By: Jan Engoren Contributing Writer
Now 85, Samuel Colman looks back at his life with a mixture of satisfaction, wonder, surprise, gratefulness and a steely sense of accomplishment.
In 1939, the Boca Raton resident was six and living in Poland when the Nazis came to power.
Instead of heading off to Kindergarten like his non-Jewish peers, Colman was forced to flee with his parents and brother east toward the Ukraine.
To say it was not an easy time is an understatement. Colman survived many obstacles and it is this mixed blessing that resonates most with him now as he contemplates his life in a new memoir.
He cites Psalm 113, “He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps he lifts the destitute,” as inspiration and a possible title for the book: “Lifted from the Trash Heap.”
Three years ago he was moved to put pen to paper to recollect his experiences after a great-grandchild asked him why he spoke French.
“He didn’t know much about my life,” said Colman; a life that involved surviving, resilience and reinventing oneself. “This book is a legacy to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“Even though my world fell apart, overcoming obstacles has given my life meaning,” Colman said.
Along with his family, Colman was trapped in Russian occupied Western Ukraine and deported to the Siberian gulags from which he feared they would never return.
He recalls his mother, an optimist, saying, “All this is temporary. God will help us. We will survive.”
While he, his brother and mother passed the war years in Siberia, Soviet Central Asia and the Soviet Ukraine, his father died in the gulags when he was seven.
When the war ended in 1945, the family returned to Poland where they were met with pogroms.
They escaped again; his mother and brother to Israel, and Colman settling for a time in France.
In 1954 he immigrated to the U.S., found a job in New York and began night school studying engineering.
He met his wife, Shifra, who had survived two German death camps, and the couple married and had three children – two boys and a girl.
Subsequently, Colman developed an interest in politics and was elected to the Rockland County (NY) legislature and promoted to chair.
After two successful terms he ran and was elected to the New York State Assembly where he became assistant majority leader.
In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, he was involved in the protests surrounding then-President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where many of Hitler’s Waffen-SS were buried, causing outrage in the Jewish community.
He also advocated at the highest levels of the US government on behalf of former US intelligence officer, Jonathan Pollard, who provided classified information to the Israeli government, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 2015, after serving 30 years of that sentence.
After Colman’s successful terms in the New York State Assembly, he ran for county executive of Rockland County in the Democratic party.
Although he lost, he was reelected to the New York State Assembly and worked to change the judicial system, a cause to which he is still committed.
After 18 years in the Assembly, Colman retired and ran without opposition for judge in Ramapo Justice Court, where he served two four-year terms.
Now living in Century Village, Colman looks back at his life despite its tribulations, with satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.
Writing his memoir led Colman to view his mother anew – as a hero.
“The book emerged as an ode to my mother,” he said. “Even though we were on the run for our lives, she always looked out for us and for a school for me. She did a magnificent job in raising us.”
“Her dream was that we would go to college, be independent and grow up as observant Jews,” Colman said.
Colman has more than fulfilled his mother’s expectations.
“Knowing I survived is a pleasant memory,” he said. “I have a beautiful life. I count my blessings.”
Those blessings include his beautiful wife of sixty years, three kids, 15 grandkids and approximately 30 great-grandkids – he’s not sure of the exact number.
It is Jewish superstition not to count exactly, so as to avoid k’ayn ayin ha’ra – the evil eye.
He keeps active, likes to read, and enjoys time with his extended family.
He recently discovered the music of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, for which he was too busy working at the time, but now says, “I have the opportunity now to enjoy it.”
Besides finishing his book and searching for a publisher, what’s left for Colman to accomplish?
“I would like to see my efforts to reform the judicial system come to fruition,” he says.
Reflecting back, to what does he attribute his survival during the war years?
“I don’t think I could have survived without God’s help,” he said.
“I was dealt a difficult hand, but despite that I feel my life was good and successful. When I look at my great-grandchildren — they are my epilogue,” Colman said.