Updated: October 1, 2018
Just before Sam Genirberg sat down to tell his story to a downtown San Francisco audience, a power outage hit the neighborhood.
Organizers scrambled to move the lunchtime lecture to a nearby hotel lobby, where a barking lapdog and chattering guests added to the disruption.
No matter. Genirberg has seen much worse.
The 94-year-old El Cerrito resident survived Hitler’s invasion of his Polish hometown of Dubno (now in Ukraine), one of the two squalid Jewish ghettos built there, deportation to German work camps, multiple arrests by the Gestapo and multiple daring escapes.
That explains the title of his 2012 memoir: “Among the Enemy: Hiding in Plain Sight in Nazi Germany.”
Genirberg recounted it all at a Sept. 13 lunchtime gathering sponsored by Hebrew Free Loan and held at the Harbor Court Hotel. Attendees included HFL employees and a group of students from the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.
His memory remains sharp. He remembers the Soviet Red Army invading his town in September 1939. The Germans arrived in June 1941. For Dubno’s 12,000 Jews, Genirberg said, “We realized we were in for some tough times.”
Some 1,000 Jews were quickly murdered by the notorious Einsatzgruppen death squads, which turned Dubno, indeed all of Ukraine, into “killing fields,” as Genirberg put it. The rest were herded into a ghetto, where, Genirberg recalled, “People lived from day to day taking care of family as best they could, knowing the end was very near.”
Knowing the end was near for her, too, Genirberg’s mother urged her son to escape.
“It’s a time in life that cannot be replicated,” he said, choking up all these decades later. “To leave your own mother to her death. She said to me, ‘You think I’d be happy if you die with me?’”
The 18-year-old Genirberg escaped to the forest in search of fighting partisans. Instead, he fell in with the Soviet Army, but soon found himself deported to Germany, which would have meant certain death for a Jew.
But he had acquired false identity papers, and for the next few years he passed as a non-Jewish Russian. It saved his life.
Genirberg worked in foreign labor camps in Germany, often serving as an interpreter thanks to his language skills. But he lived in constant fear of being exposed as a Jew.
In one labor camp, he dug clay and mined coal. He saw other inmates beaten to death and mauled by dogs. Several arrests and escapes later, he found work as an interpreter in a camp near Osnabrück, where he watched Allied bombers swoop low overhead.
When the American tanks finally rolled in, Genirberg shared a sip of whisky with Allied troops. “At that point I began to cry,” he said, “and I couldn’t stop. I had no home to go to, no family.”
Soon after the war, he met and married Shoshana, his late wife of 68 years, at a displaced persons camp outside Zeilsheim, Germany. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1948, with “no family, no assets, no country, but with a lot of confidence,” he said.
Genirberg ended up in Petaluma, and with a loan from Hebrew Free Loan, he opened a chicken farm like so many Jews before him. Raising chickens gave way to opening an ice cream parlor (Moo’s in Richmond) and, eventually, a career in real estate development.
The Genirbergs and their three children lived the American dream. A lifelong Zionist, Genirberg has been a steadfast supporter of Israel and, in retirement, a tireless Holocaust lecturer. Sadly, Shoshana died five years ago.
At the close of Genirberg’s lecture, Hebrew Free Loan executive director Cindy Rogoway thanked her guest for sharing his story. In return, Genirberg thanked HFL for helping him get his start in business 70 years ago.
“At this time in my life,” he said, “I don’t need a loan.”