Tue, Apr 24, 2012
Samuel Schanzer reached a milestone that most don’t: he turned 104 years old on Wednesday, April 18. His storied life required a lot of extra pages.
“I have more wrinkles than he does,” his son, Joe Schanzer, 55, said.
But life has not always been carefree for the elder Schanzer. He said he feels lucky to be alive this long, but added, “I also lost a lot.”
Samuel Schanzer, who lives in Bensonhurst, is a Holocaust survivor. He escaped a forced-labor salt mine in Wieliczka, Poland in 1944. He lost his parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles to the Nazi genocide campaign against Jews in Europe. He hid from the Nazis until the Russians liberated the territory from Hitler’s occupation.
He carries his stocky frame well, jaunting with his walker, maneuvering with just a little help from his daughter, Sara, from the cake, which just had one 1-0-4 candle to blow out, to his easy chair. One of his helpers is getting his suit ready for his second engagement. This is a special occasion, so he has two parties to go to. Seated in his easy chair, Mr. Schanzer tackles a hefty piece of birthday cake, the rose of course.
“When you’re hungry, everything’s good!” he said.
Whether it’s genetic longevity or a certain hardiness acquired by a history of struggle, Mr. Schanzer exemplifies the journey of the day-by-day. His simple recipe for living can serve as a proverbial fountain of youth: take things one step at a time, and cherish life’s precious moments and blessings.
Schanzer has not lived an exceptionally healthy lifestyle in his youth, but says he exercises three times a day. He didn’t start taking medication until last year and waited until the age of 100 to stop smoking.
“So what’s the lesson learned here? Enjoy your life!” Sara, his daughter, said.
Joe and Sara Schanzer recall their father’s active lifestyle, which consisted of going dancing, to the theater, and enjoying New York City’s many cultural aspects with his late wife, Pola, who passed away at the age of 90 last year.
“But when my wife died, my health went down. She was dancing every day,” Schanzer said.
Schanzer met his wife at a displaced persons center in Frankfurt, Germany and married in 1948 in a union that lasted 61 years. Sara said that her parents’ marriage was not atypical for Holocaust survivors, and that many of the former center’s residents stayed in touch and became lifelong friends.
Sara said her mother wore a wedding gown that had been passed on from bride to bride in the camp.
“They just had one, then gave it to the next, gave it to the next. They were all size 1 because they were all just out of concentration camps and nobody was a larger size than that,” Sara said.
Her father had told her that the survivors attended and cooked for each other’s weddings, taking the place of the families they lost.
Schanzer did get to go to his daughter’s wedding though. Sara, who is 60 years old, married six years ago. Her then-98-year-old father walked her down the aisle.
“He stole the bride’s thunder!” she recalls.
While living at the camp in Frankfurt, Germany, Schanzer sold carp that he bought in Bavaria to earn a little extra income. He brought the fish to Frankfurt and sold it to residents at the camp and to people in town, but did not have the water in the bucket to transport them live as was customary at the time.
“It didn’t last long,” Schanzer said, because he did not have the means to store it. “The fish would die, but I sold it anyway, because it was cheaper than fresh fish.”
The Schanzers emigrated to the United States in 1950, boarding the boat with a total of one dollar in their possession, which was reduced to 15 cents cash in his pocket after he had splurged on an 85-cent soda en route. A collection of Rosenthal dishware was their sole asset. It survived the journey and is still on display in Schanzer’s living room in Bensonhurst, where the family finally settled in 1962.
Born in 1908, Schanzer was four years old when the Titanic sank. His grandmother, who was already in the United States, had already “signed off” for the rest of the family to come to the United States, but the Titanic tragedy had frightened the family to the point that they had decided to forego the voyage and stay in Europe. His parents perished in the Holocaust.
During that treacherous time, Schanzer credits not only fellow villagers in Poland for helping him to escape the salt mine and hide from the Nazis, but also credits the voice of his mother in his head for guiding him to safety.
“His mother said to him go or don’t go, stay hidden or don’t hide and he listened to what his mother said and she helped to keep him alive,” Sara recounted, her father nodding in his easy chair beside her.
Asked what he hopes for tomorrow and for the future, Schanzer’s response was imbued with a sense of satisfaction and completion. “Nothing else,” he said – other than looking forward to his granddaughter graduating from medical school at University of Pennsylvania.
Read more about Brooklyn Holocaust survivors and the services that help them here.