The Los Angeles Jewish community lost one of its most prominent advocates for education and tolerance, Dr. Sam Goetz z”l, who died at the age of 85 last week. Sam was a Holocaust survivor who devoted his boundless intelligence and energies to teaching about his own life experience as a means of inculcating awareness of the dangers of intolerance and hatred in his own day.
To the many who knew and admired him, Sam had a rare mix of qualities: indefatigable, intensely passionate, deeply ethical, fastidiously precise and uncommonly knowledgeable about the history of the Nazi genocidal assault on Jews. Sam was a trained optometrist, but he consumed every new book or article — thousands in total — about the Holocaust, frequently engaging with scholars about arcane historical matters. Not content to leave that knowledge to rarefied academics, Sam made it his life mission to bring it to the wider world. He lectured to hundreds of students and teachers every year, demonstrating a unique ability to reach each of them at their own level of understanding. And he wrote a memoir, “I Never Saw My Face” (2011), which offers a deeply personal and affecting lens on the Holocaust.
Samek Goetz was born in 1928 in Tarnow, Poland, about 50 miles east of Krakow. He was raised along with his brother, Bernard, in a middle-class family engaged in the fur trade. He attended a local Jewish school, though his formal education ended in fifth grade when Germany entered Poland, in September 1939. He lived under increasingly difficult conditions in Tarnow until he was deported in September 1943 to the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. From there he was sent to Gross Rosen and then to Ebensee, undergoing harrowing travails at each turn but somehow managing to survive. Upon liberation, on May 6, 1945, he weighed 80 pounds.
His path to rehabilitation took him, a month later, to a displaced persons camp in Italy. It was there that he met a young Viennese Jewish girl, Gerti, whom he would later marry (and who would go on to earn a doctorate at USC in German literature). They made their way separately to the United States in 1949, with Sam stopping in New York before rejoining Gerti in Los Angeles in 1950. They were married that year, and their children, Joe and Genie, were born in 1953 and 1961. Meanwhile, Sam enrolled at Los Angeles City College before transferring to UCLA, where he took his first degree in public health. He then went on to USC where he received his doctor of optometry degree.
From an early point in his American life, Sam became involved in Holocaust education. In 1962, he joined the “1939” Club, the well-known organization of Holocaust survivors in Southern California; three years later, he was elected president, and his name would be forever identified with that organization. One of his greatest achievements was his work in establishing a chair in Holocaust studies at his beloved alma mater, UCLA, one of the first of its kind in the world. Sam worked closely with the first permanent incumbent of the chair, the distinguished Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer, to raise the visibility and stature of the field. He also labored actively to raise money for generations of doctoral students in the field, who remember his unfailing support and encouragement. In addition, he was deeply involved in the work of the Anti-Defamation League, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, among many others.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sam Goetz was his indomitable spirit. Not only did he survive the Holocaust, he survived with an unbroken sense of dignity, mission and kindness. Indeed, Sam altogether lacked what one of the most famous sons of his native Tarnow, the great historian Salo Baron, called the “lachrymose” or tearful approach to the Jewish past. He studied and taught what had happened to him and his fellow European Jews in order to assure that younger generations never know the darkness he faced.
Sam Goetz is survived by his wife, Gerti, children Joseph and Eugenia (Genie), and nine grandchildren. May his memory be for a blessing.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a friend of Sam Goetz