Imagine being a school child in an idyllic town where your family has lived for more than 100 years. Gradually, most of your friends stop playing with you. You don’t understand why, you just know that three or four of your buddies are also shunned.
Your father, a well-respected grain dealer to breweries nearby, is warned by a good friend who has connections in the government that he can no longer protect the family from persecution.
Concerned, your father moves the family from your hamlet to a big city, hoping for safety. Your parents are fearful and won’t discuss it.
Your father leaves for another country to seek help from a family member there — an influential lawyer. Your dad obtains visas for your mother, brother and you. You all set sail aboard a ship within a year. Your ship is allowed to land. Many other ships bearing refugees are turned away.
It is 1937, a year before Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when Nazis and sympathizers shattered homes and businesses of Jewish citizens all over Germany. At least 91 Jews were killed, some 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Your family will survive because a family friend warned his Jewish neighbor, your father, about the coming storm. You will survive because a lawyer married into the family and you were able to immigrate to the United States through Ellis Island. Your ship, the S. S. Manhattan, was allowed to land. Others were not.
Back home in Hammelburg, your mother’s father, who had served in the German military in World War I, two aunts, several cousins and several other family members in Europe will soon be rounded up and disappear into the horror of the Holocaust.
One year, in 1937, you are at Talmud Torah School in Hamburg celebrating your bar mitzvah at 13 in your native land of Germany, the next you must begin a whole new life as an immigrant in New York City. Where your family will live.
“You know something is going on, but you are too young to understand,” says Arnold Samuels of his narrow escape as a child from Nazi Germany. They would learn English from his father, Willy Samuels. Ironic, since his father had honed his skills in English as a student interned in a POW camp in England in World War I. Interned because he was a German.
A longtime resident of Ocean Shores in his 90th year, Samuels lives each day in the present. He talks about the past because he embraces the mandate to “Never Forget”. He believes it is a duty to remind people of those days, particularly now that the world is losing so many primary witnesses to World War II.
“The older you get, the more friends you lose,” said Samuels.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, he and his brother “went down to the draft board to volunteer,” he said.
They were told: “‘You can’t volunteer, you are enemy aliens. But we can draft you,’ ” he said, laughing. “Those were the laws.”
Both became citizens in the service. Older brother Jerry Samuels served as a photographer in the Pacific. Samuels went into U.S. Army in boot camp at Camp Croft in South Carolina.
Samuels, then 19, was among the infantry sent into France in August 1944 after “Eisenhower’s invasion” on June 6, or D-Day. “We didn’t realize what we were getting into.”
He served undercover in Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the French-German border controlled by Germany, working a stable of informants who were often paid to reveal positions of Nazi troops and armaments.
Bilingual in English and German, he moved easily between places people congregated: bars, restaurants, cafes. Many people wanted to help, having been forced to join the Nazi party, he said.
“My main job was to was to figure out where the guns were, the ground artillery. … We gave that stuff to higher headquarters and they took action and bombed those areas.”
He even dressed up as a Nazi sometimes.
“Most of the time when you were underground, you dressed in civilian clothes and hung out with Germans in bars, drank beer to get information,” he said.
Sometimes, “we had double agents who deceived us. Intelligence (work) is not very scientific.”
He helped liberate his hometown of Hammelburg as well as Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany.
He volunteered to become an agent for the Counter Intelligence Corps and stayed on after the war. “We were working to bring Nazis to justice.”
He served in the CIC with Henry Kissinger, who would become Secretary of State.As young Jewish men from Germany and New York, they bonded. They have kept in touch most years by mail. At his 90th birthday celebration in Aberdeen, Samuels showed people warm holiday greetings from Kissinger, dated 2012, the latest missive from the man he calls the best interrogator he ever saw.
“He was … a very sharp man,” who knew German paramilitary history well, Samuels said of his fellow immigrant. “I never heard him use a foul word or a cuss word. He never used threats. He was always very gentle with people he interrogated and that’s how he got more information than anybody else.”
Samuels said he emulated Kissinger’s style.
Samuels was commended for infiltrating a POW camp of Nazis “to see if I could find out how these guys escaped and by golly, we broke the ring, I have a letter to that effect,” he said.
It turned out some of the Polish guards were helping the prisoners.
“Living as a POW was quite an experience,” he said.
Of war stories, he is modest: “Hell, you can go on and on.”
The commendation is in a binder. So are most of the papers and photos Samuels, an avid photographer, keeps on his library shelves and in an annex he calls the ham shack at his ranch home on a canal. He used to give presentations in schools.
He still bookends his mornings and evenings on ham radio, talking to friends and acquaintances he has all over the world. He and his wife of 54 years, Phyllis, bought the land in Ocean Shores in 1962 sight unseen while Samuels was working overseas. They just liked the man who showed it to them, he said. They visited, then moved there when he retired around 1980. She died of metastasized breast cancer in 2000.
He brings forth a creased photo of her in youth from a well-worn wallet.
“I always have her near my heart,” he said at the North Beach Senior Center.
Samuels often lunches there in his usual chair, his back to the wall, facing the window and the room.
Samuels met Phyllis Kaplan “in Brooklyn under a tree,” he said, evoking the famous book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
She was 15 and he was 17. She was dating his friend.
“He had no chance,” said Samuels. “Her mother and my mother made a deal, a shidduch (an arranged marriage).”
He sings the refrain of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof” and finishes his cheeseburger and salad with a sweet. “I am a nosher (sweet snacker).”
He misses her community spirit and her cooking. She was known on Grays Harbor for making an array of baked treats for Jewish holidays and donating time at clubs.
Other photos are pulled free, one of his father, Willy Samuels, standing near a Mercedes in 1925. Newer ones are of his grandchildren. He has four, including twins.
After World War II, Samuels opened a radio and television shop in Brooklyn. When the Voice of America called, he and Phyllis decided living in Salonika, Greece, would be fun. Instead, they were sent to the Philippines. Samuels began a journey of work in communications that led from there to Hawaii to Wake Island and back to the Philippines, working as a civilian engineer and manager for the VOA, the Army and the Air Force.
They lived overseas much of their marriage, two of their three sons were born abroad. His sons now live in New York and New Jersey and visit fairly often.
After lunch, Samuels usually heads home, then out again to visit buddies at any one of his clubs: the Elks, the Eagles, the Lions, the Masons. He often drops in to the Elks for a glass of wine or two.
After his ham session in the evening, he sits in his recliner and catches up on his newspapers and magazines as they arrive. The Nation and Reform Judaism Magazine are currently in queue.
Though pessimistic about politicians, who he thinks are all about themselves and all about the money, Samuels has a sense of humor about it.
He served on the Ocean Shores City Council for four years, from 1999 to 2003. He doesn’t think he was a political politician — “maybe that is why I wasn’t re-elected,” he said with a laugh.
At the senior center, an old friend spies his red van in the parking lot and sneaks in to say hi. He told his wife he was going to the hardware store.
Samuels tells him proudly that his 90th year was celebrated in the fall by 125 to 150 people at an Arnold Samuels’ Day celebration in Ocean Shores. His temple, Beth Israel in Aberdeen, also saluted him on Hanukkah shortly before his actual birthday Dec. 15.
They josh for a bit. Air Force retired Master Sargent Olav Osterhus is a fellow ham enthusiast and used to live in Ocean Shores full time. He and his wife now live in Olympia so he is closer to medical care for his heart. He admires Samuels’ hearty constitution.
Samuels laughs. He stays healthy by keeping active, traveling, being involved and “staying away from doctors,” he says.
“Arnold doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet, I can tell you,” Osterhus says.
Mindful of history, he never forgets the worst times and Samuels clearly embraces life with gusto. The toasting song from Fiddler comes to mind: “L’chaim, To Life!”
Erin Hart, 360-537-3932, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DW_Erin