Before the age of four, Sam Ponczak had escaped the Warsaw ghetto, had crossed a frozen river into then Soviet-occupied territory in Poland, and had been arrested and sent to a labor camp in Siberia, along with his mother.
Sam Ponczak was born on December 14, 1937, in Warsaw, Poland. His father, Jacob, worked as a tailor and his mother, Sara, was a seamstress. After Nazi Germany defeated Poland, starting World War II, and partitioned the country with the Soviet Union in 1939, Jacob wanted his family to go to Soviet-occupied Poland. Sara, not wanting to leave her parents and brothers, stayed with Sam in German-occupied Warsaw while Jacob left to find a safer place for them to live.
Sara and Sam lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw. When German officials established a ghetto there, they did not have to move. In November 1940, they fled the ghetto to join Jacob in Soviet-occupied Poland. The only way to escape across the border was by walking across the frozen Bug River alone at night. Much to Sam’s amusement, his mother kept falling on the ice while holding him in her arms. Fearing that his laughter would get them caught, she gave him family photographs to play with to keep him calm.
Once inside Soviet-occupied territory, Soviet border guards arrested Sam and his mother. Though they were reunited with Jacob, Soviet authorities deported the family to a labor camp in Siberia and eventually moved them to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Autonomous Republic in northern Russia. While there, Sam’s father and mother were assigned to make military clothing. After they declined the Soviet government’s offer of citizenship to Polish refugees in 1944, Soviet authorities moved them to Ukraine in preparation for eventual repatriation to Poland. Sam’s sister Gisele was born in Ukraine in 1945.
After the War
Sam and his family returned to Poland in 1946 but could not return to Warsaw due to the almost total destruction of the city. Instead they moved to Reichenbach (today, Dzierżoniów) in former German Silesia, which had become part of Poland in 1945. In 1948, the Ponczaks moved to the city of Wroclaw, where Sam finished high school. Due to rising antisemitism, Sam and his family left Poland for France in 1957 and lived on temporary documents in Paris. In 1959, they immigrated to Argentina and lived there until 1964, when they came to the United States and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1965, Sam married Frieda Greenblatt, who had also immigrated from Poland. By 1967, Sam had a degree in engineering from the University of Maryland and was working at the Radio Corporation of America in New Jersey.
Sam returned to Baltimore in 1980 and continued to work in the engineering field. He has three children. Today, he is retired and volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.