After a full career, local survivor Samuel Pruchno dedicated his time to painting. The series of paintings that he donated to our museum teach us about the Holocaust in general, and his story in particular. Learn more in the video below.
Be sure to check out the many resources on this page: lesson plans for classroom instruction, an annotated transcript of the video, survivor testimony, and photographs of Samuel’s paintings.
At the Zekelman Holocaust Center, we have hundreds of artifacts and other items on display for our visitors to learn from. Unlike reading panels on a wall or paragraphs in a textbook, these objects tell stories and provide an opportunity to directly connect with the past. We want to know what it is, where it came from, who it belongs to. They provide clues to guide our study and help us find lessons for today.
When Samuel Pruchno retired from his career, he devoted his time and attention to becoming an artist. Doing so had been a longtime dream. He studied with master artists and created seven paintings that are on display in our museum. His works are both his own expression that capture his feelings and perspective and a gift for us to learn from.
Sam was born in Lithuania in 1927. He has sweet memories of growing up as the youngest of four children. His life was turned upside down when the Nazis invaded his hometown. Sam, his brother, and brother in law remained together throughout the war. The rest of his family members did not survive.
In the concentration camps at Stutthof and Dachau, Sam stood for hours each day as the guards and officers counted each prisoner. Every morning, no matter the weather, the prisoners were counted before leaving for work and when they returned.
There are more than 1,200 men in this painting. Sam painted each one with a face and an identification number. He made sure that each number was actually assigned to someone at Dachau. He painted himself and his brother. They are identified by their numbers: 84782 and 86018. As an artistic representation of his camp experience, he painted a small kitchen, an infirmary, a crematorium, and several barracks.
As the Allies advanced into Europe, the Nazis began to evacuate camps and force prisoners on marches into Germany. Prisoners walked for days with little food or time to rest. Many died along the way.
In April 1945, Sam, his brother, and brother in law were sent on a death march from Dachau. They walked for days and would stop to rest at night. One night, Sam stole the Nazi guard’s backpack. Inside was bread and condensed milk. Sam shared it with his brother and brother in law. When they started marching again, Sam felt sick. He needed to lean on his brother for support but didn’t want to be a burden. When the group stopped, Sam escaped.
In this painting, tired and weak prisoners are walking through a German town. The guards are on both sides of the prisoners to make sure that they stay in line. Several have fallen along the way. Sam, again, made sure to give every prisoner in this painting a face and a number. He also painted himself leaning on his brother for support.
After Sam escaped from the death march, a kind woman took him in. She gave him food, a place to rest, and fresh clothes to wear. When her husband came home, he threatened to call the German police. Sam quickly left to spend the night hidden in the woods. The woman ran after him with news she’d just heard on the radio. The Americans would probably be there in the morning. She was right. The next morning, the American army had liberated the prisoners and Sam found his brother and brother in law. Just as Sam remembered, this painting shows U.S. soldiers tossing chocolate bars from their tank. Since Sam was given civilian clothes, he is painted here in a trench coat.
As a survivor, Sam felt an obligation to speak about his story. He knew that one day we would not have the privilege to meet face to face with living witnesses. His paintings tell his story and are full of details for us to notice, think about, and learn from.
- What is the purpose of each detail that you notice?
- What do you think it meant to Sam?
- What does it mean to you?
About Samuel Pruchno's paintings
Roll Call occurred every morning and evening before the inmates left for work and again when they returned. Each inmate had to be accounted for and if the count was incorrect, the inmates had to continue to stand, not moving, until the discrepancy was reconciled. The Nazi guards were afraid that someone might escape. More likely, the missing were dead.
The inmates stood in straight lines, in block formation, to be counted by the block kapo, who reported to a German kapo, who reported to a Nazi officer, who then reported to the Commandant, shown here standing on wooden planks (to keep his boots clean). This could take hours, in sweltering heat, rain, snow, and sub-zero temperatures, each inmate wearing nothing but their striped uniforms.
The kapo was looking for any opportunity to hit the inmates. They would yell: “Caps Up, Caps Down,” and the inmates had to perform in a synchronized manner, or get hit. One time Sam was beaten over the head for slipping out of line to use the latrine. He had diarrhea and didn’t want to soil his clothes; he would not be given another set, nor be allowed to wash.
There are more than 1200 inmates depicted in this painting, including Sam and his brother Al, with their actual numbers shown on their uniforms, 84782 and 86018. In fact all the numbers shown represent actual concentration camp prisoner numbers which Sam obtained from the Dachau archives.
Genocide by Labor
At the Dachau satellite camps, the inmates provided the slave labor used to construct the Ringeltaube, the three semi-subterranean bombproof bunkers in the Landsburg area. The purpose of these enormous bunkers was to camouflage the manufacture of the newest Messerschmitt airplanes, so production could proceed uninterrupted by Allied bombings.
One of the hardest jobs for an inmate was the unloading of bags of cement from the trains. They were heavy and dusty, and had to be carried at a fast pace. If a bag broke, cement dust got everywhere, in their eyes and mouth, in their hair in in their clothing.
For a few weeks Sam was assigned to be the assistant to a steam shovel operator. Sam’s hope was that by working closely with a German civilian, someone who might have children his age and have pity on him, Sam might have a chance to obtain some extra food. The man didn’t so much as throw him a scarp of food; he only barked orders.
One torrential day, the steam shovels had ceased operation, all except one. When the steel cable broke and the bucket came down, Sam had to climb the slippery bridge arm, carrying a 90 pound cable, and put it through the guide wheel fifteen feet off the ground. Sam asked if he could wait until the rain let up, and got a wrench thrown at him in response. If he hadn’t moved, it would have split his head open.
One morning the German guards walked the inmates out of camp, ostensibly to go to another work camp. In fact, they were being walked away from the approaching Americans on what would come to be known as the Death March. They were given neither food nor water. Those who fell behind or those who fell to the ground and could not get up were shot. Sam became weaker by the hour, his brother Al, and brother-in-law, Yechiel, took turns supporting him, as shown in the lower left corner of the painting.
Later that night they stopped to rest in an open field near Kaufering. Sam was desperate enough that while the German guards slept, he crawled on his belly and stole one of their backpacks. It contained three loaves of bread and four cans of condensed milk, which they divided evenly. The fourth can of milk, Sam drank as well; it shouldn’t go to waste. At daybreak they heard the guards threatening punishment to the thief, but there was no search, besides, the evidence was safely in their stomachs. They were simply ordered to start marching again. A few hours later, the milk caught up with Sam and he started feeling a pain in his stomach that worsened by the minute. All he could think about was escaping into the woods; he didn’t want to be a burden. Sam mentioned this to his brother-in-law, Yechiel, who said the Americans were too close to take any chances.
The next morning was foggy, so Sam got his opportunity to escape. He didn’t even have a chance to tell his brother. While the guards were meeting, he crossed the road and went to the first house he saw.
A kind woman let him in, fed him and clothed him in a complete outfit from shoes to hat. He spent the day there. When her husband returned from work, he threatened to call the police. Sam left immediately but couldn’t cross the road into the woods, as the German troops were retreating. The woman ran after him with news she just heard on the radio; the Americans would probably be there in the morning. Sam asked her for a newspaper so he could pretend to read as he watched the troops through a hole he made in the paper. Half an hour later, there was a break in the traffic and Sam, still reading his paper, sauntered across the road and into the woods where he spent the night.
In the morning he felt guilty that he left Al and Yechiel, as he had promised his mother they would all stay together. As he walked to the prisoners’ barracks where he had left them he became increasingly nervous; he did not want to be mistaken for a German soldier who had slipped out of uniform and into civilian clothing.
Sam found his brother and brother-in-law. Late in the morning of May 1, 1945, the American soldiers liberated the inmates, although technically Sam had liberated himself.
Sam is in the lower center of the painting looking more like a reporter than an inmate. From the tank, the soldiers are throwing Hershey bars down to them. Days later, UNRRA trucks came to take the people back to their home countries if they wished to go, as signified by the different flags. Few, if any, Jews wanted to return to the home countries that had betrayed them. But the group of inmates and the cloud above them represents the future state of Israel, a place many would come to call home.
Read more about Samuel Pruchno in Resilience: From Shavl to Southfield via Dachau by
Marcia Pruchno Lawrence. This book can be purchased in the Zekelman Holocaust Center’s
Doris & Eric Billes Museum Shop.
About Samuel Pruchno
Samuel Pruchno describes a very comfortable life in Shavel, Lithuania, where he was born. He lived in a wealthy community where his father was a vice president of a bank. The relations between Jews and non-Jews were “relatively good.” He recalls only a few specific incidents of anti-Semitism among certain elements of the community.
Once the Germans occupied Shavel, Pruchno remembers how their non-Jewish neighbors and friends acted as though his family never existed. He, his brother, sister, and brother-in-law fled to the countryside. When they were forced to return to Shavel, he describes the changes that took place during the next few months. His family was forced to give up their home and move to the Kafkasa ghetto in Shavel. A Judenrat was established and Pruchno remembers that by September 1, 1941, you could only leave the ghetto if you had a work permit. He describes the crowded conditions, lack of food, and the work done in the Frankl Leather Factory.
Pruchno recalls that the Lithuanian partisans demanded that the Judenrat turn over 70 strong young men for hard labor. He and the others were taken to a work camp where there were no sanitary facilities, no clean clothes, no place to wash, and only straw to sleep on. They unloaded railroad ties and laid track. He remembers that when the Germans needed men to work on an airfield, they were brought back to the ghetto.
He recalls that the winter of 1942 was particularly hard on the ghetto inhabitants. Food rations were low and they had to risk their lives to trade valuables with the Lithuanians for extra food. Searches were made every time workers returned to the ghetto and new regulations and demands were made constantly.
Pruchno’s entire family was relocated to an army camp that was approximately one hour from the ghetto. He worked in the laundry. His father was not accustomed to extreme physical work and took ill in 1942. He was taken to the Trakai hospital, where he died in April 1944.
The Pruchno family was eventually returned to the Kafkasa ghetto and Pruchno remembers how he had to slip through a brick wall to trade table cloths and linens for food. When the Germans caught a man bringing two loaves of bread into the ghetto, he had to witness the hanging. He also remembers when the German soldiers surrounded the Trakai ghetto and took all the children away.
Deportations began and Pruchno recalls that each person was allowed to take one suitcase. They were marched to the railroad where approximately 80 people were loaded onto each car. He describes their arrival in the Stutthof concentration camp, how the men and women were separated (this was the last time he saw his mother and sister), and the procedures the men were put through as they were beaten by German kapos. The next day he was taken by truck to a railroad station and again transported by box car to a labor camp near Dachau.
At the camp he unloaded cement and he describes the poor sanitary conditions in the camp and an incident when he was beaten by a Jewish kapo. He details what he had to go through to get a pair of shoes and how he was punished when he stole some bread. Their rations were cut by this time, the lice were torturing them, but they could hear gun fire close by. The prisoners knew the war was coming to an end.
Sometime in April the SS issued orders that no one was to leave for work. Instead the prisoners were marched under heavy guard away from the camp. Pruchno recalls that they received no food or water and that he was getting weaker and weaker. He escaped to a home in a town near Munich and tells how he was treated by the woman who answered the door and her husband. He then describes how he was rejoined with his brother, brother-in-law, and the other prisoners and how they were liberated by the Americans on May 1, 1945.