Sammy Gontarz sinks into a cream leather sofa in the lounge of his home, with a floor to ceiling view of a group of chatting golfers. They make their way in the late autumn sunshine, over the Whitefield course.
He answers the phone – a cold-call from a claim company about an alleged car accident he had been involved in, in the last three years –
“Listen,” he says, with his heavy Eastern European accent, “I haven’t had any accident: I don’t drive: I don’t own a car; I don’t know how you got my number; I haven’t got a computer; I haven’t even got a telephone, so I don’t even know how you rang me!”
and he replaces the receiver.
Clearly he has sense of humour. It’s a wonder it survived along with him, given what he went through.
Born into a poor but happy, working family in Lodz, Poland in 1929, he was the youngest of three siblings, with an older brother, Srulek, and sister Sala.
He was nine when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and recalls the day the bombs started to drop and was sent home from school. So ended his formal education.
A week later Poland fell to the Germans and soon after the Gestapo entered the building where he lived and gave the Jews two hours to collect what they could carry and leave town.
He and his family fled to his aunt’s home – ten people crowding into a two bedroom apartment. Food became scarce. But compared to what lay ahead these were the good times.
Sammy came to lose almost his entire family in the Holocaust. Sala survived, only to be tragically killed in a truck accident not long after she and Sammy were reunited following liberation.
Sammy suffered unthinkable cruelty and loss. He survived transports, selections and five concentration camps and was one of only 270 people out of many thousands to survive The Death March. The teasing twinkle in his eye, leaves you marveling.
At, 86, he does not play golf anymore but still catches up with old friends at the club-house when he is up to it.æ He, along with a dwindling handful of “the Boys”, as they are known, have belonged to the club for many decades, their membership one outward sign of the prosperity many achieved in the UK.
The Boys were among a number of transports of deeply traumatised Polish orphans who, having survived the Holocaust, were brought to Britain after the war to recuperate and rebuild their lives. They stayed close over the years, but many have passed away in recent years.
The few who remain, like Sammy, are now in their mid to late 80’s but their advanced years have done nothing to dim their memories of the horrors they survived. Their need to bear witness to their experiences is greater than ever.
There is a sense of urgency like never before to ensure that when they are gone, others will continue to give voice to what they endured and ensure that the deniers will never succeed.
A diminutive figure with a snow-white floppy fringe, he muses, “We don’t know how long we have – weeks, months or years and there’s got to be someone to take over the job of telling our stories.”
But he was not always able to talk about his experiences of the Holocaust.
“I wanted to speak about it but I wasn’t able to. I avoided people’s questions”.
He went through many years of silence until 1991 when he returned to Poland for the first time.
“I walked around places I had been forbidden to go, as a free man. I went back to where I had been happy in my childhood home, and to the ghetto and the camp. I was alone and I cried a lot. When I came back I found I was able to talk about it. The tears did me good. Something changed in me. I can’t explain it but all of us Boys say the same thing.”
After his visit he sat his sons Adrian and Robbie down and told them everything, eventually recording his experiences of the Holocaust in writing.
Now Sammy is recording the next chapter of his life, picking up at the point when he arrived in England, as part of “My Voice” project.
Established jointly by the AJR (Association of Jewish Refugees and The Fed (Manchester Jewish Federation) the 12 month pilot project has matched a group of volunteers with survivors to “capture their personal journeys”.
Project Coordinator, Hila Kaye explains,
“We’ve just completed the initial five story recordings. The next stage is to put these into individual booklets.
We’re focusing on when they first arrived here with no or very little command of English, no experience of English culture, no possessions, only a few years of education and hardly any family or contacts.
We’re exploring how they managed to re-build their lives from scratch; how they made a living; and how, in many cases, became very successful.
Their stories are relevant now more than ever as we look at the thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn areas with barely anything but their lives.
For the next generations, hearing and reading these stories provide a greater understanding of their own Jewish identity and community.
That’s only half the story however: the booklets will help family, friends and carers to communicate with the participants – they can be looked at together to help trigger memories and stimulate conversation.
And more than that just having someone hear your story gives a person a sense of their value in their community and the contributions they have made.”
Juliette Pearce, Manager of The Fed’s of Time For You Project partners AJR’s Head of Volunteer and Community Services, Carol Hart, in supervising the project. She hopes that the AJR funded project will eventually be rolled out nationwide.
“Ideally I would like to be able to offer the service to anyone who might benefit from it, not only our survivors and refugees, but it comes down to funding. You’d need many more “Hilas” to recruit volunteers, interview them to ensure they were suitable for the role, train them in taking oral histories, match them up with service-users and supervise them on an ongoing basis – it’s a huge job”.
Sammy’s story will tell how after two years in various displaced persons camps he was finally brought to England in July 1947 with the help of an aunt who was living in the UK.
It is thanks to her that, unusually for one in his position, Sammy has photographs of his parents and other relatives, and of himself as a child with his brother and sister, which had been sent to his aunt prior to the war.
The story will tell how on arrival,
“I came straight to Manchester where my first job was at a bakery. I went from one job to another and ended up in a factory manufacturing handbags which I enjoyed. Eventually I started trading on my own in the handbag industry and my business prospered.”
In 1958 he married Sheila and they had two sons. Today they have four grandchildren.
“I built my life from nothing through sheer hard work. When I started my business I worked day and night – I’d pack bags till 1 or 2 in the morning. Normally people go to school or college or university but I only went to school for two years from the age of seven to nine. Having no education didn’t hold me back. If you have drive you can succeed.
Although I’d lost all my relatives and the community I came from, my memories of a happy home and communal life, along with commonsense, taught me about building and keeping relationships.”
Jane Mechlowitz, who is the volunteer helping Sammy to record and collate his story observes,
“I believe we have to educate future generations and mustn’t allow the survivors’ experiences to be forgotten as a piece of irrelevant, ancient history. “My Voice” will portray ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ and there’s very little else written on that subject.”
For further information about the project contact the My Voice team on 0161 772 4800