Saul Raimi, Nazi Prisoner #76593, with Dan Gaken in April 1997.
In April of 1997 I met Saul Raimi. Saul was born in Mlawa Poland in 1924, a small town 80 miles outside of Warsaw. He told me of his life as a young boy in Poland. One of six siblings, Saul was the son of a grocer. When he was 14 the Germans invaded Poland, Saul and his family were sent to Lubartow to live in a ghetto. Saul and his sisters had physical features that allowed them to pass as Polish Christians, under this disguise; they fled the ghetto and returned to Mlawa. Here they hid until they learned that their parents had been taken to Treblinka and murdered by the Nazis.
Saul obtained counterfeit documents that identified him as a Christian Pole. He used these papers and his mastery of the Polish language to smuggle goods and food between the Warsaw and Mlawa ghettos. He was living in the Mlawa ghetto in 1942 when it was liquidated. Placed on a train, he was shipped to Auschwitz.
Arrival at Auschwitz for Holocaust victims was a hellacious experience. Having spent days in a cattle car, the arrived on a platform to blinding light, shouting German guards, barking dogs, and an overpowering smell from the crematoriums that burned bodies night and day. Physicians, including Dr. Mengele, sorted arriving Jews based on their physical state. Saul, 16 at the time and in good health, was chosen for a barrack of laborers. He was issued a serial number, 76593, and had it tattooed to his forearm.
He laid bricks in Auschwitz until January of 1945. With the Red Army approaching, Auschwitz was emptied. Three days of marching led to a seven-day journey in a train car. After ten days he arrived at Buchenwald. As Allied forces neared the camp the Nazi SS took the remaining prisoners on a death march. Saul, weighing only 75 pounds, was liberated by the United States Army near Cham, Bavaria in April 1945.
When I met Saul I was 16 years old, the same age he was upon his arrival to Auschwitz. I don’t know that I was able to understand what he had seen in his life. Now, 18 years later, I recount my time with Saul and feel very fortunate to have met him.
This past Friday I joined more than 50 members of the Central Michigan University community on a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI. This was the first time I had returned to the museum since meeting Saul. I searched for his image amongst the museum’s “Portraits of Honor,” and I thought a lot about his life during our visit. He lost four sisters and both parents. He lost his childhood. He lost his home. His travels took him to Isreal and Canada before he moved to Detroit.
Later that day our group visited the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. I had never been to this facility. A wonderful museum, it tells the story of Arabs who have moved to the United States and outlines their contributions to our culture and society.
Our visit began with a Cultural Competence presentation delivered by a member of the museum staff. She disclosed to us her experience as an Arab American, and shared with us her story. Her family, originally from Palestine, was displaced when the State of Israel was created in the wake of the Second World War. She declined to comment on the ongoing Israeli—Palestine conflict.
It was a moment of surrealism. The horrors of the Holocaust, outlined that morning by our first museum visit, brought many members of the group to tears. For a people to endure such an experience clearly warranted a global response. They had lost everything. To have a place to build a future does not seem like too much to ask. Yet, here was another family, another people, for whom home was no longer a place of comfort. I was quickly struck by a simple fact: our world is interconnected in every way. No action takes place in a vacuum. Every thing we do has an effect on others.
To make sense of this world, and how it has challenged others so much, yet provided me so much comfort is beyond my ability.
During our visit Friday we were presented a gift. A Holocaust survivor, of which there are fewer every day, shared with us her story. Perhaps Paula Marks-Bolton said it best when summarizing her thoughts:
“My message for future generations? To love each other. It should never make any difference what nationality, what religion, what color of skin a person is, we must love each other. We must speak up whenever there is injustice. Together we will make a better world. You must help those that cannot help themselves.”