Life After Death

The Nazis ripped away everything that was dear to him, but John Saunders, D52, was determined to write his own ending to his story
John Saunders
“I’m not really looking for sympathy,” says John Saunders. “I’m delighted I’m alive.” Photo: Kathleen Dooher
January 23, 2012

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John Saunders, D52, ran a successful prosthodontics practice in downtown Boston for 35 years. His patients were, by his own estimate, the top of society. He treated a newspaper magnate, an international religious leader and a duke. He cared for bank presidents, fund managers and hundreds of lawyers and judges, so many that he once had three jurists in his office at once. “Excuse me,” he remembers joking with a state Supreme Court justice as he headed to his next patient. “I have to go to lower court now.”

He loved to talk with his patients, who sometimes would tease him for the amount of philosophizing he did. As much as they chatted—every visit was booked for at least 45 minutes to accommodate this—his patients rarely asked him about his past, such as why his name didn’t exactly match his thick Polish accent.

“They probably thought I was German,” he says with a shrug. That was fine with him. “I wanted them to accept me as John Saunders, the dentist. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me.”

The tattoo on his left forearm might have raised questions, but he wore long sleeves to hide it. “The guy who did it on my arm was very aesthetic,” he says, remembering two tiny nails embedded in a stick and dipped in ink. “139024. The numbers were small and neat.”

When his 6-year-old daughter started asking about the mark, he didn’t know what to say, so he told her it was his car number. She said she wanted one, too. That was when he had it removed, leaving just a thin, white scar.

It would be a long time before he would allow himself to look back, to tell the story of how he survived the concentration camps. And now his story has an ending, for he did more than survive. He thrived, as a student, a dentist, an Air Force captain, a husband, a father and a teacher. He has made his life—the only thing the Nazis did not take from him—a good one. Living well was the best revenge.

Childhood Interrupted

Saunders (standing), age 4, with his brother. John Saunders was born Ignacy Silberherz in Poland in 1925. He was part of the flourishing Jewish population in the city of Stanislawow, now part of Ukraine. His father had been an officer in the Austrian and Polish armies. His mother was proud of her upper-class background. He inherited his blond hair and blue eyes from her.

One can’t help but wonder if those eyes helped him survive. Not just their Aryan color, which, at age 86, is still a clear grey-blue, but the way in which he uses them. When he talks to you, smiling or sober-faced, he looks you straight in the eye. It’s hard to look away.

Ignacy was 14 when Germany attacked Poland and World War II began; he was 16 when the Nazis sealed the Jewish ghetto in Stanislawow. For two years his family was able to stay alive, sometimes sleeping in sewer pipes to avoid the German secret police who were rounding up and killing groups of Jews. He would later write about hiding in the attic of a cemetery chapel with his older brother while the murders went on just outside.

“What we saw was a large mass grave—actually, an open pit. At that point, it contained close to one thousand naked bodies of women, men and a few children. Most of the children had already been exterminated in the Ghetto during the prior ten months. Some of the dead had been lying in the grave since the previous day. Their bodies were frozen; it was very cold at the end of February 1943. The bodies were piled up one on top of another. The Jews were told either to jump and were then shot, or to stay at the edge of the pit and were shot then; either way, they fell down into the pit. Some standing at the edge of the pit fainted and fell in on their own. The Gestapo would attempt to shoot them. Some were probably alive and only grazed by a bullet. Others fell on top of them and often suffocated those who were still alive beneath them.”

Saunders’ parents in their wedding photograph, 1923. His mother (“She was a very crafty, very strong woman, very smart,” he says) managed to smuggle him out of Stanislawow and put him on a train to Warsaw with forged papers.

He was alone, but he said he knew he would see his family again, and knew he had to stay alive. “My mother loved us so much,” he says. “I believed she would die from a broken heart if I did not come back to her.”

A Quiet Miracle

But there were no safe places to go. While making his way to East Prussia, he was picked off another train by a police detail, and a stocky Gestapo officer handed Ignacy the alibi that would become his identity through the remainder of the war. “I know what you were doing in East Prussia,” he said triumphantly. “You are a Catholic Pole smuggling smoked pork and butter to Warsaw.”

Ignacy knew that being labeled a Polish Catholic would still mean internment as a political prisoner, but maybe he wouldn’t be shot in the head right then and there as a Jew. Without missing a beat, Ignacy feigned amazement the Gestapo had so cleverly figured out his “secret.”

Soon he was brought for interrogation to Warsaw, at the Gestapo headquarters, a notorious building where people were routinely killed or beaten to the brink of death.

“I knew that this was the end,” Saunders says. “They would find out who I was and feed me to the dogs.” Despite his terror, he stuck by his new Catholic identity, even laughing when the Gestapo officers coolly asked if he was a deserter from the German army or a spy for the British (“I am flattered, but I am too young and not bright enough,” he replied). He spat on the floor when they suggested he was a Jew.

They measured his face, feet, hands, eyes and ears with calipers. “It was the German mumbo-jumbo science of how to recognize a Jew,” Saunders says, a protocol of Hitler’s creation. Then they told him to see the doctor on the other side of the room and drop his pants. He was frozen with fear as the doctor examined his genitals, knowing there was no way to miss that he was circumcised. “Richtig (right),” he declared, and told him to get dressed.

Saunders still does not know why the doctor lied for him. He would recall this as one of the many miracles he experienced during his captivity. “Because I cannot explain it any other way,” he says, “but as a miracle.”

To Auschwitz-Birkenau

Labeled a Roman Catholic political prisoner, he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the first of the concentration camps he would labor in with the other Catholics, Poles, Gypsies, Russians and Jews who were not immediately killed. Day and night, the crematorium chimneys belched smoke and the smell of burned bodies.

Saunders’ family portrait, taken in 1923 in the parlor of their apartment in Stanislawow. Photo: Kathleen DooherSaunders would write: “We were sent to toil in the open fields. It did not matter if the weather was rainy or extremely cold and snowy. It also did not matter if we made it back dead or alive. We were constantly watched and hit by our Kapos [inmates who guarded other prisoners] and their helpers for not going fast enough or some other infraction, according to the whims of our supervisors.”

Somehow, amid the hunger, flies, lice and illness, he stayed alive. He was quick to take small opportunities, such as when he was assigned to sew numbers on prison clothing and surreptitiously stitched an extra jacket inside the one he had been issued to protect himself from the freezing cold. He had an instinct for when to lie low and when to volunteer for a duty that might be easier than another job in the camp.

Even as he was moved to progressively worse camps, including Mauthausen, the “Camp of No Return,” he had many lucky breaks. There was the prison guard who would give him more food than the daily bowl of watery soup and slice of bread on which many of the other prisoners slowly starved. “Perhaps I reminded him of a family member; I don’t know,” Saunders says.

Or the guard who could have had him hanged for making a pocket knife out of an old file, but instead gave him a loaf of bread and asked him to make another knife for him. He even escaped once from Auschwitz and was recaptured, an offense that should have meant hanging or a fatal beating, but the guard who was supposed to beat him was late for dinner and couldn’t be bothered.

Don’t Look Back

To Ignacy, these were all divine interventions: “You begin to be a believer when you see all these things happening.” Through it all, he says, the thought of his family was what kept him going.

In Krakow, Poland, August 1945, three months after his liberation. After two years, when thousands all around him had died from execution, starvation, exhaustion or disease, the 11th Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army discovered the camps at Mauthausen-Gusen and liberated them. It was May 5, 1945. Ignacy was not quite 20 years old.

Eventually, but not uneventfully, he made it back to Poland to search for his family. In Krakow he went to a place where Jews were congregating. An older man he did not recognize approached him and said he knew his family. The man told him his mother, father and brother were dead. They had been slaughtered along with thousands of other Jews the week after Ignacy had left for Warsaw.

“Don’t look back,” the man said. “You can only look forward now.”

Ignacy’s throat closed. He could not speak. He ran. When he returned later to look for the man, he was gone.

“Like an angel, he had come to tell me there is nothing there, just keep going,” Saunders says. That is exactly what he did.

Although he had missed his last two years of high school, there was no doubt in Ignacy’s mind that he needed an education. “My mother used to say to me as a child, ‘Our class doesn’t work with our hands; we hire people,’ ” he says. “ ‘But if you have to wash floors to pay for college, it’s fine.’ ”

The year after his liberation, he enrolled at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, graduating in less than three years with a doctoral degree in dentistry.

How could he focus on his studies, I ask him now, with everything he had been through? He answers quickly, as if putting up the mental wall he did then: “You didn’t think. You learned to turn it off. You had to turn it off.”

A New Life, a New Name

The end of the war had not ended anti-Semitism. Ignacy, who toyed with the idea of continuing his identity as a Catholic, came across many people who wished the Nazis had “finished the job” of eradicating the Jews. He decided to leave Europe, not because he was afraid, but because he thought he would eventually kill someone in anger. In 1950, when the opportunity came to join the 300,000 displaced Europeans who were moving to the United States, he took it.

About 140,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors came to America after the war. Years later, the social scientist William Helmreich interviewed hundreds of them for his book Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. He found that many of the most successful ones—and many of them were—shared certain traits that helped them remake their lives. Among them: courage, tenacity, assertiveness, flexibility, optimism, intelligence and an ability to distance themselves from what they had gone through. Ignacy Silberherz had all those things, in spades.

When he reached New York, he took a new name, John Saunders, after one of the GIs who had liberated the camp. He was assigned to a social worker, who said he would get him a job in a lab. But Saunders said he wanted to go to dental school to get his American degree so he could practice in the United States.

“American kids who have money and speak English don’t get into dental school. You think you are going?” the social worker asked him. “Either you take the job in the lab or you can clean streets.”

Saunders applied to several schools and before long had his letter of acceptance from Tufts School of Dental Medicine. The social worker got a well-crafted letter of disdain from Saunders.

Working His Way Through Dental School

But getting into dental school was only the start. He had to pay for tuition, books and housing, and he had only a small amount of money, mostly scraped together from selling the coffee and cigarettes from his United Nations relief packages on the black market and pawning a gold watch a Jewish GI had given him.

His first semester, he ate just once a day, buying one loaf of bread that would last him two days. He took a job at a pickle company, but at 120 pounds, he was too weak to unload the trucks and had to quit. He worked as a busboy at a Boylston Street restaurant. “The owner used to go to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and ask for Holocaust survivors,” Saunders says. But the owner’s motives were less than honorable, as he paid little, and told the cook not to give them food and the waitresses not to share tips. “He cheated them.”

It got easier. Saunders started receiving scholarships and got a job working with Richard Manly, the school’s director of research. Two of his professors paid him $6 a week for German lessons so they would be able to read German scientific papers.

Graduation from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, June 8, 1952. To improve his English, he would go see old double features at the movie theater at Tremont and Washington streets. It cost only 20 cents if he got there before 5 p.m., so he would often sneak out of class a few minutes early, under the pretext of going to the restroom. Despite this minor truancy, he did well and graduated with the Class of 1952.

“My mother would have been so proud of me at my graduation,” he says. He suffered the absence of his family keenly that day. He later wrote: “I felt very lonely and like crying, even though I smiled in the pictures that my friends took.”

Saunders soon found a job working for a dentist in Concord, Mass. But he had not seen the last of war. The battle in Korea was still going on, and he received a draft notice. Non-citizens like him typically were not given commissions, but the new dentist pushed for one—his father, after all, had been a military officer, as had his father before him. His persistence swayed the military bureaucrats, and he became a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. After serving in Okinawa for two years, he became a U.S. citizen in 1954, completing his military service later that year at the rank of captain. He headed back to private practice.

Other Things to Do

Annalie Bean, a New Hampshire native, was working as the swimming director at the Boston YWCA in 1959 when a friend set her up on a blind date. One of the first things she noticed about the 34-year-old dentist was his eyes, and his steady gaze. Three months later, they were engaged. They married that year.

Annalie and John Saunders in their wedding portrait, September 1959.She liked that he was smart—not just educated, but smart. And she could see he worked very hard and never tried to give her a line. Even now she says she has never known him to cheat anyone. “He’s tough, but not mean,” she says. After they got to know each other, Saunders told her how he had lost his family in the war and had been in a concentration camp. But he left out most of the details.

“At that time, people didn’t discuss much about it,” Annalie says. “If you went to temple, you heard nothing about the Holocaust. It’s like it didn’t hit American Jews, period.”

So he didn’t discuss it. Not with his wife, not with his two daughters. Besides, he had other things to do. His dental practice bustled, and in 1965 he began a long teaching career at Tufts, where he was an assistant clinical professor of prosthetics. “I did perfect work,” he says, without reservation.

His perfectionism is apparent in his home, a 4,000-square-foot brick house in Weston, Mass., that he designed and oversaw the construction of 41 years ago. “Today, not a single crack,” he says, pointing proudly to the stucco ceiling. “This is how I build.”

If he is to be believed, his psyche is just as solid. He never sought counseling or suffered from post-traumatic stress. “I didn’t allow it,” he says.

When he retired from practice in 1990, he was far from finished. At age 70, he decided it was time for law school. His goal was to work for the International Court of Justice in The Hague. After all, who would be more qualified to deal with crimes against humanity? He took the LSAT and became a full-time student at the Massachusetts School of Law. He loved it, but his wife did not: Studying thousands of pages of briefs every night left little time for seeing friends or their four beautiful grandchildren. Reluctantly, he gave it up.

Soon he had another project. In the late 1990s, he took a writing class at Brandeis. Did he intend to write about his past? “Subconsciously,” he says. The class spun off into a writing group that met at a local library. Things he had never talked about, memories he had all but blocked, horrors only hinted at in this story, came pouring out. Hundreds of pages. At times, he says, it was like writing about someone else. Perhaps that was the only way it could happen.

The memoir has been a revelation for his family, and not always an easy one. He does not doubt that it has affected them on some level, and he regrets that. He doesn’t want people to cry for him. He does want to bear witness, to counter all the misinformation about the Holocaust. Even some recent fictionalized accounts have taken liberties that frustrate him. “Prisoners getting visitors?” he asks incredulously. “Tables and chairs at Auschwitz?”

While he searches for a publisher for his book, he has been invited to tell his story. At temples, the audiences ask to hear about the miracles. The military groups want to hear about the liberation. I’m so sorry, they all say.

“But I’m not really looking for sympathy,” he repeats. “I’m delighted I’m alive.”

“I won,” he adds, and smiles.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2011 Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

 

 

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