Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann speaks to Starkville High School students Thursday morning. As a toddler, he was subjected to medical experiments in a German labor camp located in modern-day Ukraine. His message encouraged students to value their education and "never giver up." Photo by: Courtesy photo/Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District
November 8, 2019 11:23:00 AM
One of the sixth-graders in the audience that heard Sami Steigmann's first motivational speech in 2008 wrote him a thank-you letter that changed his life, he said.
"She wrote, 'Your story is overwhelming and I promise I will pass this story on to my children,'" Steigmann told about 100 Starkville High School students in the school theater Thursday morning. "When I saw the impact I had on young people, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to reaching as many young people as I can."
Steigmann's Holocaust survival story is unique because he does not remember it, which he said made him feel at times that he did not belong to the Holocaust survivors' generation. Born in 1939 in Chernivitsi, in what is now Ukraine, he and his parents were kept in the Mogilev-Podolsky labor camp from 1941 to 1944. According to his website, he was subjected to medical experiments during that time and has struggled with neck, back and head pain all his life as a result.
His parents, like most Holocaust survivor parents, did not talk about the experience because they wanted their children to have normal lives, he said. The family lived in various places throughout the former Soviet Union and in Israel before Steigmann came to the United States by himself in 1961.
In 2003, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. was open only to survivors, their children and their liberators for a couple days. During his visit, Steigmann met a man who was born in the same city and held in the same labor camp during the same time frame that he was. They were less than a year apart in age.
"This is the difference between history and living history," said Steigmann, who will be 80 in December. "Meeting him and talking to him, I decided to stop ignoring being a Holocaust survivor and instead to do something about it."
He has worked with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, the second-largest Holocaust memorial museum, in addition to his speaking career.
Steigmann also spoke Thursday evening at Mississippi State University, the first college campus he ever spoke at three years ago, and Friday morning at Armstrong Middle School.
This is the first time MSU's Holmes Cultural Diversity Center has brought a speaker to Starkville public schools, said Rasheda Forbes, MSU assistant vice president for multicultural affairs. Steigmann is part of the last generation of Holocaust survivors, and hearing his story is "critically important" for middle and high school students to connect it to what they have learned in their history classes about WWII, she said.
'Dialogue brings people together'
Steigmann's main message was to never give up hope in difficult times. When he was 56, five years after moving to the U.S., he was homeless and poor. He sees struggling as a means of uncovering hidden strengths, he said, and he overcame his circumstances by volunteering.
"When you volunteer, you stop feeling sorry for yourself," he said. "When you volunteer by helping others, you are actually helping yourself."
He also went through a messy divorce that made it impossible to have a relationship with his son and grandchildren, he said.
"For the hour and a half that we are together, you become my substitute grandchildren," he told the students.
He implored the audience to adopt a mentality of survivorship, not victimhood, and to approach people of different backgrounds and beliefs with tolerance and dialogue, not with emotion. The American public has forgotten how to disagree in a civil manner, he said.
"Dialogue brings people together," he said. "When you speak with emotion, that is confrontational and you will never agree on anything."
Steigmann said a German woman saved his life when he was a small child dying of starvation in the labor camp. Later, as an adult, he met with the sons of some Nazi war criminals and found that they were more alike than different. At the same time, neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers are real and dangerous, he said.
"Ideology cannot be destroyed by guns," Steigmann said. "It can be destroyed only through education. It is your job to educate yourself, and do me a favor and mentor somebody else."
Hope for the next generation
Traveling all over the country to give speeches has given Steigmann faith in the power of today's youth to create societal change, he told The Dispatch.
"Unlike like a lot of people who think this is a doomed generation, from my experience meeting so many young people, I believe in them and I believe that they will make a difference and a better world for themselves, their children and their grandchildren," Steigmann said.
SHS junior Bella Page said Steigmann's visit reminded her that the Holocaust is not very distant in history, since Steigmann is part of the last generation of survivors.
"I also think it's crazy that he came here," Page said. "He was saying he was just in Chicago. Mississippi is very different than Chicago."
Janna Paes just finished teaching the WWII unit in her eleventh-grade U.S. history class and surprised her students with the news that Steigmann was coming to speak, she said.
"I thought it was very important (for) them to hear a Holocaust survivor, because hearing a firsthand account is more important than any state test, and it helps them on that as well," Paes said.
She appreciated Steigmann's message of never acting like a victim and choosing dialogue with others over emotional reactions, she said.
"He brought not only the historical aspect but also a real-world challenge that teenagers deal with on a daily basis," Paes said.