., starting from the time he arrived as a twelve-year-old orphaned refugee. He create a brand new life for himself. I subsequently wrote a book about him: IF YOU CAN MAKE IT, MR. HARRIS…SO CAN I as well as an accompanying Teacher’s Guide. I had interviewed Sam extensively for the movie and then recently, again.
Ellen: Sam, despite enduring a childhood filled with cruelty, sadism and horror, you then chose to lead a life of positivity. You actively chose not to focus on negativity and blame; instead, you turned towards the light and as a result, you continue to this day to brighten the lives of thousands. Not only did you survive, but you also thrived! Yet, you were a twelve-years old orphan when you arrived in the United States on the Ernie Pyle.
Sam: I was twelve years old chronologically but in reality, based on my experience, I was about fifty years old. My thoughts were not of an average twelve year old. I had no fear of what my future had in store for me to the best of my recollections. After all, what was there to fear that hadn’t already happened to me? My thoughts when I was on a ship on the way to America were that I would have freedom and live life without anti-Semitism. I was looking forward to getting good food, not ever again experiencing starvation, and I was also looking forward to learning.
Ellen: One of the memorable observations that you made when I interviewed you in SAMMY THE JOURNEY, are these words describing your thoughts as the ship pulled into New York Harbor: “I was thinking nothing but good thoughts”, you said. This intrinsic positivity that you chose to nurture even at the early age of twelve, made a huge impression on me. After all, you had lost most of your family during the Holocaust. You had lived in concentration camps and then in orphanages. You had faced so much terror and so much insecurity. And then, even being in the U.S.A., had huge challenges. First living in homes for displaced children like you, then in foster homes and finally you had to adjust to life with your adoptive parents. Despite such a hard start in those formative years, you chose to create a life for yourself of growth, achievement, service, and accompanying all of this, joy.
Sam: Yes, I always seemed to choose having only good thoughts. All I wanted to do was move forward and make the most of the opportunities I now had. Ellen, you once said that there is so much “negativity waiting for an opportunity” around us. I have chosen the opposite throughout my life, that is, not to dwell on anger and hate. There is no point to that. Life is about building both for yourself and for others.
Ellen: An example of you giving back in meaningful ways is when you became the instrumental force behind the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center.
Sam: I gave up a successful career in business that had been satisfying for me. It was a decision I made together with my wife, Dede, who has played such an important part of my life always. The Museum took years to become this remarkable educational center. It took enormous dedication on both our parts. Today, thousands of visitors come annually. Not only do they learn about the Holocaust, but also about the atrocities still taking place in so many parts of the world. Busloads of school children come during the week.
Ellen: Your work with students is ongoing. You speak at schools, at churches, at all kinds of institutions. Despite how exhausting you find this to be, you continue to talk to thousands of children and adults each year.
Sam: I spoke about why I do this in the movie, SAMMY THE JOURNEY and you wrote about why I do this in your two books about me: IF YOU CAN MAKE IT, MR. HARRIS…SO CAN I . I continue to do this because I change lives for the better. That is my contribution. I feel I have to keep on talking to these students because I am conveying something of real value to them. Many of them have problems and I understand hardships. I understand people hurting. I can feel what children sometimes go through and I sense they see my sincerity. I want to try my very best to help them. That, I feel, is my purpose – creating better lives for them and for others.
Ellen: If you had all the choices in the world, what would you choose to be?
Sam: A teacher. For so many years, I did not have the opportunity to pursue an education. When I finally could go to school, I was hungry to learn. I felt good about learning. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was so excited when my adoptive parents bought an encyclopedia. I kept a volume at my bedside. There had been gaps in my knowledge. There were so many things I was missing particularly at twelve years of age. There were little things like nursery rhymes that popped up and I never knew them. Eventually, I did learn them when I became a father. I love both to learn and to teach.
Ellen: So you were teaching yourself at an accelerated pace as well as studying what was needed for your schoolwork. Am I right in assuming that you did not want your classmates to discover what you did not know and you also did not want them to know about your life during the Holocaust because you wanted to appear just like them?
Sam: I tried very hard to be normal and for the most part, I succeeded. Speaking about my past to my classmates would have been to no avail. When I came to Northbrook, a suburb of about eight hundred, I don’t think other twelve-year olds knew anything about the Holocaust and the loss of family and wouldn’t have understood it even if I tried to share it with them.
Ellen: You recreated your life but still, your past must have haunted you.
Sam: I handled my past in my dreams. I kept very busy during the day trying to be a good son, participating in sports, doing what most twelve-year-old do. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. But I had many sad dreams and nightmares of the war. Sometimes, my adoptive mother had to sit at my bedside. But I would try to think of the good times I once had during my childhood. I would remember happy things. Playing soccer with my brother David and other little kids in the yard. I remember going to my grandparents’ home and playing with the ducks in the little pond they had. I remember riding the pony at my grandparents farm and I remember very happy moments on the Sabbath and most of all, I remember Passover and finding the Afokomin.
Ellen: So to sideline negative thoughts, you would try to remember happy times and recreate then in your mind. You found your way of not allowing the horrors embedded in your mind to dominate your every day thinking. You actively chose to focus on positive memories.
Sam: Yes, I would think about the many pleasant memories I had before the war. I even would do that as a child hiding in the camps. Throughout my whole life, I always thought that good things would happen to me. Most likely, it was my thinking positively that made me survive. Even coming as an orphan at age twelve to America, I kept thinking about all that I was now going to learn. I had many interests I wanted to pursue and many games to play from chess to ping pong to cards to soccer. And when I finally had those opportunities, I felt like a bull in a china shop. I thought I could and wanted to do it all.
Ellen: And you still seem to do it all. You change lives with your talks.
Sam: I want the students to actively create better lives for themselves just as I did. So I feel I have to keep talking because I know I am helping them and they are listening intently to and absorbing what I tell them. Something valuable is happening. I see this in their facial expressions. I see it in their tears when I tell them my story and how I overcame adversity. I see an understanding of not only my life in their faces, but of theirs as well. I see this in their tears when they share their personal stories with me. I understand hardships and many of the students are having difficult times. After I am done speaking to them, they line up and hug me. It is those kinds of reactions that force me to return to speak. I feel I am changing their lives.
Ellen: You have this instinctive ability to relate to people – meet them where they’re at. You quickly read your different audiences. What do you think contributed to that ability?
Sam: My life experience in Europe, meeting people, speaking several languages, and seeing them struggle through life. All this has given me a lot of experience so I can identify with people’s struggles. I speak their language. As a young child in the concentration camps, I was always in survival mode trying to ascertain how people with whom I was confronted, were going to react. Were they going to be violent and sadistic? I didn’t know. I had to constantly think about how I should react to them.
Ellen: So your gut instincts became increasingly better developed. You learned to be in tune with the slightest nuances of behavior. As circumstances unfolded, so you adjusted and in fact, survived and thrived.
Sam: I was a nobody in the camps. Any day, I could have been dead; therefore, I always had a desire to be somebody. I came from the ground up. It was important for me to succeed in every walk of life. I worked hard to be successful. It made me a better person. Now I focus a good deal on talking to children and helping them by my example. I want them to know that they can build better lives for themselves. As I said in SAMMY THE JOURNEY: “one-and-a-half million children died. I made it. I owe it to share it with the rest of the world on their behalf.” These kids that I continue to speak to, I hope will take every opportunity to educate themselves and create better lives for themselves. That’s what I want for them. And that is a major reason I still speak – keeping memories alive and motivating others to always do their very best. My purpose is to create better lives for others.