Oct 3, 2018

2018 Kristallnacht Film Forum Honorees Sam and Bilha Ron

Who are our honorees? Sam Rakowski Ron and Bilha Zehori Ron are living testimony of the Jewish people for the past century: the tragedy and the glory of our modern history, “M’Shoah L’Gvurah.” Their experience parallels the goals and aspirations of the March of the Living.

In 1924 Sam was born in Kazimierza-Wielka, Poland. His parents, Joseph and Sophie Banach Rakowski ran a successful lumber business from their home, with Joseph concentrating on the business and Sophie attending to the children. Sam’s little brother, Yisrael, was born in 1927.

They celebrated the traditions of Judaism, and Sophie kept a Kosher home. For the 100 Jewish families in Kazimierza-Wielka, anti-Semitism imbued every aspect of their lives. In school there were altercations with those who called Sam a "Dirty Jew." Still, the family largely enjoyed prosperity and a good life. Then, in September, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Almost immediately Jewish businesses were closed by the Nuremberg Laws, curfews were implemented, and schools were closed to Jews.

With the accelerated extermination of the Jews, the family was very much aware of the liquidation of nearby towns but hoped that they would be spared. They did, however, prepare to go into hiding with some Polish friends. Joseph had good relations with the Polish police who, in September, 1942, warned that Jews from their town could be sent to one of the death camps. Along with Sophie's brother, his wife and two children, the Rakowskis escaped to a farm about 5 miles outside their town. Since they had to travel on foot, they had to leave their 93 year-old grandmother, Pearl Rakowski, behind in a tragic moment that broke Sam and his family’s hearts. She was never seen again.

Sam and his family were given refuge on this farm for 3 months, leaving their shelter only at night to get fresh air. The Germans had opened up a school as a shelter for those who had no place to go or who had come out of hiding. Three hundred family members and friends were taken from the school to a nearby forest and murdered in a mass grave. Sam’s father got a cart from his farmer friend and took the family to Cracow to live with his uncle, Isaac Levinstein. The Germans were not as interested in those coming into the ghetto as those who were leaving it, so it was not too hard for the family to sneak into Ghetto A.

Sam was able to find work at a metal company, while his uncle and aunt, Isaac and Sally Levinstein, found work in Oscar Schindler's factory. Their names were eventually part of Schindler's List. On March 13, 1943 all the residents of the ghetto were marched to Plaszow Concentration Camp. Life in Plaszow was brutal. Sam frequently witnessed executions, watched people being hanged, and was made to bury the bodies of those he had known from the ghetto.

In October, 1943, Sam was transferred to another camp, Pionki, an ammunition factory. At the same time, his mother and aunt were sent to Skarzysko. His father, brother, and cousin were sent to Mauthausen in 1944. Uncle Isaac was sent to Auschwitz. Sam remained in Pionki until July, 1944, where he described himself as "being in the business of surviving." Sam and the 350 remaining prisoners in Pionki traveled in two cattle cars for two days toward Germany, as the Russians were approaching. But the train was derailed in western Poland and they spent some time living in a barn with little food, poor sanitation, and working extremely hard digging anti-tank ditches. When they were finally taken to a railroad station and told by the Gestapo that they were going to Germany to reassemble the factory, they thought that they were being shipped to Auschwitz which was very close by. Sam describes the journeys in the cattle cars as times when people became like animals as soon as the doors closed.

The prisoners were sent to Sachsenhausen. This camp, near Berlin, did not want to take in Jews from the East because they were afraid of the diseases that they thought they would be carrying. Sam was put into quarantine for 3 weeks and issued paper clothes, but found life there not terribly uncomfortable in comparison. At one point he was shipped to a sub-camp, Gloven, while the ammunition factory was being rebuilt.

By the time he returned to Sachsenhausen in January, 1945, there were 55,000 more prisoners who had been sent to this camp from the uprising in Warsaw. Although it was winter, he still wore paper clothes, slept with four or five others in the same bunk, and had very little food. Yet he still worked in an airplane and grenade factory and digging up unexploded bombs in Berlin. Going to work was always preferable than staying behind since one could often find an extra scrap of food or a cigarette butt.

As the Russian Army approached in early April, 1945, 30,000 to 40,000 inmates of Sachsenhausen were taken out of the camp on a death march. For the first week, they marched in rows of six and anyone who stepped out of line was shot. By the second week, the guards did not care how anyone marched, and by May 2 the guards themselves disappeared. Sam and a friend who had been caring for each other walked out of the forest on this date to witness thousands of Germans running to the American POW camps. After finding cognac and sugar in an abandoned tank, they showered in a farmhouse and walked to Schwerin where the American Army had set up a DP camp. But Sam chose not to be behind barbed wire again, so he spent his first night of freedom in a bombed out house.

In the city of Schwerin, he was given clothing and CARE packages and was able to meet and talk to American soldiers in Yiddish. Taken to the CIC Headquarters by the Americans, he helped them in their search of Nazis for the next two weeks. Since the Russians were taking over that part of Germany, the CIC relocated and Sam returned to Poland to make contact with family members, including an emotional reunion with his mother in Cracow.

After locating his mother's new address in Cracow, he was told that she and his aunt had gone back to their small town after their liberation, but the home where they were staying had been ransacked by the Poles who were still persecuting Jews. His Aunt Mina had jumped out of the window to escape capture, breaking her leg. They left their hometown, and Mina was admitted to a hospital in Cracow. This incident dashed Sam's hopes of returning to his birth town.

Sam was in limbo – not knowing where to go or what to do. This led him to become involved in the “great escape,” the Bricha. There he found his moment of recovery. He became a foot soldier for the Bricha, which was a clandestine organization that moved survivors through Europe to Eretz Yisrael. By this time he learned that his father was safe in a hospital in northern Austria, recovering from his own horror in Mauthausen, so Sam moved to work for the Bricha out of Austria. Here Sam discovered that his brother, Yisrael, had died just two weeks before liberation from Mauthausen.

In March, 1946, Sam was asked to participate as a madrich to, legally, escort 1,100 orphaned children to Eretz Yisrael. These orphans were gathered from monasteries, Christian homes and the forest. He did this by taking a train to Marseilles and a ship to Haifa, arriving in Eretz Yisrael with these children on April 28, 1946. As the children were sent to Youth Aliyah programs, Sam joined a group of survivors planning to build a new moshav. While waiting to be assigned the land on which to build their new community, they, temporarily lived in a small kibbutz called HaOfek. During this period Sam met Bilha.

Bilha, a sabra, was born in 1930 in Moshav Yarkona in the Sharon region. Chalutzim from Poland and Russia drained the swamps of the Yarkon River to create this village that has become one of the pearls of modern Israel.

Influenced by teachers from the regional school of Kefar-Malal, she knew from an early age that she was destined to be a teacher. Bilha grew up at a very dramatic time in the world, and especially to our people in Israel. Following elementary school, Bilha went to Levinsky Teachers College for her high school and college years. Training in the Hagannah, she prepared to be an assistant nurse in the army.

In 1946, after the catastrophe in Europe, a group of young survivors, 30 men and women from Poland and Romania, settled in a temporary kibbutz called HaOfek, near Yarkona. That is when Shmuel Rakowski (Sam) entered Bilha’s life. Bilha shared, “Sam was a handsome young man with curly hair, an amazing personality, and strong leadership skills. I immediately fell for him!”

Their 69-year romance blossomed when Sam appeared on a white horse to guard their small vineyard tended by Bilha and her family. She was 16 and Sam was 22. Bilha volunteered to teach Hebrew at the kibbutz where Sam was living until his group was ordered to settle in the farthest place in the Negev desert to create a new moshav called Nevatim.

Then, on December 16, 1947, Nevatim was attacked by Arabs. During this battle Sam was seriously wounded and airlifted to the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv. After his recovery from surgery, Sam returned to Kibbutz HaOfek , where he and Bilha renewed their relationship. He drove armored trucks in convoys bringing supplies to isolated outposts in the Negev.

In 1949, they married while Sam was still serving in the army. Following a short term of army service, Bilha was called to teach a class of immigrant children who were newly arrived in Israel from five different countries. Graduating as a teacher from Levinski Teachers College of Tel Aviv did not prepare her for the challenge of teaching students who knew no Hebrew at all.

By 1947, Sam’s parents had immigrated to Ohio to be near relatives, and were encouraging him to join them in the U.S. In 1956, Sam and Bilha moved to Ohio to care his ailing parents. Sam and Bilha’s children, Tamar and David were born in Israel in the early 1950’s. Their third child, Daphne, was born in Canton, Ohio with special needs. Their daughter’s needs and caring for Sam’s frail parents determined that they would stay in the United States. Sam and Bilha currently have four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Once settled in the US, Bilha utilized her energies and pedagogic skills to teach Hebrew, Jewish History, Bible and advocacy for Israel. She accomplished lectured and taught both Jewish and Christian children and adults, a lifelong advocacy that continues today. In 1974, Bilha graduated from Walsh University in Canton, magna cum laude. She was later awarded “Outstanding Alumna of the Year.” She received many more honors for her community outreach and ecumenical activities. In 1986, she was appointed by Ohio governor, Richard Celeste to be a founding member of the Ohio Council on Holocaust Education. This council developed a new Holocaust curriculum which is still being used statewide. From 1977-1989, Bilha was Education Director of Temple Israel Religious School in Canton. In 1986, she attained the title Reform Jewish Educator (RJE) which signifies achievement of academic and professional standards of excellence as an educational leader in Reform Judaism.

Sam went into the building business and achieved success. At the same time he served as president of Temple Israel of Canton in the 90’s, and as a member of the Jewish Federation Board there. Sam also traveled to gatherings of survivors in Germany, Poland, Israel and Washington, DC, and made numerous journeys with his family members. His first March of the Living was in 1995.

In 1999, Sam and Bilha became snowbirds in South Palm Beach County, moving to Valencia Falls in Delray Beach in 2002. Since 2016, they have lived in the Toby and Leon Cooperman Sinai Residences on the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County campus west of Boca Raton, enjoying a well-deserved retirement if you can call it that. Bilha still leads a book club and teaches Bible. Sam delivers meals-on-wheels to needy seniors for Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services. Sam continues to share his testimony with students and adults, learning from him as have thousands of others. Age 94, he will travel on his 11th March of the Living this coming spring.