The story Sol Smith was telling seemed long ago and far away from the neatly appointed living room in a Stevenson townhouse development and the well-dressed audience that filled it. But his words resonated with recent headlines of political campaigns and post-Cold War new world orders.
For a week before Sunday's observance of Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust, the Baltimore Jewish Council sponsors small gatherings in homes in which audiences hear the tale of a person who survived the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people.
Last night, in the house of Joan and David Greenberg, Mr. Smith told of the years that took him from his family home in Lithuania to the German concentration camp at Dachau. He weighed 57 pounds when he was liberated by American forces.
"The reason I am here is because of people like David Duke and Pat Buchanan," Mr. Smith began his account. He was referring respectively to the former leader of the American Nazi Party who sought the Republican presidential nomination and the current challenger for the nomination who has been accused of anti-Semitic remarks, including some that question Holocaust figures.
"Each year, there are fewer and fewer of us survivors left," Mr. Smith said. "So when we are all gone, naturally, there will be no witnesses to contradict their false statements. So that's why I think it is important that people like me speak out.
"We ask the younger generation to tell their children and for those children to tell their children. If people are trying to deny the existence of the Holocaust now, just think of what will happen when there are no survivors left."
These gatherings have been going on for five years, at first meeting on the Sunday morning of Yom HaShoah. For the last two years, 20 to 30 people have come to a home every night for the week before.
"We are trying to emphasize the younger people," Mrs. Greenberg said. "At first, most of those who came were my mother's friends. Now, it's mostly people our age."
The 30 people crowded into her living room heard Mr. Smith matter-of-factly relate the daily horror that defined his childhood and teen-age years. Born Sol Zavilevich in a small town in Lithuania, he moved with his family to the large city of Kavnas when he was 5 years old.
"I had no gentile friends," he said of his childhood. "Every time you would walk past a gentile, he would say, 'There goes a dirty Jew' or something like that. Anti-Semitism was a daily fact of life for us."
Mr. Smith admitted that he welcomed the Russian takeover of Lithuania in 1940 as anti-Semitism was outlawed. He described brutal killings of Jews by Lithuanians when the Russians were driven out a year later, murders that were actually stopped by the Germans who organized ghettos and began a systematic exploitation of Jewish labor.
His account told of three years of life confined to those ghettos, a life punctuated by occasional "actions" when German soldiers would round up Jews for selection and shipment to concentration camps. A 7-year-old cousin was taken in a "kinderaction" aimed at children. Later, he related, he learned that the exhaust of the van that took her away was piped into the back where the children were. "That was the end of her," he said.
In 1944, as Russian troops approached, he and his family were put on a train with other Jews and shipped into Germany. The women, including his mother and a cousin, were taken off the train at one point. He, his father and brother continued riding for two more days. They were taken off the train at Dachau.
There they worked a 12-hour shift on the side of a mountain, digging out and reinforcing a huge bunker that was to be an underground airplane factory. They slept 60 to a barracks that was half underground, lying on wooden shelves next to the dirt walls, fed rations that gradually diminished until starvation became a daily fact of life.
"We were issued prisoner clothing, pajamas. We had lice by the handfuls that literally ate up the clothing so we were half-naked. You stood up on the side of that mountain in October and November, the cold was unbearable," he said. "But, you had to do what you had to do."
Later, when he could work no more, he was separated from his brother and father and sent to Dachau's death camp. No one worked there, he said; they just lay around waiting to die.
"There was one blanket for two people. People were dying like flies from starvation, they didn't have to kill anybody. My blanket-mate died one evening and I lay with a dead man under one blanket for a whole night. You walked down the street and there were dead bodies laying there and it was like a napkin or something. Life was so cheap. Tomorrow it was you."
Typhoid fever affected 60 of the 70 in his barracks. It killed his blanket-mate. But it never infected Sol Zavilevich. He credits his survival to his father's voluntary decision to join him in the death camp.