David Dragon was 16 years old when he secretly traversed the sewers of the Warsaw Ghetto, defiantly risking capture by the Nazis, to scavenge scraps of food. He brought back whatever little he could find to feed his parents and siblings. Yet despite his courageous efforts, his mother and father died of starvation.
He was 19 when the Nazis captured him and sent him to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Amid the death and human suffering, he toiled laying the bricks that formed the camp's numerous crematoria. David endured unspeakable acts of torture, starvation and humiliation. A proud Polish Jew, his identity was stripped and he was no longer seen as human. He was simply number 78363.
David was part of the forced "death march" from Auschwitz to Dachau, another concentration camp located in southern Germany, as the Soviet army closed in on German positions. Those unable to keep up throughout the grueling trek were shot.
Liberated by the American army in 1945, David was sent to a displaced persons camp in Munich where he met his wife, Shirley. They eventually emigrated to the United States in 1948 and had one son, whom they put through college and medical school. Their son became an oncologist, using his talents to heal, treat and administer comfort to people suffering from cancer. He brought life and hope to countless patients and their families, including mine.
David Dragon is my wife's great uncle, and we visited him earlier this year. I recall American flags prominently placed in his apartment. He loved this country. As he hugged me hello, my eyes were drawn to the Auschwitz tattoo on his left arm. Number 78363. It unsettled me. He was reading a newspaper article about the rise of anti-Semitism in both the U.S. and Europe. He handed it to me and made the point that we must never forget, that his story and those of every Holocaust survivor must be remembered and shared. That we must fight against the light extinguished.
His voice turned a sad, fearful tone as he said one day, when all the Shoah survivors are gone, all that's left will be memories and stories.
David passed away Oct. 20 at 99 years old. He was beloved by countless family, including two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, friends and people who knew him at his synagogue. His historical record is memorialized at the Illinois Holocaust Museum where he recounted his story hundreds of times, mostly to visiting school groups.
I came across this prophetic quote from David taken from the Museum's web site: "I speak to hundreds of kids each year, sharing my story. When I speak, I tell young people ... of the importance of freedom and that they should enjoy it. Ultimately, I think I maybe lived for them: the next generation."
His story now becomes our story.
- Kevin Cook of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected].