Living History

Margo Shear Fischgrund is a communications manager in the Office of University Communications. Her grandfather is one of the 16 Pittsburgh-area Holocaust survivors featured in “Lest We Forget,” on display through Nov. 15 on the Cathedral of Learning Lawn.

My grandfather, Sam Shear, is a Holocaust survivor. 

I’d heard his stories before. Stories of enduring five years in five different concentration camps, surrounded by electrical wires, machine guns, dogs and guards. Stories of how he somehow recovered from typhus fever without medication or care from doctors. And stories of how, at last, he was liberated by African-American U.S. soldiers after being forced to walk for four months from the Buchenwald concentration camp toward Munich.

But now, others would learn bits of those stories, and be able to look into my grandfather’s eyes.

In April, I learned that the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh contacted my grandfather, who turns 94 in December, to take part in the traveling Holocaust remembrance exhibit “Lest We Forget.” The exhibit’s creator, Luigi Toscano, would photograph him. And my grandfather’s larger-than-life portrait would join 59 other photographs of Holocaust survivors on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The exhibit was timed to coincide with the one-year commemoration of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

And as a communications manager in the Office of University Communications and Marketing, I would be working on media relations around the exhibit’s opening.

In my position, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to tell stories of the research, discoveries and life-changing work done at Pitt. So often as a writer, I look for angles in the story that would encourage a personal and emotional connection that can bring in a reader, help them relate to the story, to understand more than what a headline or a quick summary can convey.

This time, the emotional connection was something I didn’t need to go searching for. It was the feeling of my professional and personal worlds colliding. I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandfather and hear the stories again—some familiar, some new—but all in the context of sharing them with my colleagues in the larger Pitt family as “Lest We Forget” made its exhibition stop on our campus. 

My grandfather said it took him many years to talk about the Holocaust, because “it was hidden in my heart. I could not take it out.”

Now, he told me, he’s happy Pitt is hosting Toscano’s “Lest We Forget.”

“I think it’s a great thing that they’re doing the exhibit, because there is something to show the public so that they will understand what happened to us,” he said.

The beginning

My grandfather was taken in 1939, at age 13, while he was in line for bread in his town of Bendzin, Poland. 

“They took me because I looked older than I was. The children went to Auschwitz to the gas chambers because they were young and couldn’t work. The Nazis didn’t need them,” my grandfather said. “My mother and father didn’t know what happened to me. I disappeared. I was gone. I never saw them again.”

I had never asked how my grandfather dealt with not knowing what happened to the rest of his family, his parents and younger brother and sister. “I had to live with not knowing where they were. I knew I was there, in a barrack, and I didn’t think I’d stay alive,” he said.

His parents and younger siblings were taken to Auschwitz three years later.

Learning how to survive

I also learned about how my grandfather devised ways to survive on his own. For example: One of the factories he was constructing sat on top of old farmland, so he scoured the land and found roots from cabbage, carrots and other vegetables—most of them rotten. 

Another way he survived involved help from an unlikely source: a German civilian. 

During his time in the Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, my grandfather was working in a factory where he caught the eye of the man, who was a bricklayer. 

One day, the bricklayer was eating lunch on the second floor of the factory—where guards couldn’t see—and suddenly dropped his sandwich. “Every day, he saw me working so hard. One day he dropped his sandwich, and walked away for me to pick it up and eat it,” my grandfather said. “When I walked by him, he said, ‘Every morning when you come, you’re going to have four potatoes, cooked inside.’”  

This happened for about five months, and my grandfather never knew his name.

“You’re free now!”

Another story I hadn’t heard:

“About five days before liberation, I had pains in my legs. I couldn’t walk anymore,” my grandfather said, and he laid down on the ground one night, not thinking he’d survive the Death March from the Buchenwald concentration camp toward Munich. But he woke up the next day with no pains and finished the march.

Only 28 of the 1,600 who started the march survived, he recalled. They entered a town 25 miles from Munich called Liebenau. U.S. soldiers were there.

“The soldiers kept saying ‘You’re free now!’ in English. I had no idea what they were saying,” he said. But even without understanding the words, he knew the war was over. 

A reunion 

My grandfather’s brother, Leon, was the only member of his immediate family to survive—his parents and sister died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

But at war’s end, Leon heard that my grandfather was recovering in a hospital in Germany.

My Uncle Leon hopped on a train and came to my grandfather’s hospital room. 

“I didn’t recognize him,” my grandfather said. “When I was taken, he was so little.” 

The two brothers stayed in Germany for a short time. My grandfather went on to play professional soccer in Europe and then met back up with my Uncle Leon, here in Pittsburgh. My grandfather had a long career in the insurance business and has been married to my grandmother for 70 years. 

Last week, tears filled my eyes as my grandfather processed down the aisle on my wedding day. It was extra special celebrating with him after sharing this experience together, thanks to Luigi Toscano and “Lest We Forget.”