Sam Harris

Sam Harris, a holocaust survivor, came to Northbrook in 1948 and was adopted and raised in the community. He describes his adoptive family, his love of Northbrook, his schooling and more recent activities in aiding in the construction of a Holocaust Museum in Skokie with the goal educating to prevent further holocausts and bullying.

Recorded on November 11, 2011. Length: 29 Minutes.


JH: Welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project, sponsored by the Northbrook Public Library and the Northbrook Historical Society.  My name is Judy Hughes and I am pleased to welcome Sam Harris.  Sam documented his life before coming to Northbrook in the book “Sammy – child survivor of the Holocaust” and that book is available here at the Northbrook Public Library and also at the Northbrook Historical Society.  Sam, we are so happy to have you here today and before you begin telling us about your years in Northbrook, will you please tell us the name of the town in Poland where you were born and the name you were given at birth. 

SH: I was born in  1935 in the town of Deblin, Poland, which is about 40 miles from Warsaw on the Visla River, a big river in Poland.  My given name was Szlamek Rzeznik and that was my name until I came to Northbrook when I was adopted in 1948.

JH: You had a large family in Poland?

SH: A real big family.  I was the youngest of seven.  We had aunts and uncles and cousins – a large family.

JH: What did your parents do?

SH: My father was a scribe, all he did was write the Torah, one of the five books of Moses.  I remember him sitting there with a quill pen, dipping it in the black ink, sharpening the quill, and writing each little letter.  He had to go to the Mikveh, a ritual bath before he did this and sometimes I would go with him as a little kid.  He would then sit and write the Torah for famous rabbis.

JH: Then your life totally changed.  Would you tell us about that in brief?

SH: Hitler came to Devlin, Poland, in September, 1939, when I was four years old and that changed my life forever.  They bombarded the entire area, beating and killing people.  Subsequently all of my family was destroyed except for myself and two sisters, one lives Vienna, Austria, and the other lives in Buffalo Grove.  They saved me.  Without them I would not be alive.  Hitler killed all of the Jewish children over a year and a half.  I am probably one of the youngest to survive two concentration camps.  During that time my life was a living hell.  I lost my whole family, my life was worse than hell.

JH: At the end of the war you found your older sister again?

SH: We were together but did not know what to do.  She dropped me off at an orphanage in Dublin.  She was married in the concentration camp to an Austrian and they went to Vienna to organize their life.  After a few months she came and picked me up and took me to Vienna where I was put into second grade.   At that time, the end of the war, I was nine and a half years old.  I learned to speak German fluently, went to school and so forth.  Subsequently my sister felt it would be better for me to be in the United States so she sent me to the United States through an organization called the United States Organization for the Rehabilitation of European Children, which I believe was started by Mrs. Roosevelt.

 JH: And so you and your sister Sarah came?

 SH: She held on to my hand, Sarah is about 1.5 years older than me.  My older sister, about 17 years older is the dynamo who saved us.  She is the one that did it.

 JH: Through that organization you came to Chicago?

 SH: I came to Chicago and was placed with the Jewish Children’s Bureau and they were looking for someone who would adopt two children.  No one wanted to adopt two children so we were separated.  Eventually, my parents, Dr. Ellis Harris and Harriett Harris adopted me and my sister was adopted by a couple in the City.

 JH: And you stayed in touch with your sister?

 SH: Completely to this day.

 JH: Can you tell us about coming to Northbrook and your parents?

 SH: Let me tell you about coming to Northbrook in a different way than anyone else could tell about coming to Northbrook.  Nobody else in Northbrook could talk about it the way I can.  You have to remember where I was coming from – a living hell.  The worst time in the history of the world, the Holocaust and I was in it.   Can you imagine hunger, death and I lived through it? Then I end up on the North Shore and I am greeted by my new mother driving up in a Buick to meet me wearing white gloves and a little sister.  They take me to Hickory Lane, this gorgeous home and for the first time they lead me to my room.  I never had a room.  Lots of trees, flowers blooming.  It was April and it was gorgeous.  I couldn’t speak English.  They took me out to lunch and I didn’t know what to order and they ordered for me. Whatever they ordered, I said “yes, yes, yes.”  Whatever they said, I said “yes, yes, yes” – even if it meant “no, no, no.”  It was interesting learning the language in Northbrook.  Can you hear my Northbrook accent?

 JH: Yes, Sam, I can hear your Northbrook accent.  When you came to Northbrook, I have heard you say that you only spoke three words.

 SH: Yes, I came on a ship called the Ernie Pyle.  They served us cokes so the only three words that I spoke were “yes, no and Coca Cola.”

 JH: Tell us a little bit about your adopted mother and father.

 SH: They were very beautiful people involved in the community.  My mother was on the school board at Crestwood.  She was president of the school board, my father was a pediatrician and the school doctor.  They were very active.  My mother was involved in the League of Women Voters and they were involved in all kinds of activities, contributing a lot to the community and I got that from them.  My father was very honest, hardworking.  My mother used to be a teacher but she devoted her time to be a full time mother.  She got up every morning and cooked for my sister Sue and me and when I went to high school she drove me to New Trier.

 JH: You said you went to New Trier High School.  How come you went there when you lived in Northbrook?

 SH: That wasn’t my decision.  I already had all new friends.  Glenbrook was a brand new school.  Dr. Watson was a friend of ours who was head of the high school.. 

 JH: At the time the high school was still at Crestwood?

 SH: It was between Crestwood and the new location.  New Trier was then considered the best school in the country and my parents elected to pay the $500 per year since we were out of the district.  There was another family named Rinella and a Chapman family so Bernie Rinella and Don Chapman, whose father was the mayor of Northbrook, and I were students at New Trier and our parents took turns driving us there.  That was their decision.  It was just a good decision.

JH: When you came to Northbrook what grade were you in?

SH: In April they put me in 6th grade for a couple of months.  Then I went to 7th & 8th grades and graduated from Crestwood.

 JH: Tell me about going to school at Crestwood.

SH: Crestwood was terrific for me.  I got involved and I had to learn to have friends.  I liked sports so the way I made friends as my mother said they put me out on the baseball field but I knew nothing about baseball.  They gave me a mitt and I put it on my right hand because I was right handed but then had to throw with my left hand.   But then I was up to bat and hit a home run and so then I had lots of friends.  I still remember all their names.  We would go to the park and play baseball.  In the winter they would flood a field and we played hockey.  It was lots of fun growing up in Northbrook.  At Christmas time we would go to each others homes and sing carols.  We got all excited about Northbrook Days, that was a big thing.  I remember every year my father bought a lot of tickets and said this is the year I will win the car.  He never did and now I buy tickets but have never won a car at Northbrook Days.  School was good.  I remember the names of the teachers.  One of my favorite classes was Art and Mrs. Berseen was the teacher.  Mr.  DuBois was a teacher, Mr. Himmelman was the superintendant.  I remember the names of the kids.  This was all new to me and it was so exciting for me and I was slowly learning English.  I pretended I understood everything but I did not.   That was a problem because nobody knew.  The few words that I spoke were pronounced pretty well because I spoke several languages before:  Yiddish, German, Russian and some Hebrew so languages weren’t that hard.  I did not always understand what people were saying and that was very difficult for me.  But I rode my bicycle.   On my 13th birthday I received a Schwinn.  The roads were dusty and full of holes.  Hickory Lane and Walters were unpaved.  In the winter we would go sledding.  We had a wonderful time.  In 7th grade when we got to our homes we would play Spin the Bottle – that was big in Northbrook.  Maybe it is big everywhere.  I am just telling you some of the things I had never done before and did in Northbrook.  It was just fabulous.

JH: So you began your schooling in Northbrook.  As I remember, when you graduated from 8th grade you received the American Legion Award.

 SH: Yes, I learned about democracy.  I ran for office at school and I won.  I don’t know where I got the idea but I bought a lot of candy and gave a piece to each kid that voted.  I got the majority of the vote.  I should have been a politician.  That was the first award I received and it meant a lot to me.

JH: It says it is for your service and your patriotism and has been a symbol of how you lived your life. 

 SH: I think that’s what it was and it was very meaningful for me.

 JH: After high school you went away to college.  Where did you go to school?

 SH: First I want to say that New Trier High School was a great thing for me.  Bernie Rinella and I had lots of friends.  I became president of the sophomore class and Bernie was president of the senior class.  We played football and wrestled and I was in every kind of activity.  I took advantage of the opportunities.  You can see why I would take advantage of all these things.  To this day I remember New Trier.

I went to the University of Michigan my first year.  That was also a lot of fun but I needed to go to a smaller school to focus on good grades.  Grinnell College, one of the top smaller schools, was where my parents thought I should continue with my studies.  I majored in political science.

JH: And after college you met and married your wife.  Do you want to tell us a little bit about your family?

 SH: After college I started to work with Equitable Life and met somebody there who fixed me up with my wife Deedee and three dates later we got engaged.  We have been married for 50 years and is the best thing that ever happened for me.   She is a smart, educated woman.  She has her master’s degree and was teaching for Homer Harvey in Skokie.  Everyone in Northbrook knew Homer Harvey who became a good friend of mine when I joined Rotary.  We just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on a trip to Hawaii with our children and grandchildren.

 JH: Did you come back to Northbrook to live at all?

 SH: Absolutely.  Not only to live but I brought the business – Equitable Life to Northbrook.  I was obsessed with Northbrook.  We built a home on Red Coach Lane behind Northbrook Court.  Our kids went to Meadowbrook and then to Glenbrook North High School.  We ended up living there until a few years ago when I found a home that looks much like the Hickory Lane home where I lived in Northbrook which was on a forest preserve with lots of trees.  We moved to Kildeer where there are many hickory trees, lots of land (2.5 acres).  I enjoyed all the trees in Northbrook although I hated raking the leaves, took me away from football.  For a job I cut five lawns, my parents were teaching me to work.  I used to work in a drugstore called Adams Drug Store.  Those of you from Northbrook will remember Tom Adams who subsequently got me into Rotary.

 JH: You have been a Rotarian since about 1970?

SH: Yes, for 40 years.

JH: Has Rotary played an important part in your life?

SH: I look through my records and it has been very important.  When I volunteered with many others to help build the museum in Skokie, I went to Rotary and announced I would be working on the museum and all the people around the table said they would help, so suddenly I had a committee.  You know all those people so Northbrook helped in a big way.

More importantly, one of the first people with whom I discussed my background was Rabbi Frankel who I met when I was making up a Rotary meeting in Wilmette.  I liked him so much I joined the Temple where I used to be at North Shore congregation.   He told me that I had to start speaking about the holocaust.   There was a fellow at Northwestern named Butts who wrote “The Hoax of the 20th Century – the holocaust did not happen. “ So I had them videotape me, I didn’t want to speak, and showed that.  The second place I spoke was right here in Northbrook at the Village Church, Pastor Rode, and as a matter of fact, I happened to find the speech that I gave on Oct. 18, 1981.

JH: Is there anything in that speech you would like to share here?

SH: I think the beginning might be good.  Here I am talking to hundreds of people in the audience, it was really packed; it was the time of Sputnik and all that.  Let me read just the first paragraph:

“Reverend Rode, Dr. Early (a Rotarian which is how I happened to be speaking at the church), Ladies & Gentlemen.  I am very happy to be here today.  Let me tell you why:  If I were an astronaut circling our beautiful earth I would look down and point at Northbrook and say “this is my very favorite place.”  Let me tell you why.  It was here in Northbrook where I found happiness as a child.  It was here in Northbrook that I was adopted.  It was here where I learned to speak the English language.  It was here I learned what human decency was all about.  It was here I learned about democracy.  It is here where I chose to raise my family and do my business.”  That’s the beginning of the speech.

 JH: Very powerful.  For many years you didn’t speak about the hell you lived as a child.  You began in the 1980s to talk about it a little bit.  How did that change you?

 SH: You see, I didn’t really want to change.  I was happy as I was.  When I came to Northbrook I gave my mother my suitcase.  I said take it away, I never want to see it again.  I wanted to part with the past which wasn’t too pleasant.  I wanted to just be an American boy and an American citizen.  Although I must say that at night I would wake up and cry.  My mother would come into my room and cry with me.  So I didn’t forget.  I tried.  I moved on with life.  I had too many things going.  Then when people started to deny the holocaust I got involved.  I said earlier I was asked to get involved.  I was concerned and did not want what happened to me to happen to other children.  What can one person do?  I don’t know but seeing that I had been in the holocaust I volunteered to help build the Holocaust Museum and Education Center that would educate children.  We built the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and teach children.  We passed a law in Illinois which states that Illinois children have to study the holocaust.  Then we went back and passed a law requiring public school children to study holocaust and genocide.  Now 27 states have copied us.  It has changed my whole life because I now became obsessed with raising money and getting this museum up and running.  The opening was in 2009 and we had 13,000 people there including President Clinton and the Cardinal, senators and representatives.  It does me so much good when I drive by there and see the 10-12 yellow buses which have brought 700 children to learn about bullying and evil.  They get it.  There is always a survivor there speaking and it has changed many lives.  I was there the other day and a kid from New Trier came over to me, a junior, and he said to me “Mr. Harris are you forgiving the Germans.”  And I said sure.  I took my wife and children to Germany and to Berchasgarden where Hitler was and I told them to spit on this ground but don’t hate all Germans.  There are good and bad people in every walk of life.  I asked him why he asked the question.  He said he is from the Philippines and his grandma hates the Japanese.  I suggested he go back as she would feel better if she didn’t hate them.  The kids are learning this and I feel good about what we have done.

JH: You speak to schools?

 SH: Yes, I do, all the time.

JH: You’ve been speaking to some of the Northbrook schools?

SH: Yes, the interesting thing about that is when kids talk they come and tell me, not about the holocaust.  They come and hug me and say – you are my new hero.  My father just died or I was considering suicide – if you can do it, I can do it.  I always say good things about America.  One of the teachers came to me and said – You know Mr. Harris, no one says good things about our country anymore.  We sure need to do so.  I get lots of letters from kids about that.

JH: Is there anything you would like people to know about your life and the town where you grew up?

 SH: Sure, I look around and I read a lot of papers.  I do care what is going on and I don’t like it.  We in Northbrook are living in a little island, we have food or have food drives to help out.  The rest of the world isn’t like that.  What we practice in Northbrook is democracy.  That’s what democracy is all about.  We have a village president who is elected and lots of volunteers.  I have learned to put back into the community.  I remember when I was president of United Way and all the people were having fun getting together and learning.  I am sure there are many such communities but I only know about Northbrook.   When I came here there were about 800 people and I knew everybody and they knew me and we knew each other.  I think Northbrook has carried on its tradition.  I know the village president and many others involved with the government.  It is a wonderful community and I certainly hope the residents appreciate the fine community that they have.  I certainly have appreciated it all these years.

 JH: Sam, we are coming to the end of our interview right on time.  Thank you so very much for participating in Northbrook Voices.  Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique perspective about the history of our Village.  And thank you for all you have done.

 SH: Thank you for having me.