John Saunders, D52

By Julie Flaherty

The Nazis ripped away everything that was dear to him, but John Saunders, D52, was determined to write his own ending to his story.

“I’m not really looking for sympathy,” says John Saunders. “I’m delighted I’m alive.” Photo: Kathleen Dooher

Read the full article, Life After Death.

...John Saunders, D52, was born Ignacy Silberherz in Poland in 1925. He was part of the flourishing Jewish population in the city of Stanislawow, now part of Ukraine. His father had been an officer in the Austrian and Polish armies. His mother was proud of her upper-class background. He inherited his blond hair and blue eyes from her.

One can’t help but wonder if those eyes helped him survive. Not just their Aryan color, which, at age 86, is still a clear grey-blue, but the way in which he uses them. When he talks to you, smiling or sober-faced, he looks you straight in the eye. It’s hard to look away.

Ignacy was 14 when Germany attacked Poland and World War II began; he was 16 when the Nazis sealed the Jewish ghetto in Stanislawow. For two years his family was able to stay alive, sometimes sleeping in sewer pipes to avoid the German secret police who were rounding up and killing groups of Jews. He would later write about hiding in the attic of a cemetery chapel with his older brother while the murders went on just outside.

“What we saw was a large mass grave—actually, an open pit. At that point, it contained close to one thousand naked bodies of women, men and a few children. Most of the children had already been exterminated in the Ghetto during the prior ten months. Some of the dead had been lying in the grave since the previous day. Their bodies were frozen; it was very cold at the end of February 1943. The bodies were piled up one on top of another. The Jews were told either to jump and were then shot, or to stay at the edge of the pit and were shot then; either way, they fell down into the pit. Some standing at the edge of the pit fainted and fell in on their own. The Gestapo would attempt to shoot them. Some were probably alive and only grazed by a bullet. Others fell on top of them and often suffocated those who were still alive beneath them.”

Saunders’ parents in their wedding photograph, 1923. His mother (“She was a very crafty, very strong woman, very smart,” he says) managed to smuggle him out of Stanislawow and put him on a train to Warsaw with forged papers.

He was alone, but he said he knew he would see his family again, and knew he had to stay alive. “My mother loved us so much,” he says. “I believed she would die from a broken heart if I did not come back to her.”...

This article first appeared in the Fall 2011 Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

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