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A Sole Survivor: Sam Klenicki, My Beloved Father

by Silvia Klenicki Kier

     To say he survived the war because of soccer seems simplistic. Yet all these years, the story told and retold is that my father, Sam Klenicki, was the only member of his family who was outside his village when the Nazis murdered the Jews of Lida, Poland. Somehow, by some grace, soccer saved him.

     It was 1941. Schlemka was eighteen, the youngest of four children, now without parents, two sisters, a brother, cousins, neighbors, uncles, grandmothers and nearly everyone he knew. He had been an active, happy boy who worked after school in a salami factory and took pride in bringing something sweet to his mother’s Sabbath table.

     Schlemkala had thick, chestnut hair with striking eyebrows. Like his petite mother, he had hazel eyes and full lips that were more naturally parted than closed. He was small, quick, athletic, and spirited. Later in life, it would goad him that he never knew his mother’s maiden name; he had very little-to-no memory of his early home life. He was grateful, though, that two family photographs survived the war with him, along with the brown leather belt he wore out of his house one fateful day in 1941.

     Though no photos exist of his pre-war soccer days, several were taken at the Displaced Persons Camp he came to by late 1945. He was back on a makeshift soccer field in photographs showing him among thin teammates, none of them appearing young, regardless of age. They pose with easy affections; embrace and stare ahead at the camera before a landscape of destroyed buildings. The frozen emotions stayed buried within him and it was not until his sixties that the big thaw occurs and he is finally able to cry. In fact, the very first time I saw him shed a tear was at his beloved first grandson’s bris, where he was named in memory of Schlemka’s own older brother Joshua.

     Samuel Klenicki always said, “meant to be” as if the words themselves were so powerful they defied the need for a complete sentence. He never claimed responsibility for his survival. It was not his careful judgment or maneuverings within the Partisans or running away form the Russian army or heading east in ’43 or further west in ’44. He says he usually just followed his instincts and got lucky, very lucky in more than a few close circumstances. His survival, his coming to America when he planned to go to Israel, his settling in a small town in Southeastern Connecticut to be near his close friends, Melvin and Ida Zablotsky, it was all simply meant to be.

     So it was meant to be that he marry my mother, Ita Cheres Klenicki, whom he met in that DP camp and that he have a son and two daughters. He found his way first as a butcher and then as a grocery store owner. Sammy accepted the demands of his modest business, adored most of his customers, and was grateful to rest only on Sunday afternoons.

     He’d take tea or coffee; which ever you’re making. He desperately loved his wife and their warm, safe life in Florida. He knew he had diabetes and followed the dietary rules, no complaining or cheating.

     He was always more philosophic than religious, yet at choice moments, when feeling deeply grateful, he readily would say… “ Thanks G-d.” And even though he spoke five languages, his six grandchildren heartily giggled when he offered more “vater…malone.”

Live was good.

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