The Story of a Polish Son

Have you ever met someone, and knew almost immediately that they were someone who would have a profound impact on your life? Then days, or even years later, you can never quite put into words how deep their impact was, because you feel that any attempt you make at putting pen to paper would be unable to scratch the surface of how deeply their life touched yours?  

Almost a decade ago, I had the privilege and honor of meeting Samuel Spritzer. Sam is someone who made me look past my own life and trivial day-to-day annoyances, because he loved life. He embraced it with open arms, just as he did every person he crossed paths with throughout his 92 years on Earth. I recently learned that he passed away from cancer on April 24, 2015. Death gently cradles us all in the end, but it is truly remarkable that Sam lived to see his 18th birthday, let alone well into his 90s.

When I first met Sam, and spent around seven hours interviewing him, I introduced him to my husband, who may have described him the best when he said “Ashley, he’s just such a happy, little Polish man.” And he was happy, even though he had every reason not to be. Sam was happy, because Sam chose happiness.

It is difficult for me to try and share Sam’s story, because I have vivid memories of hearing it firsthand, and the copy will never do the original justice. But this is my personal footnote to his story, and I will try and get it right.

Sam was born in Tomasacw, Poland, on December 20, 1922. After his father’s tragic passing when he was three years old, Sam and his mother moved to his mother’s hometown, Rawaruska, Poland. It was there that Sam grew up and both he and his mother worked in the family business. They were furriers and tailors, spanning back six generations, and a business that Sam would ultimately bring with him to Houston. In 1933, war was beginning to seep into daily life. Swastikas were being painted on doors and windows, and anti-Semitism was increasing at a rapid rate as Hitler and the Nazi’s spread their message of hate. While life became a new sense of normal for the next few years, that ended with a Blitzkreig in 1939. After only 10 days, the Nazis had taken complete control of Poland. Soon after, they called for all the men in Rawaruska to meet at an old theater in town. Being 17 at the time, but still “holding on to my mother’s skirt,” Sam and the other men were forced to remain in an old theater with one toilet and no running water. He was forced to shovel waste amongst many other things, until one day he told one of the soldiers he needed water, and was permitted to walk to a pump within eyesight of the solider in order to fetch it. He pumped water until the guard got bored of watching him and took his eyes off him. That moment was all Sam needed. He immediately jumped over the bushes, out of sight, and ran.

This decision likely saved his life.

After hiding but ultimately returning home to his mother and grandmother, Russian and Nazi forces fought for control of Poland, ultimately splitting the country. His birth town, Tomasacw, went to the Nazis. Rawaruska, to the Russians. Through the circumstances of war, Sam’s birth records were unattainable, and though all citizens were ordered to the return to the town of their birth, Sam chose to claim Rawaruska as his birth town, since there were no records available to contradict his claim. At the advice of his mother and grandmother, Sam made the difficult decision to give up his father’s last name—Shefman—because they agreed taking on his mother’s last name would be safer. Just like that, Sam became the man I knew and admired, Samuel Spritzer.

After the hours I spent interviewing Sam and hearing his story, there were some things that really stuck with me. First, in the face of all the hate he witnessed in his life, Sam chose not to let it define him. Sure, the Nazis all but chose his name for him due to the necessity to protect himself by giving up his father’s name, but ultimately, what’s in a name? It doesn’t change who a person really is, and Sam was incredible from birth.  Second, how much I take for granted the wonderful things in my life. As Sam described to me crossing through Afghanistan after being forced to flee Poland in 1941, jumping on the side of trains and holding on for dear life, I asked him where exactly he was going. His answer was concise—away from the Nazi’s. Thinking perhaps he misunderstood what exactly I was asking, I repeated the question. Sam smiled, looked me directly in the eyes and said “Ashley, away from the Nazi’s.” It didn’t matter where it was, it just mattered that it was away.

Throughout my time with Sam, it was abundantly clear to me how fiercely Sam loved his mother, and how selflessly she loved him. Now that I am a mother to three young boys, I understand Sam’s mother’s love, and can’t imagine the agony she must have felt telling her only child to run away from her. As a mother, all I want to do is wrap my arms around my little boys and protect them from everything. There were so many unknowns for Sam’s mother, and how heartbreaking must it have been for her to know that as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t protect him. That even making the decision to tell him to run did not guarantee he would live through the night. All she knew is that in order to let him live, she had to let him go. The magnitude of her decision is incredibly humbling to me, and I am thankful to her for her selflessness, because she gave me an incredible gift. I will be forever grateful to her sacrifice, because it allowed me to meet her son, and he changed my life.

Today, we all focus so much on what’s immediately in front of us. We watch others judging our choices as mothers, or see mothers fighting over whether or not it’s harder to work full-time outside the home or stay at home with children, that we forget to see the bigger picture. We’re all fighting the same fight, loving and protecting our children, just like a happy little Polish man’s mother did more than 65 years ago.