Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann addressed the UC Berkeley community Tuesday night for an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event hosted by ASUC Senator Justin Greenwald.
Steigmann was 1 1/2 years old when he was subjected to medical experimentation at a concentration camp. He and his parents survived, and Steigmann considers himself both a Holocaust survivor and a child of Holocaust survivors. He expressed that he initially did not feel that he belonged to either group, since he does not remember the Holocaust, and his parents did not tell him very much about it.
After joining the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, Steigmann received his first assignment to speak to a group of sixth-graders in 2008. When they sent him thank-you letters after the event, he saw the impact he had on them, and he said he decided to “dedicate the rest of my life to reaching young people.”
Steigmann spoke of overcoming several life struggles, including being homeless at age 56 and not having contact with his grandchildren because of a poor relationship with his son, through his work in volunteering and speaking.
During his time volunteering for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Steigmann met a young leukemia patient in 2002 and saw the patient again after he recovered from leukemia in 2004. Receiving a button that contained a picture of the patient, the date he was completely cured and the word “survivor” helped Steigmann realize that Steigmann, too, was a survivor, not a victim.
“If you act as a victim, you can blame anybody and anything, but you will not achieve what you want,” Steigmann told the audience. “Always act as a survivor.”
Steigmann also spoke about the Holocaust and his belief in reconciliation. According to Steigmann, his father refused to step foot in Germany and buy German products, but Steigmann took an offer to meet the descendants of high-ranking Nazi criminals and was very happy that he did. Steigmann said his father “forgot my life was saved by a German woman,” explaining that she risked the lives of her entire family by giving him milk when he was dying of starvation.
In 2003, Steigmann filed a form for compensation for the medical experiments performed on him, not expecting to receive anything because of his lack of proof other than the word of his parents. To his surprise, in 2014 he received a payment of about $5,000 with the message, “Fully aware that no amount of money can compensate you for the severe injustice you suffered, we do hope that you will regard this payment as a symbolic acknowledgement of those injustices.”
Steigmann shared an overall message of positivity and courage based on his life experiences. At the end of the event, audience members were able to ask him additional questions.
“It’s up to us to listen to these stories and to learn the history, as it is our generation’s responsibility to preserve the memory of Sami’s generation and pass along the message to the generation that follows,” Greenwald said.