“I was one of the lucky ones; I know that,” said Samuel in a recent interview with the Press. “It’s not something that I think about every day, but it’s something that is important to remember. And by talking about it, it helps to keep me sane.”
Samuel will next be talking about his experience on Feb. 10 in Brentwood, when he will speak at a traditional Shabbat dinner at Chabad of the Delta. The public is welcome to attend.
Born in 1931 in Dresden, Germany, the only child of Jewish parents, Samuel was forbidden by Nazi decree to attend regular school. As anti-Semitism in Germany became increasingly blatant, Samuel’s parents began searching for a safe haven for their son. They found it in Great Britain.
“During that time, there were many Jews who wanted to leave Germany, Austria and other European countries, but much of the world closed its doors,” said Samuel. “England was one of the only countries that welcomed us.”
And so in January of 1939, Samuel became one of the tens of thousands of young refugees – “Kinders,” as they would later be called – to benefit from the humanitarian relief effort called the Kindertransport. The program placed predominately Jewish children in foster homes throughout Britain, and while it was supported by the British Parliament, host families were required to take full responsibility for the children, paying for their needs out of their own pockets.
“My parents told me I was going on a great adventure and that they would join me soon,” said Samuel. “And I believed them. I don’t remember getting on the plane or leaving my parents, but I do remember wearing a cardboard sign around my neck with my name on it. I arrived in England like a package.”
Samuel Epstein retrieved the 7-year old package and brought him to live with his wife and son in Wimbledon.
“They treated me with such kindness,” said Samuel. “They treated me like family. A few months later my mother wrote to Mr. Epstein explaining that conditions for the Jews were getting very bad and asked if he needed any help in his home. He hired my mother as a maid and we were reunited. I remember, however, eating my meals in the dining room with the Epsteins while my mother ate dinner in the kitchen. But I had her with me and I was lucky.”
In September of the same year, Samuel and half a million other children in Great Britain were evacuated to the English countryside to escape the anticipated bombings. Samuel was sent to a tiny village outside of Guildford about an hour and a half from London. He went to a large manor house with several other children, and on Sundays the mothers would take the train to visit their children. Once again, Samuel’s mother found a way to be with her son, this time as a governess at the estate.
“My mother asked during one of her visits if they needed help with all these children,” said Samuel. “And they hired her as a governess. She stayed with us through the end of the war. My mother, she was a very, very tough lady and determined to stay with her son.”
Samuel’s father, however, had remained behind in Germany, believing he could continue to work as a grain broker and later join his family in England. But he was soon rounded up and sent to a labor camp outside of Dresden, and from there was deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed.
“We had Red Cross letters from him – they could write only 25 words or less – telling us he was all right,” said Samuel. “And I still have the last letter he sent. But then we learned he had been taken to Auschwitz, and my mother received a letter telling her he had died. He was 44 years old.”
When the war ended, Samuel stayed on in England with his mother while his aunt (his mother’s sister) and her family, including his cousin Haans – who later changed his name to Hank – moved to New Jersey. His uncle had died shortly after arriving in America and his aunt eventually remarried a Holocaust survivor.
In 1957 Samuel’s aunt sent for him. He later settled in Oakland, got married, had two daughters and enjoyed a successful career in land acquisitions. His mother finally agreed to come to America and live with him, and arrived on Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“My mother always thought America was such a violent country,” said Samuel. “But she came here to be with me and I know she had a happy life. She was able to be with her grandchildren and even though she never remarried, I believe she had a fulfilling life.”
Today, Samuel stays in touch with cousin Hank, who lives in Florida and is also in close contact with foster brother Peter Epstein, who remained in England. His mother died in 1978 and his aunt and step-uncle have long since passed.
Now retired, Samuel spends much of his time sharing his experiences with students and adults in local communities, offering his insight and historical perspective on the Holocaust and in particular the Kindertransport mission.
“As a grandchild of survivors of the Holocaust, I’ve always had a personal interest in all kinds of stories of survival during that period,” said Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz, who is hosting the event. “My maternal grandfather managed to escape Poland as it was being invaded, but his entire family perished. Though this story is different, it has a close resemblance, and I’m looking forward to hearing it firsthand along with all the others who will be joining us.”
For Samuel, the events of his life haven’t necessarily defined him, but have certainly shaped him. And by recounting the turbulent times he experienced firsthand, Samuel believes he pays homage to those who came before him and educates those who come after.
“To me, there are two kinds of survivors: those who never speak about it and those like me who won’t shut up,” said Samuel. “And I am in no way suggesting that one way is better. But I find that when I speak to groups, especially the high schools and especially in Germany, the kids are so hungry for information because their grandparents and great-grandparents wouldn’t speak about it.
“Is there a sense of shame? Absolutely. Do I speak about forgiveness? Certainly not. My father would be the only one who could do that. But I do it because I feel we need to learn and I want to tell today’s kids that one person can make a difference.
“Mr. Epstein saved my life, and to honor him is one of the reasons I speak out. He not only saved me; he saved generations of my family. And it was all through the efforts of one individual.”
Chabad of the Delta hosts a three-course traditional Shabbat dinner with Samuel on Friday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Shadow Lakes Event Center, 401 W. Country Club Drive in Brentwood. Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for children. RSVPs are requested by Feb. 8. For more information or ticket reservations, call 925-238-8770 or visit www.jewishdelta.com.