I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.
Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.
One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.
As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.
However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.
Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.
Shmuel was sitting behind the barracks, playing his harmonica, when an SS guard heard him. Of course, Shmuel could have been shot in that very instant but instead the guard seized Shmuel to add him to the camp orchestra that was made to play at the entrance to the gas chambers.
There was one time he was playing that Shmuel opened his eyes only to see two of his own cousins being marched into the gas chambers. From then on, he resolved never to open his eyes again while he played. And he promised himself that if he managed to survive, he would dedicate his life to harmonica and to teaching music to children.
Miraculously, Shmuel did survive the war. He moved to Israel and, in fulfillment of his promise, he founded the Children’s Harmonica Orchestra of Ramat Gan in 1963.
Then, in 1993, Shmuel was invited to join Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on an official trip to Poland in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was also asked to perform at Auschwitz.
Shmuel’s friends advised him against the trip given his declining health, but one journalist recounted that Shmuel was adamant to make the trip and said, “I will play even if it costs me my life.”
Once again at Auschwitz, he played “My Shetel Belz” – the same song he had played when Jews were being marched into the gas chambers except this time he was playing it as the Israeli Prime Minister processed to the event.
Anticipating the occasion, Shmuel said that he would be playing with his eyes open for the first time out of pride and that he would be prepared to die after this moment.
After he finished playing, he confided to those close to him as he walked off the stage, “I have closed a circle,”
Then, shortly after returning from the trip, he passed away.