Why These Holocaust Survivors Say Their Life Was Saved Twice
Because of their horrific early experiences that created nutritional deficiencies, many Holocaust survivors are in need of extreme dental repair that they can't afford—but thanks to a partnership between Henry Schein, the world's largest provider of health care products and services, the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they're receiving life-changing dental care.
Sam Weinreb was 13 in 1941, when he arrived home from a bar mitzvah lesson to find the front door locked and his family gone. A neighbor told Sam that his family had been taken by German soldiers to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Sam fled his small town in Czhekoslovakia to Hungary in search of a way to find his family. When he approached the Hungarian police for help, they imprisoned him for two years and beat him daily while incarcerated. After that, he was crammed into a cattle car with more than 60 other people and sent to Auschwitz himself. ” Upon arrival they told me I no longer needed to remember my name, only the number they tattooed on my arm,” Weinreb says. While at Auschwitz, Sam suffered tooth and gum problems that he dared not report, though the German soldiers encouraged Jewish prisoners to do so. “Anyone that reported any sickness never returned to camp. I wasn’t sure if I would survive one hour to the next,” Weinreb told Reader’s Digest. Eventually, those in Weinreb’s camp were forced to take a death march, under the guise of being taken to a new camp. Due to the severe weather, within a few days most of the marchers died—only 400 of the 5,000 people who began the march survived. Weinreb knew his only hope of survival was escape, and in the middle of the night he fled the death march into the forest. “To this day, I don’t know how far I ran, but I awoke in the forest to Russian soldiers, who took me to a nearby hospital,” he recalls. After hospitalization and a full recovery, Sam was sent to the U.S. to be placed in an orphanage in New York. He eventually married his childhood sweetheart, and raised two children with his wife, Goldie.
Though he once faced unspeakable tragedy, Weinreb is quick to focus on the positive in his life—especially the gift of finally receiving treatment for the gum and tooth issues he has dealt with since his days at Auschwitz. (Here are some of the diseases that gum disease can reveal.)
Dr. Matthew Zizmor, a dentist practicing in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and a member of the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity, treated Weinreb for his severe dental problems that began during his imprisonment. Through the benevolent work of Dr. Zizmor, Sam received both upper and lower dentures, held in position by implants placed by an oral surgeon, also part of the program to aid Holocaust survivors. Dr. Zizmor told Reader’s Digest the greatest reward for participating in the program is a connection to the patients themselves. “The most rewarding part is having a chance to give back my knowledge, skill, and expertise to people who need it the most. In Jewish tradition it is an example of “gemilut chasadim”—acts of loving kindness. But what is most rewarding is the thankfulness and appreciation that the patients have for their treatment. Over time, I feel a bond with my patients that comes close to being part of their family,” he says.
As for Weinreb, today at 91 years old he’s found a renewed ability to eat and enjoy food again. “I now have all of my teeth, which I didn’t for so many years,” he says. “I don’t have to worry anymore or be afraid of biting into anything. My whole life is different today.”
The fight against prejudice is never over–this journalist who experienced Nazi horrors firsthand says “it could happen here.”
Jose Urbach, 77, was only 4 months old when he and his parents were forced to relinquish their home in Poland to German soldiers and move to a nearby ghetto. Conditions were crowded and morale among those in the ghetto were increasingly desperate as deportations to Nazi camps began to take thousands of Jews at a time to meet a dismal fate. In July 1944, Urbach and his family were placed aboard a train and sent to a forced labor camp in Demlin, Poland. Though he was young, Urbach has clear memories of this time and is eager to share his story of sorrow, suffering, and triumph. Urbach told Reader’s Digest, “In the camp in Demlin, hunger, death, and brutality continued. We were forced to witness executions and public hangings.” He recalls, “Three times I was taken with other children to be killed. We were miraculously spared by postponements and coincidences.” On his fifth birthday, Urbach’s father defied barrack rules and found his way to the barrack of his wife and child. He had two small candies he received from a camp worker, when he explained that he wanted to give his son something for his birthday. “It was the last time I ever saw my father,” Urbach recalls. “He was taken to another camp a few days later and did not survive.” Urbach and his mother were eventually freed by Russian soldiers in 1944 and returned to their hometown before settling in Bogota, Colombia, with his mother’s family. Urbach came to New York with his wife on a university art scholarship when he was 28, and the couple have lived in the U.S. ever since.
Not surprisingly, after many years of malnutrition during his youth, Urbach experienced severe dental issues as an older adult. Dr. David Shipper, DMD, of Central Park West Dental in New York, a volunteer with the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program, performed three root canals, filled several cavities, and is in the process of doing four dental implants to replace missing teeth for Urbach. And it’s his pleasure to be able to do it. He tells Reader’s Digest, “It’s extremely rewarding just to be able to help an individual like Jose who, without the Holocaust survivor program, would probably not receive any dental care or at least not quality care. I’ve been practicing long enough to know and understand that giving back to society is an honor, and a privilege, and most importantly, a responsibility.”
“I was so happy when I heard about the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein program,” Urbach says. “Dr. Shipper is a wonderful person and a great dentist. This is a great thing for people like me, who survived the Holocaust and need help. I am very grateful,” he adds. Dentists are often able to spot other medical conditions during an exam, such as diabetes.
Greg Meymis, 83, of Seattle, was 7 years old when World War II reached his homeland of Moldova, then part of the Soviet Ukraine. Fearful of what was to come, he and his mother tried to escape by horseback from the German soldiers taking Jews to nearby ghettos, but their efforts were unsuccessful. “You can only escape so far on horseback,” Meymis tells Reader’s Digest. He was taken with his mother and several family members to a ghetto in Russia, where they faced bleak living conditions. “It was a difficult time, with a lot of starvation,” Meymis recalls. When the Nazis were preparing to deport him and his extended family to a concentration camp, the adults in Meymis’ life took action by bribing guards to allow them to escape. The group escaped to Kazakhstan until the war was over. They returned to Moldova in 1945 to find it completely destroyed, and they once again faced difficulty and starvation. Those that offered safety to Jews during the Holocaust are considered heroes today, including Gil and Eleanor Krause of America, who saved 50 children.
In 1990 Meymis immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee, after the many civil wars related to the collapse of the Soviet Union. By that point he had severe dental problems due to frequent episodes of starvation. When he needed a full-mouth reconstruction, it was Dr. Paul Amato, DDS, FAGD, of Seattle, who did the dental rescue. “When I met Greg, he had several teeth with chronic infections,” Dr. Amato recalls. “He had difficulty chewing most foods since he was missing teeth in the back of his mouth. As such, his nutrition was sub-optimal.” If left untreated, Dr. Amato notes, the chronic tooth infections could have been life threatening.
Dr. Amato says of his experience serving the survivors of the Holocaust, “There are so many aspects of this program that are rewarding. As an American, a Jew, and a dentist, this program allows me to give back to the Jews that survived and suffered. I have met and treated several survivors, and they are gracious, kind, and good people.”
Dr. Amato’s sentiment is part of the mission of the program. “The lessons of the Holocaust carry the greatest weight when they are delivered by the very people who survived it,” says Stanley M. Bergman, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Henry Schein, Inc. “By restoring the oral health of Holocaust survivors in need, we can help these courageous people to tell their stories and live their lives with dignity and confidence. So far, thanks to the combined efforts of our program partners, we have been able to restore function, eliminate pain, and improve the overall health and quality of life for more than 600 survivors who lived through unspeakable conditions. We are encouraged by the steps we have taken and the relationships we have forged, and we anticipate having an even greater impact as we move forward together.”
For Greg Meymis, the dental care has been life-changing. “Greg was also self-conscious about his front teeth,” Dr. Amato says. “He hesitated to smile or would not smile broadly. After we fixed his teeth, he was all smiles.”