A Survivor and an Unsung Savior, 68 Years on
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A Survivor and an Unsung Savior, 68 Years on
By Daniel Rubin; Inquirer Columnist
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 26, 2009 Sunday
The two old men threw their arms around each other Friday night in the foyer of the Lafayette-Redeemer home in the Northeast. For the longest time, neither man would let go.
"Welcome to Philadelphia," said Hans Salomon, 86, his accent still redolent of his boyhood in Germany. "Let me look at you."
Tracy Strong - slightly stooped at 93, with a pink complexion and snow-white hair - returned the gaze.
"Your face is the same," Salomon said.
"It should be," Strong replied as Salomon, eyes tearing, gripped the older man's forearm.
It's not every day one gets to embrace one's savior.
They met in early 1941 at Gurs, a concentration camp near the Spanish border in unoccupied France.
Salomon was 18, a refugee from Mannheim, Germany. He was 5-foot-7, good at sports, good on the piano, living on a daily ration of stale bread, coffee, and carrots - horse meat on Sundays.
Strong was 25, an American-born relief worker a year out of Yale Divinity School. Tall, slim, and well-dressed, he was the son of a top official with the YMCA in Geneva. And when this quiet American spoke to Salomon, the words seemed too good to be true.
"He did not promise anything, but he sounded convincing," Salomon says. "He said he was looking forward to being successful in getting us out."
"Us" were five young men from Mannheim. They had been deported together in the fall of 1940, corralled onto a darkened train for three days headed somewhere in southern France.
Their studies had stopped after the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935.
Strong worked for an aid organization called the European Student Relief Fund, and he kept visiting the boys, first at Gurs, then at Rivesaltes, another camp in southern France. His organization supplied the camps with books and organized cultural and sporting activities.
He convinced the French government in Vichy that if it would let the young men travel to a school in south-central France, his organization would take responsibility for their care.
"We took the burden off [the French] of trying to feed them," as Strong puts it.
In this manner, he says, he was able to extract 70 young people from the camps.
Salomon bid goodbye to his parents at Rivesaltes in February 1942. He recalls his mother's response:
"I will not see you anymore."
That summer he got a letter from his parents. They were being transported to Drancy, a camp near Paris, and then probably east. He never heard from them again.
By train the teens headed to a town called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and there one of the great humanitarian acts of the Holocaust took place. Protestant families - Huguenots, themselves once victims of discrimination - helped hide more than 3,000 refugees, two-thirds of them Jews.
When they arrived at the station, Strong was waiting for them.
For 10 months, Salomon studied in a former hotel called Maison des Roches, spending the night in barns and farmhouses, because the Germans were known to raid the school at the light of day.
With the Nazis growing more persistent, the boys decided their best hope was the Swiss border. Friends of the pastor who ran the school provided them with false identification papers.
Dressed like French Boy Scouts, they marched, caught a train, then trekked in the rain to their freedom.
They were sitting at a restaurant in Switzerland, regaling those who approached their table with their story - the camps, the Gestapo, the good people who sheltered them - when a border guard demanded to see their papers.
They had no visas. The border had closed five days before. The refugees were sent back to France, where police shipped them in handcuffs back to Rivesaltes.
But again the tall American was their angel. He had been lobbying the Swiss government to let the young men in. To this day, he doesn't know why the Swiss relented. "Maybe because I told them I would care for the boys," he said.
Two weeks later, they had their visas. Strong, meanwhile, had worked on the governor of the region, and on Dec. 12, 1942, the commander of the camp signed off on the five young men's release.
This time, when a Swiss guard ordered them to stop at the border, they were allowed passage. They were taken to the YMCA house in Geneva. An hour later, Strong arrived, and Salomon, now 20, sat and cried.
Strong pressed them with chocolates and pastries and invited his guests to stay a few days. He presented Salomon with a blue notebook and a fountain pen and told him to write down his story of the war.
His account, 40 pages long, ends: "The future all of a sudden does not look that bleak anymore, and somehow we will make a go of it."
Salomon immigrated to the United States in 1946 and moved to Philadelphia two years later. He followed a woman, Ruth, who had spent the war in the Riga Ghetto in what is now Latvia. He bought a lumber company, moved to Feasterville, had a family. Ruth died five years ago.
Strong moved back to the United States in 1949 and got a master's in education at Stanford. For decades, he taught history, French, and German in Southern California. He talked of the Holocaust but didn't dwell on his role, he said. "With one year to cover world history, you can only spend so much time on any interesting part you'd like to teach."
He, too, lives alone in a community for adults, in Idaho. His wife, Dolphine, died nearly 20 years ago.
Until Friday, the two men had met only once since the war, in 2004 in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where Strong was received as a hero, a label he does not wear comfortably.
For decades they've written, and called each other regularly.
Said Salomon, "It's just that I don't want to lose contact with the best man next to God."
And so he stood there in the Lafayette-Redeemer entrance, embracing his old friend.
Around them were several newer friends. Chuck Feldman, president of the tiny Holocaust Awareness Museum, had asked Strong to Philadelphia so the two could speak about the war. Feldman was crying.
So was Robin Falkow, his program coordinator.
As the two old friends walked down the hall, catching up, telling each other to be careful not to slip, Feldman remarked that Salomon had never told the whole story of how he was saved. He wasn't sure Salomon even knew how it happened. Even Strong said he was not sure.
There was no logic to that time, no guarantees, no way of knowing which choice could save you, which choice could get you killed.
Maybe there's a lesson in this for us now about hardship, and risk, and the strength of two old men's embrace.
When a friend like Tracy Strong comes around, you hold on for dear life.
Daniel Rubin: If You Go
Hans Salomon and Tracy Strong will speak at 7 p.m. today at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, 9768 Verree Rd., in the Northeast. The talk is free and open to the public.
Contact Daniel Rubin
at 215-854-5917 or email@example.com.