The Best Revengeafter the holocaust, a life well lived
John Saunders, D52, ran a successful prosthodontics practice in downtown Boston for thirty-five years. He loved to talk with his patients. But as much as they chatted, his patients rarely asked him about his past, such as why his name didn’t exactly match his thick Polish accent. 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 to form the digits 139024. “The numbers were small and neat.” When his daughter was six, she started asking about the mark, which he told her 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.
John Saunders was born Ignacy Silberherz in Stanislawow, Poland, eighty-seven years ago. His father was an officer in the Austrian and Polish armies. His mother was proud of her upper-class background. He inherited his blond hair and striking blue eyes from her.
One can’t help but wonder if those pale eyes helped him survive. But certainly looks alone were not enough. As the Nazis began their brutal killing of Stanislawow’s Jews when Ignacy was sixteen—forcing him and his family to hide in sewers and attics—he was spared by his wits and by an improbable succession of lucky breaks.
For starters, his mother managed to smuggle him out of Stanislawow with forged papers. While making his way to East Prussia, he was picked off a 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.”
Without missing a beat, Ignacy feigned amazement that the Gestapo had figured out his “secret.” At Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw, he stuck by his new Catholic identity. 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. Then they made him see the doctor on the other side of the room and drop his pants. He was frozen with fear, knowing the doctor couldn’t miss that he was circumcised. “Richtig”—right—the doctor declared, and told him to get dressed. Saunders still does not know why the doctor lied for him.
Labeled a Roman Catholic political prisoner, he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, then to progressively worse camps, including Austria’s Mauthausen, the “Camp of No Return.” Still his uncanny luck held out. There was the prison guard who gave him extra rations, and 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. When he escaped from Auschwitz and was recaptured, the guard who was supposed to beat him to death was late for dinner and couldn’t be bothered.
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.
The camps at Mauthausen-Gusen were liberated by the U.S. Army on May 5, 1945. Ignacy, not quite twenty years old, made his way back to Poland in search of his parents and brother. A stranger gave him the bad news: they had all perished. “Don’t look back,” the man said. “You can only look forward now.”
The way forward brought Ignacy to the university of Erlangen, in Bavaria, where he earned a dental degree, and then, in 1950, to the United States, which he saw as a refuge from continuing anti-Semitism in Europe. He took the name John Saunders, after one of the GIs who had liberated the camp. Bent on getting an American degree, he applied to Tufts School of Dental Medicine and got in.
Asked how he could focus on his studies 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.”
His trials, however, were not over. The little money he had was 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, making a loaf of bread last two days. He took a job at a pickle company—where, at 120 pounds, he proved too weak to unload the trucks—and then worked as a busboy at a restaurant that denied him food or tips.
In time, life got easier. Saunders received scholarships and found research work at the dental school. He graduated in 1952, entered private practice, spent two years in the Air Force in Okinawa, became a U.S. citizen in 1954, completed his service with the rank of captain, and headed back to private practice.
He met his future wife, a New Hampshire native named Annalie Bean, in 1959, when he was thirty-four. But he confided few details of his wartime experiences. “At that time, people didn’t discuss much about it,” says Annalie. “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.
But a few years after his retirement in 1990, he took up writing. Things he had never talked about, horrors he had all but blocked, came pouring out. Hundreds of pages. The memoir has been a revelation for his family, and not always an easy one. But he feels compelled to bear witness. 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. We’re 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 with a grin.
JULIE FLAHERTY is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications and the editor of Tufts Nutrition, the alumni magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times.