The last time Jack Waksal saw Sam Ron was in 1943, at the peak of World War II. They shoveled coal, side by side, at a forced labor camp in Pionki, Poland.
At an annual gala in South Florida, hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ron, 97, who was an honorary chair at the event, delivered a poignant speech. As he shared his story of survival with the 400-person audience, Waksal, also 97, suddenly recognized the man onstage.
“I know this person,” Waksal thought to himself. “We were like brothers.”
As soon as Ron stepped away from the podium, Waksal rushed to approach his long-lost companion.
“He jumped out from his seat and came running over to me,” Ron recalled. “He started hugging me and said, ‘You are my brother!’ ”
At first, Ron didn’t recognize Waksal, but before long, the face in front of him became eerily familiar. The harrowing memories — and their brotherly bond — came flooding back.
“In Pionki, we worked in the same camp together,” Ron said. “It was a very emotional moment. It was unbelievable.”
The last time he had seen Waksal, they were frail and fearful teenagers, covered in coal. But now, nearly 80 years later, they were both dressed in their finest suits, surrounded by their growing families.
Like Waksal, Ron had wondered what happened to his friend. As they spoke at the event, though, they finally learned how their respective fates unfolded — and how they both ended up there.
Ron was born just outside Krakow in 1924, and was originally named Shmuel Rakowski. After hiding in a barn with his parents and brother for several months at the onset of the war, Ron was sent in a cattle car to Plaszów, a forced labor camp, in March 1943.
“When you get in a cattle car, you don’t really know what’s going to happen to you,” Ron said. “You become an animal.”
A few months later, he was transferred to Pionki, another forced labor camp that made munitions. That’s where he met Waksal, who was born in the Polish village, Jedlińsk, and was sent to Pionki in 1942 from a similar camp.
“We unloaded coals every day. Sometimes we were standing [for] close to 24 hours,” Waksal said. “It was a very hard job.”
“We were working very hard, and there was very little food and sanitation,” Ron echoed. “We were hungry. It was not unusual to wake up in the morning and someone next to you was dead.”
Despite their squalid living conditions and horrific treatment, both men said they felt fortunate to have had each other.
“We were so close,” Waksal said. “He was always with me.”
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The camp was dismantled in 1944, and prisoners were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Oranienburg, Germany. While Ron went there, Waksal managed to escape and spent eight months living in the forest.
A group of 15 Jews hid in the woods with him, and of them, only six survived.
“I was lucky I was not killed,” said Waksal, whose brother was with him in the forest and was murdered by Nazis a month before liberation.
His parents and two sisters were all killed in Auschwitz. Waksal was the sole member of his family to survive the war.
Ron, meanwhile, remained at Sachenhausen until April 1945, when he was sent on a three-week-long death march. On May 2, he was liberated by the Americans.
“In that minute, my nightmare of six years was over,” Ron said. “We were free.”
His brother was killed in the Holocaust, but his parents survived, and Ron reunited with them in Poland before moving to what was then Palestine in 1946.
He ultimately relocated to Canton, Ohio, in 1956 with his wife and two children, and started a successful construction company.
Eventually, Waksal settled in Ohio, too. After the war ended, he moved back to his birth village in Poland, where he reunited with his wife, whom he grew up with in Jedlińsk. She survived Auschwitz.
They lived in Germany at a displaced persons camp for five years and moved to Dayton in 1950, where Waksal worked in the auto industry. The couple went on to have three children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“I’m so proud of them,” said Waksal, who now lives in Bal Harbour, Fla., while Ron resides in Boca Raton, Fla.
The two survivors — both of whom have dedicated their lives to Holocaust education and speak regularly to young people about their experiences in the war — never crossed paths until the annual gala, a fundraiser for the museum in D.C. Ron had attended the yearly event in the past, but this was the first time Waksal participated.
When he saw Ron onstage that evening, “I thought I was dreaming,” Waksal said. “I’m lucky that I’m still alive, and he’s lucky that he’s alive.”
Once Ron realized who Waksal was, he felt the same way.
“It was an amazing thing, and it does not happen every day,” said Ron, who has four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. “This is something unusual.”
The emotional reunion was profoundly moving for others at the event, including Robert Tanen, the southeast regional director at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“It was so special because it’s two survivors that had a shared experience so many years ago,” Tanen said. “There’s an unspoken connection between the two of them.”
“They not only survived,” he added, “but they thrived.”
His colleague, Kyra Schuster, a longtime curator at the museum, said reunions like this don’t happen often.
“It’s incredible for all parties involved,” Schuster said.
Plus, she noted, “it’s going to become more rare as everyone gets older.”
Waksal and Ron have already started making up for lost time. They’ve had several phone calls since the gala, and they are arranging to meet again in person.
“He wants to see me, and I want to see him,” Ron said. “We have a lot of talking to do.”
“No question about it,” Waksal added.
The nonagenarians said their individual journeys — and their unexpected reunification — reinforces that despite the horrors they endured in the Holocaust, in the end, they came out victorious.
“I have a great family, and he has a great family, too,” Ron said. “I think we both did very well.”
“It’s a story of hope,” he continued. “We are 97 years old, and we both made it.”
Indeed, Waksal said, “it is a miracle.”