When Matt Cohen, 14 and an eighth-grader at Orange Avenue School in Cranford, was assigned a creative writing project for a Holocaust studies unit, he had a very personal source of inspiration.
Matt, who told NJ Jewish News that he and one other student were the only Jews in their class, said, “I knew right away that this was something I could write about, because I knew my Uncle Sam’s story.”
He hadn’t heard that story directly. His great-uncle, Sam Solasz, 82, lives in Hollis Hills, NY, and the families don’t often get together. But at a family bar mitzva a few years ago, Sam got talking to Matt’s older brother, Michael, now 18, and told him what happened to him during World War II. Michael wrote it up as a report for school. Matt read that report, and he heard his family talking about his uncle’s experiences as a survivor, partisan, and fighter in Israel’s War of Independence. He turned those vivid descriptions into a poem. [See sidebar.]
His dad, Steve, was so moved by how Matt had taken his uncle’s story to heart, he sent the poem to Paul Winkler, head of the NJ State Commission on Holocaust Education, who posted it on the organization’s website. He also sent it to NJJN.
“I have three sons,” Steve said, “and this is the first time I’ve ever sent something one of them wrote to a newspaper.” Matt’s teacher, Michael Seaman, was impressed, too; he wrote to Steve and his wife, Kathleen, to tell them how much he appreciated Matt’s work.
Steve said Sam Solasz — who is married to his Aunt Rose — “is a unique individual who is quiet most of the time, but all of a sudden he will impart stories.”
He pointed out that his uncle’s story has major similarities to what was depicted in the film Defiance. Solasz was born near Bialystok, Poland. In 1943, when the Bialystok ghetto was liquidated, he and his brother found themselves on a train headed to the Treblinka death camp. He escaped by jumping through a loose door. His brother was going to jump, too, but held back. Sam never saw him, their parents, or their other siblings again.
Wearing a cross to hide his Jewish identity, Solasz joined a group of partisans and fought the Nazis until he was liberated in 1944. From a displaced persons camp in 1948 he joined the Aliyah Bet, an illegal immigration of Jews heading for Palestine, and once there, volunteered for combat duty in the Israeli armed forces during the War of Independence.
That bold spirit served him well. Assisted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, he came to the United States in 1951, armed with no formal education but with knowledge of the meat business gleaned from the family’s long line of butchers. He went on to establish his own meat-distribution business in New York, one of the most successful in the United States. He and Rose had three children, and he became a major supporter of Jewish causes. Despite his reticence about his past, he was one of the first survivors to speak with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
Matt’s family belongs to Temple Sha’arey Shalom, the Reform congregation in Springfield. He said that while he thought his school’s Holocaust education program was good, it was at religious school that he acquired most of his knowledge of that period. He said that his classmates had varying reactions to the course and the creative writing assignment: “Great students look more into the subject, and others just think of it as another assignment.”
As for Uncle Sam, Steve said his aunt told them he received the tribute in his quiet way, accepting it without comment.
Elaine Durbach contributed to this article.