Aharon Samuel suddenly spied a train coming slowly down the tracks. “I was so nervous,” he said. He was 17, skinny, and had been waiting for this train — for any train — for eight months while confined to a ghetto in the Transylvanian city of Cluj. He hesitated as nine cars passed. Then, at the last minute, he jumped on the last car. “I saved my life,” he said.
Aharon was born Aug. 19, 1923, in the village of Diciosanmartin, Romania, into an observant family. He was the oldest of three brothers and spoke Hungarian, Romanian and Yiddish. At age 10, he moved with his family to Medias, a nearby town in Transylvania.
Aharon’s father was an upholsterer, and the boy helped him make horsehair mattresses for a hospital for the mentally ill. They also made seats for horse-drawn carriages.
At his bar mitzvah, his father told Aharon he wanted him to learn the upholstery trade the proper way. He would find a place in Cluj. Afterward, Aharon would return to Medias and teach his father.
In Cluj, his father found a furniture factory owned by a Mr. Fisher, who agreed to take Aharon on as an apprentice. Aharon worked with no pay for three years, arranging dinner and a place to sleep with a different Jewish family each night of the week.
In September 1939, Aharon began earning a salary. He lived with poor relatives in Cluj, paying them for food. He bought clothes and sent the rest of his money to his parents. A year later, however, he learned that the Nazis wanted to split Transylvania in half, giving Cluj to Hungary and Medias to Romania. He decided to return home.
But before Aharon could leave, he was rounded up and confined to a makeshift ghetto. He jumped on the first train, which, unbeknownst to him, was headed to Medias.
At home, he found his mother and two brothers; his father had been taken to a forced labor camp. Soon afterward, Aharon himself was sent to a forced labor camp in Romania, where, to his amazement, he discovered his father.
The two lived in the same barracks. Every morning at 6 a.m., they were awakened by Nazi soldiers, handed jackhammers, shovels or other tools and marched to various areas where they dug 5-foot-deep foxholes. Once a day, they were fed tasteless, dirty soup with vegetables. And once a week they showered. “They poured water on you, like they do the horses,” Aharon said.
One morning, however, no soldiers showed up. It was September 1943. The Allies had been heavily bombing Romania, and the Nazis had run away. Aharon and his father walked several miles to a train station and returned to Medias.
They resumed their upholstery business. Aharon taught his newly acquired skills to his father, but, as a young Zionist, he no longer wanted to live among non-Jews. “My head was concentrating on how to go to Israel,” he said.
At the Medias train station, Aharon found people returning from the camps and organized a group of 32 to make aliyah. En route, in Bari, Italy, he married one of the participants, Pnina Meier. She was 16, and he was 24. Their daughter, Zipora, was born in Cyprus in April 1948. The following month, they arrived in Haifa.
Aharon spent five years in the Israeli army. In 1951, he brought his parents to Israel, to their one-bedroom apartment in Netanya. The situation was difficult for Pnina, who became depressed. In 1964, her aunt brought her to Los Angeles for treatment. Two years later, Aharon followed, and a year later their son, David, was born.
Aharon worked as an upholsterer, opening his own business in 1980. Pnina passed away in 1984, and, two years later, he married Rose Yates. Aharon stopped working in the 1990s to care for his wife; she died in 1997.
Today, Aharon lives in a Sherman Oaks condominium owned by his late wife’s estate. He receives no reparations, and, from his monthly $1,400 Social Security check, pays condo association dues of $600 and provides some financial assistance to his daughter, who is battling cancer. His son lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and two children.
Aharon keeps himself busy. He walks to shul twice a day and often gives speeches in Yiddish to Russian congregants. He also walks to the library and accompanies his daughter to chemotherapy appointments. Occasionally, despite his glaucoma, he does some upholstery work, primarily pillows, on his sewing machine.
“The important thing is to keep on the side of gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness),” he said.