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Survivors in Houston - The Story of Family Lost (2/3/2009)

Houston Holocaust survivors torn over reparations
Holocaust survivors say no to blood money

CLAUDIA FELDMAN
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Published 6:30 am CST, Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The German government is looking for Sam Spritzer.

Again.

In 1939, when Spritzer was 17, Nazis rounded him up and forced him into an old theater hall with other boys and men from his Polish town. There was no running water and only one toilet, and Spritzer’s tormenters made him spend his daylight hours cleaning up human excrement.

Today, 70 years later, the German government is offering to pay Spritzer and thousands of other Jews for the work they were forced to do in those Nazi ghettos.

The Holocaust survivors stand to gain 2,000 euros, or about $2,500, from the Germans’ latest reparations program, launched in October 2007. But there’s a catch or two: The forms are difficult for people in their 70s and 80s to complete. Also, there’s reluctance on the part of many survivors to participate.

“It’s blood money,” Spritzer says. “In the past, I haven’t wanted any of it.”

Spritzer grew up in Rawa Ruska. On his father’s side were dairy farmers. On his mother’s side were furriers and tailors. Until the German invasion, Spritzer led a sheltered, religious life.

“If my mother had told me to jump, I would have said, how high?” Spritzer says.

When the soldiers came with machine guns, Spritzer found himself trapped in the theater. He endured for a few days, scooping waste, then told a Nazi soldier he needed water from an outdoor pump.

When the soldier wasn’t looking, the kid jumped the bushes and ran. As it turned out, his escape was perfectly timed.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were in the process of splitting Poland in two, and Spritzer and his mother’s side of the family were fortunate to wind up on Soviet turf.

But the Nazis struck again in 1941. When Spritzer’s mother told him to run for his life, he did, disappearing into the Russian countryside.

“It was a time of wandering,” Spritzer says. “If you ask me where I went or why, it’s almost impossible to describe.”

Sometimes he walked, sometimes he hopped trains. He had no money, not even a change of clothes. He will never forget stooping to drink from a puddle “green from frogs.”

Eventually he was drafted into the Soviet army, but he didn’t fight, he dug ditches. Sometimes, because he was adept at half a dozen languages, he worked as an army escort.

Once, Spritzer took a group of soldiers to a training camp in Siberia. On the long and lonely trip back to base, he got off the train in search of food. Immediately he sank thigh-deep in snow.

The wind was whistling, the temperatures were 30 or 40 degrees below zero, and there was nothing in sight except a distant light.

Spritzer trudged toward the beacon, hoping he might find someone who would give him something to eat.Miles later, he realized he was making no progress. The light was still there, shining in the distance, but it was miles and hours away. Deeply discouraged, he retraced his snowy steps and prepared to board the next train. In time a train did pull into the station. But the doors wouldn’t open, and Spritzer plastered himself to the side and held on tight.

“I cried,” he says. “That was one of many times.”

In 1943, while still in the army, Spritzer’s fortunes improved. He got a job as a postman, and villagers gave him bread as he delivered their mail.

But he didn’t stick with it very long. In 1944 he got word that his Polish city had been destroyed by the Nazis, and everyone in his family was killed.

Once again, he got back on the train. He had to go to Rawa Ruska and see for himself.

After the war
By 1950, Spritzer had only a few relatives left in the world. One was in Paris, and Spritzer moved to France.

Another was in Houston, and in 1955, Spritzer moved again, thinking he could build a bigger, better fur business here.

In the past half-century, the Texas Gulf Coast has agreed with him. The modest enterprise he started in 1957 grew into Furlan Spritzer Furs with stores downtown and on River Oaks Boulevard. In 1970, he and his business partner moved into the Galleria, where they entertained Hollywood starlets, local socialites, anyone and everyone wanting knockout fur coats.

Along the way the amicable partnership ended, but Spritzer kept the business going and contributed money and furs to countless charities.

“Why not?” he asks in an accent still reminiscent of the Old Country. “I came into this world with nothing. I will leave with nothing. All I really have is my wife, Pantipa, our daughter, Kristina, my name, and the good I did in this town.”

Spritzer is 86. He and Pantipa closed their Galleria store in 2003, but they continue to sell furs at Houston Jewelry, 9521 Westheimer.

He also works as a volunteer and gives speeches about his experiences during the Holocaust.

“If we don’t talk about it,” he says, “we will not remember. And life will repeat itself.”

In the past, Spritzer has ignored other efforts by the German government to make reparations.

This time, with the help of an army of local attorneys organized by firms Weil Gotshal and Vinson & Elkins, Spritzer will apply for the money. He encourages other survivors who qualify to apply, too.

The volunteer attorneys are making the complicated process as easy as possible, he says.

And he thinks it’s time to accept the help, which, truth to tell, would come in handy.

“I’m older,” he says. “I’ve cooled off. I forgive.”

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