Samuel Goetz dies at 85; Holocaust survivor and tenacious advocate

 Samuel Goetz dies at 85; Holocaust survivor and tenacious advocate
Seen in 2005, Dr. Samuel Goetz, left, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, with Bob Persinger, the American GI who commanded the tank corps that liberated the camp where Goetz was being held. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Samuel Goetz was 14 when the Nazis rounded up Jews in his hometown of Tarnow, Poland, and killed thousands of them — his parents included — in the gas chambers at Belzec in southeast Poland.

A few months later, he too was forced out of Tarnow and into the first of several Nazi labor camps in Eastern Europe. "I thought often [about] how I'm going to die," he recalled in a 1999 CNN interview, "whether it's going to be a bullet, would it hurt. I really did not know."


Instead, he was among the survivors. But unlike many Holocaust survivors, he didn't try to bury the nightmarish experiences or let them bury him in anger or bitterness. He told his children about what had happened to Jews during the war. And then he decided he had to do more.

An early advocate of Holocaust education in the United States, Goetz became a prime force behind the creation of a Holocaust studies chair at UCLA, the first at a public university in the United States.

An optometrist for 50 years, Goetz, 85, died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 24 at his Los Angeles home, said his wife, Gertrude.

His ophthalmologist son, Joseph Goetz, recalled that when he was growing up his father "was always quite open about sharing what happened" during the Holocaust. It was not until the 1970s that the survivor's desire to preserve the era's brutal history became his urgent cause.

During the '70s, the Holocaust denial movement gained momentum, with books and other materials contesting the Nazis' murder of 6 million Jews during the war. Some of the material was written by academics at respected universities.

"When these Holocaust deniers began to surface, with all their talk about the 'lies of the 6 million' … I couldn't keep quiet," Goetz recalled in a 2005 interview with The Times. "I said education is the only way we can leave our legacy."

Goetz was active in the 1939 Club, which takes its name from the year Hitler's army invaded Poland and is one of the largest Holocaust survivors groups in the world. Goetz, who had served as the club's president in the mid-1960s, proposed that it raise funds to help UCLA establish a chair on Holocaust studies.

The chair was created in 1979 and helped turn the university into a center for Jewish studies.

"Sam was the central person in the 1939 Club who [recognized] that teaching that history could be a kind of response to the widening revisionism that was spreading in Southern California," said Saul Friedlander, an Israeli Holocaust scholar who was named to the chair in 1987.

Although not an academic, Goetz "had an encyclopedic command of the scholarship on the Holocaust," said David N. Myers, chairman of UCLA's history department. "He read everything that came out. It lent a depth to his own account that made him different from most other survivors I met."

Goetz was born in Tarnow on June 8, 1928. His family did well in the fur trade, but Germany's invasion in 1939 ended their comfortable life.

In 1943 Goetz entered the first of five concentration camps. He worked underground in German tunnels and went to sleep amid the smell of rotting flesh. When he was 16 he weighed only 80 pounds.

Decades later, he wrote the memoir "I Never Saw My Face," a title that refers to seeing his emaciated face in a mirror after being liberated from the Nazi camp in Ebensee, Austria, on May 6, 1945, by the U.S. Army's Third Cavalry.

He immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 and married his wife the following year. He earned a bachelor's degree from UCLA in 1955 and graduated from what is now the Southern California College of Optometry in 1960 before opening a practice on West Pico Boulevard.


In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Genie, and nine grandchildren.

In his memoir, Goetz described the moment when a tall, young sergeant climbed down from his tank and declared that Ebensee's 18,000 prisoners were free. "We kissed his hands and touched his uniform, as if touching a saint," Goetz wrote. "Each of us wanted to make sure the man was real."

For decades Goetz was haunted by the fact that he never knew the soldier's name. None of his reading about the Holocaust had yielded a clue. He even searched war archives in Washington, D.C., but his liberator's identity remained "a missing link in his concentration camp experience," Joseph Goetz said.

One day in 2005 Goetz mentioned his obsession to a patient, who happened to be heading to Austria for a 60th anniversary commemoration of Ebensee's liberation. When Goetz learned that one of the speakers would be a GI who had participated in the liberation, he gave his patient his business card to pass along.

The GI turned out to be the man who had occupied Goetz's thoughts all those years. Bob Persinger, who managed a business in Illinois, contacted Goetz and flew to Los Angeles several months later for an emotional reunion.

"We looked at each other," Goetz told the Orange County Register later, "and embraced."