FORT KNOX, Ky. — Some might have considered him a rebel, a boat rocker — a risk taker in Poland during the 1930s.
Samuel Katz considered himself a fighter.
The teenager grew up on a farm near Iwye in modern-day Belarus. The sleepy little town was home to about 3,000 Jews back then, according to yadvashim.org; they were the largest ethnic group in the area, making up 76% of the total population.
When the Nazi armies marched east to seize control of Poland, Katz got caught up in the attacks and was captured, according to an account he later gave to reporter Frank Thorn of Inside the Turret in Jan. 13, 1953 article about him.
While Katz was transported to perform slave labor at the Oszmiana Concentration Camp, the rest of his family evaded capture. He later found out his father, brother and older sister joined the Polish underground while his mother and younger sister hid in a nearby farm.
There Katz stayed for a year. After enduring horrific conditions and starvation, the weak and near-death 16-year-old was ordered onto a cattle car with several other emaciated children and elderly people to be taken to a rest camp, according to Katz.
“We knew we weren’t going to a rest camp,” Katz recalled to Inside the Turret. “While the train was speeding North, I mustered all my strength of my sick body and flung open the door. I jumped.”
Determined to live, Katz said that’s when the reality set in of what he had done.
“I remember rolling over and over. I could hear the machine guns from the top of the box cars,” said Katz. “Then I felt the pain in my leg. I crawled into the bushes and watched them come back looking for me.”
The Nazis eventually gave up the search, so Katz hobbled to a farm house, where a woman hid him in a nearby cemetery for the next three months, feeding him enough to keep him alive.
Katz said though he remained weak from exposure and hungry, he eventually traveled through cold Polish forests with an untreated wound to seek help from the Polish underground. That’s when he reconnected with his father, brother and older sister near Wilno. That’s when he also found out his mother and younger sister had been discovered by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp. The family never heard from them again.
A month later, his father died of typhus. Within the year, his brother was killed fighting the Germans.
Katz joined the underground to fight back. With a rifle nearly as tall as he was, Katz took part in attacking freight and troop trains, blowing up bridges and raiding German-held villages.
After he and his sister were liberated in 1944, the two went back to their hometown and searched for their younger sister and mom. Unsuccessful, they were picked up by the International Refugee Organization and transported in 1947 to the United States.
In 1953, 24-year-old Katz joined the U.S. Army, armed with an American rifle and the German bullet still lodged near his kneecap. His sister Sally had married a man in Detroit. Katz would marry his wife Sharon seven years later and live a long, full life.
Katz explained the reason behind his decision to join the Army.
“I’m just one of the many aliens who are happy to be in this country,” said Katz, “and ready to fight for it.”