The Jewish Community at UCF hosted a one-of-a-kind event on campus on Feb. 22. Sami Steigmann, a Holocaust survivor and motivational speaker addressed a gathering of over 50 people.
The audience was brought together with the help of CAMERA on Campus, ZOA, UCF Hillel, JewCF Chabad, UCF Greek Chapters AEPi, and AEPhi, and the hosts of the event, Knights for Israel. At the age of 3, Steigmann and his family were sent to a hard labor camp. Because he was so young, his only value was as an experimental guinea pig. Steigmann’s talk focused on how his struggles shaped him to be the man he is today, and his connection to Zionism. He gave students a rare opportunity to meet a survivor of a genocide that decimated over one-third of world Jewry. His talk, however, became so much more. Steigmann addressed the crowd as a man whose life story has given him the moral compass and outlook that could positively affect young people across the country.
After the Holocaust, due to Romanian anti-Semitism, Steigmann and his parents faced many obstacles that prevented their Aliyah (immigration to Israel). Ironically, rather than kick the Jews out of Romania, they refused to allow them to move to Israel. Steigmann and his family were unable to escape to Israel until 1961. It was easy for Steigmann (as a Holocaust survivor) to appreciate the Jewish Peoples’ right to self-determination as he immediately felt a connection to Zionism. He even voluntarily joined the IDF’s Air Force. He lived in Israel for seven years until deciding to move to the US in 1968. While he didn’t live there for long, it was clear in his talk that his connection to Zionism has only increased throughout the years.
Steigmann referenced three important moments that morphed him into the man he is today. He taught himself to give up hateful feelings; he hit rock bottom when he fell victim to homelessness in Manhattan; and last, was overcome with joy with the birth of his son. After surviving Nazi medical experimentation, Steigmann lives his day-to-day life while in great pain, and still requires multiple operations on a yearly basis. His hate toward the Nazis who did this to him is warranted, and yet it’s non-existent. Seventy-five years after his liberation, Steigmann has not sought out justice for his suffering and to this day has no idea how he was experimented on.
Steigmann’s motto is “I am NOT what happened to me, it’s not my identity. I am who I choose to be.” His proverb spoke volumes to the students who were present.
The Jewish people’s population has increase by only three million in 2500 years, as they survived genocide after genocide, as well as a history of being victims of persecution. While we are all familiar with the history of the Jewish people, we have not allowed ourselves to accept this piece of the narrative as if it were our entire identity. We are no longer the rest of the world’s prey. Just look at Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People as a point of reference. In Israel’s short history, they have had to defend themselves in eight wars, including one war that saw the Jewish people reclaim their eternal capital, Jerusalem. To this day, there isn’t a single state that prioritizes its security more than Israel. Steigmann’s and the state of Israel’s ideology of perseverance are one and the same. The people of Israel have also emulated Steigmann’s doctrine on “never holding on to hate.” Even after our history as being at odds with the Syrian people, Israeli medical personnel have gone out of their way to ensure that refugees and survivors receive emergency medical care and more during Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Steigmann’s story has given many people a new outlook on life, as we learn to appreciate what we have, rather than take life for granted. His story gives us a new found respect for the Jewish State as a safe haven from anti-Semitism. During his talk, the country of Poland passed a law that denied their involvement in the Holocaust, and with that, they denied history. We, the Jewish people, recognize our history, while at the same time, we don’t allow that history to define us as we learn from it.
Jake Suster is a CAMERA Fellow in his third year at the University of Central Florida.