Holocaust survivor tells his story to students in Mount Prospect

  • Samuel Harris, 81, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, talks about his experiences with students Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect.

    Samuel Harris, 81, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, talks about his experiences with students Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Students Justin Fernandez and Mia Kowalczuk present gifts to Samuel Harris after he spoke with them about his experiences in the Holocaust. About 140 students listened to Harris Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect.

    Students Justin Fernandez and Mia Kowalczuk present gifts to Samuel Harris after he spoke with them about his experiences in the Holocaust. About 140 students listened to Harris Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Samuel Harris, 81, of Kildeer, is president emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. He still regularly gives speeches about his experiences in the Holocaust, including a lecture Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect.

    Samuel Harris, 81, of Kildeer, is president emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. He still regularly gives speeches about his experiences in the Holocaust, including a lecture Friday at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/20/2016 6:30 PM

Samuel Harris estimates he's given thousands of speeches over the past four decades recounting his experiences as one of the youngest Holocaust survivors.

And though he says after every lecture at a school, synagogue or Rotary club that it will be his last, he knows it can't be.

 

"I'm helping educate people about what can happen if we don't stand up to bullies like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin," Harris told a group of 140 students Friday morning at St. Emily Parish in Mount Prospect. "You're the young people that have to see this. A lot of us who have survived -- I'm one of the last survivors -- we're not going to be around to tell the story."

Harris, 81, of Kildeer, has maintained a fevered pace of speaking engagements in recent weeks, in conjunction with the annual Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 4. He's told his story to groups in the city and suburbs, Wisconsin and Indiana.

His speech Friday at St. Emily also was attended by students from St. Raymond in Mount Prospect and St. Alphonsus Liguori in Prospect Heights.

Harris, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie in 2009, also recently was interviewed as part of an oral history project that aims to preserve stories of Holocaust survivors on three-dimensional holograms.

Now president emeritus of the museum, Harris was one of a half-dozen survivors who traveled to Los Angeles to be videotaped while answering some 2,000 questions about their experiences. The goal of the project, coordinated by the USC Shoah Foundation, is to allow museum visitors in Skokie and elsewhere the opportunity to pose questions and get answers in real time for years to come.

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A similar interactive video experience with survivor Pinchas Gutter is up and running at the Skokie museum, but Harris' wife, Dede, says the technology behind the latest project takes it to another level.

"Sam will be able to answer questions of your great-grandchildren," Dede Harris told the students at St. Emily. "The story must be told for generations to come."

The interactive Q&A with Harris and other survivors should be complete by late 2017.

Born in 1935, Harris was 4 years old when Nazis invaded his hometown of Deblin, Poland, located about 70 miles from the capital Warsaw. The youngest of seven children, Harris survived in the Deblin and Czestochowa concentration camps with two of his sisters. The rest of their family was killed.

An orphan at age 12, he arrived by boat in New York City, later taking a train to Chicago, where he was adopted by the Harris family of Northbrook.

He attended New Trier High School, became his senior class president, and went on to a successful career selling insurance for Equitable Life.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that he first started telling his account of the Holocaust, when he heard about a book by a Holocaust denier. It also spurred him to gain support and funding for a museum, which culminated with its opening in 2009.

"Why? So people could learn what had happened and that it shouldn't happen again," he said.

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