Life lessons and laughter from a Holocaust survivor
Two years ago, I befriended Daniel, a man 70 years my senior. I’ve visited him almost weekly for almost a year, forcibly knocking three times on his door each time. Sometimes I am not sure how he can hear it with his television blasting on what must be the highest volume level. It echoes down the hallway of his apartment complex, just down the road from UNLV, where I am finishing my final few credits of undergrad. Other times it is so quiet on the other side of the door I am worried he might have forgotten about our weekly meeting. (This only happened once. I called to find out where he was. He forgot I was coming and went bowling with his friends. Oops.) But I hear a “Come in!” from across the room, so I give the mezuzah on his front door a gentle touch and join my friend in the living room.
Daniel Szafran is a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. He has more hair in his ears and eyebrows than on his head, perennially rosy plump cheeks from smiling, and a thick Polish accent. Daniel was born in 1927 in StrykÓw, Poland, and lived with his mother, Fiega Rifka, father, Icek Hersz, and six siblings. His father had a metal business, making milk cans in the winter and roofing houses during warm months, and often brought his sons along to learn the trade while the girls went to town to buy supplies. The kids went to grade school and visited their grandparents’ farm in the summer to play with cows and run in the fields. They lived a comfortable and happy life, Daniel says — until Nazi power grew and his family, along with millions of other Jews, were forced into concentration camps. Life was no longer about living for Daniel and his family. It became about surviving.
My mom, a hospice social worker, introduced me to Daniel in 2016 when his wife, Simona, was her patient. When I walked into the common room to meet him, he had a crowd around him, laughing and glued to every word he said. He was wearing a ballcap, covering the few strands of white hair he has left, and grinning so big his jaw had to be cramping. I only met Simona a few times before she died from Alzheimer’s, but their love was evident as I watched Daniel sing to her, hands locked together, to calm her nerves. Daniel says everyone called them the “two lovebirds.” Life got busy for both of us that year, but I got back in touch with Daniel last summer. I go to his apartment each week and sink into his too-squishy couch to listen and learn from his unbelievable life, and also do a little gossiping.
Daniel was 12 when his family was sent to live in a Jewish ghetto. It was crowded for his family of nine, had no plumbing or furniture, and food was scarce. His two youngest brothers, Shimshon and Moshe, were taken by German soldiers to attend a “special school,” his oldest brother, Barish, went to fight in the army, and his father was taken to a camp by a truck Daniel jumped off of to escape. Those were the last times Daniel saw each of them. In 1943, at 16, Daniel was shoved into an old cattle train with his mother, two sisters, remaining brother and thousands of other Jews for a three-day ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with just a bucket to piss in and loaf of bread for each car, and were pulled out like animals at the gate of the death camp. Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”) loomed above their heads, and soldiers with guns shouted death threats that bounced off the ominous red brick buildings.
The lines were separated by those the Nazis found useful and those not. His brother and sisters were deemed useful. Daniel and his mother were not. Daniel was so malnourished that he looked sick, frail, and unable to work, so he was put in the line for the elderly and young. His mother understood the difference in the lines and told Daniel he had to get to the other line. Through the commotion, Daniel says, he somehow made it over without being seen. That was the last time he saw his mother. Her line was sent straight to the crematoriums.
His new line was separated again by male and female. They were forced to undress in the courtyard and give up their belongings. Stripped of their identities, they became known only by the number tattooed on their forearms. If they didn’t comply with orders, they’d be shot. The men were sprayed down by a hose while the women were sent to the showers. Daniel saw his two sisters, Sura Pesa and Kajla Frymet, waving at him from the shower window before being sent to his sleeping block. That was the last time he saw his sisters. He later found out they survived the camps, but their camp was forced onto a ship that was sunk in the ocean as a last-ditch effort by the Nazis.
Daniel’s apartment is messy. There are toppling piles of newspapers, books, boxes, and clothes on the dining room table. There are kitschy Jewish wall decorations, and vases and jars filled with candy and nuts. There’s a half-eaten box of Pumpkin Spice Cheerios next to Daniel’s cushy recliner. We chat about who is throwing the complex’s next themed party and how the landlord sent out a mass letter because one of his neighbors did something to someone instead of doing something else — I couldn’t keep up. The elderly really have quite the drama. We also talk politics, or he tries to teach me about stocks, or I tell him about career aspirations and love life. He offers me a lot of food. Sometimes it’s bagels with lox or scrambled eggs and onions or chocolate cake or leftover pastries from the complex’s party four days ago. “Just eat something. Take one bite at least,” he says. Oy vey — it is like being at my own Jewish grandparents’ house.
Most of Daniel’s childhood was taken from him. But at 91 years old he sits across from me in his recliner, with a slightly sideways ballcap, windbreaker pants, and a polo, with one foot propped up on the chair and his arm resting on his knee with more swagger than most of the twenty-somethings I know. Daniel’s signature move is a fist bump with wiggly explosion fingers. It is how we start and end every meeting, and, according to Daniel, was invented by him. He has made me feel his bicep a number of times, because, “Have you seen a 90-year-old with a muscle as strong as mine?” The answer is no, but I have to keep him humble. His exercise routine is bouncing a basketball against the wall 60 times, a 30-minute walk, and shooting 20 three-pointers. He claims he shoots at 50 percent, and I think I believe him. He says exercise is the key to a long life, but I think what he really means is living young.
Daniel and his middle brother Nathan were the only two in his family to survive the horrors. When the camps were liberated in 1945, Daniel was 18 but says he looked no older than 12 because he was so severely malnourished. “Day in, day out, the same thing. Put them up, tear them down. Put them up, tear them down,” Daniel says of his work in Auschwitz. His block was ordered to lay brick walls and then tear them down, from sunup to sundown. Work was only separated by short meal breaks. Usually this meant a small loaf of stale bread and a tablespoon of margarine. Special days called for cold cuts or maybe potato soup.
Survival was not easy with sickness, hunger, and lost hope plaguing the camps. However, Daniel was wise — and very tricky. To get more food, he constructed his proudest contraption: a pole like a fishing rod, with a sharp nail at the end to steal bread through a broken window at the bakery. He also walked a fine line with the guard of his block who wanted sexual relations in return for a better bunk and warmer clothes. “I bullshitted him the whole week! I told him my stomach was hurting so it would have to wait, but there is no way I would let him be lovable to me,” Daniel says. When ordered to work in the airplane hangar to repair German aircrafts, Daniel left screws missing in the wings and painted over the holes.
But more important to him than any trick or tool, he says, was being kind to one another. While working at a neighboring camp called Sachsenhausen for a few days, he befriended a guard who allowed him to sneak sticks of bologna back to his bunk. Daniel says he always shared the “goodies” with his friends to “have a party” rather than hoarding them. “I said to myself, ‘You know what, why should I make them angry or jealous?’ I gave myself an even share. This is the time I started learning to be very sensitive and giving and trying to be nice to other people,” he says.
The one place I can always count on getting a great nap is at my grandparents’ house. There is something about the air in their house — it is cozy and warm and full of love. Going to Daniel’s house has the same effect. He radiates a warmth that makes you release your stresses and relax your shoulders. Some days during our hours together, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, captivated and aghast. Others I am fighting back tears, chills covering my skin. Some I am so tranquil that I am fighting my heavy eyelids. Our phone calls aren’t easy — Daniel isn’t the most tech savvy. Either the volume is so low he can’t hear, and I have to shout, or I have to remind him of who I even am, but in a call not too long ago he told me he loved me, and my heart swelled.
Daniel and his brother Nathan joined the Palestinian army following their release from the camps, then made their way to Syracuse, New York. Nathan moved to Las Vegas and Daniel followed soon after, but Nathan died in 2015. It takes a kind of courage and strength to experience and see what Daniel and Nathan saw, what all of the victims of the Holocaust saw. I think the common question people wonder is how and what these people did every day to survive. How do you stay strong and have hope? What is there to believe in anymore? Daniel answers: “I just reminded myself and tried to think, ‘I just need to make it one more day.’ Then I did so. I tried to live for another day, another week, a month, a year, and here I am today.” You just have to make it one more day.
Life is only short in hindsight. In the few years that I have been friends with Daniel, my outlook has completely changed. We have all learned about the Holocaust and the terror that went on inside the walls of death camps, but listening to Daniel, watching his eyes change expression as he tells the stories that make him laugh, make him hurt, make him remember, it is the kind of education I wish everyone could receive.
I feel like a different person now. Things don’t hurt as bad as they once did, only the things that really matter. It isn’t because life is too short that we shouldn’t worry about the small things; it is because life is far too long. There is so much time ahead of me, so many stories that have yet to unfold, so much happiness to live through that spending time on sadness, pain, stress, and worry is only a weight that I would have to keep carrying.
I will never forget one thing Daniel said to me. I asked him if he was ever afraid he wouldn’t wake up the next morning, or if he ever lost the hope or motivation to go one more day. He said that of course he did, but just had to remind himself that it was just one more day. To someone who doesn’t know Daniel, I imagine he seems like a little old man who has never seen anything but sunshine and sparkles every day. His smile is too bright and his eyes are too kind to have witnessed such evil. “There is no room in this world for hate and evil,” he told me. “I just try to be kind and happy all the time. That is why I always smile.”
On October 1, I was in the middle of the 20,000 people who had bullets rained down on them by a twisted man at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. I saw things people should never have to see. I saw innocent people die an arm’s distance away from me. I saw pain and confusion. I felt pain and confusion. I felt what evil truly is. In those minutes I felt only what I can assume Daniel saw and felt day in and day out — for years. I am so blessed that I and everyone I knew in attendance made it out that night with nothing more than scrapes and bruises, and I feel so much sorrow for those who cannot say the same.
When I visited Daniel the week following the shooting and told him what I went through, he quietly muttered while shaking his head, “You are so lucky, I am so sorry.” I was lucky. He was lucky. I never thought I would be able to relate on this level with my friend, knowing what evil really feels like. I think that he taught me a strength to understand my grief, the ability to forgive the evil in my life. Life is too long to carry it with me. That is why I smile.