NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Roman Luftglas is no stranger to horror: He witnessed civilians murdered in his native Poland, watched his parents marched to their deaths at Auschwitz, and saw fellow U.S. infantrymen killed in combat in the Korean War.
One lesson he came away with is to resist judging people by race or ethnicity, he said Monday evening.
"I have seen good Germans and bad Jews," the 89-year-old Holocaust survivor told the monthly meeting of the Newington Kiwanis at a local restaurant.
"Under no circumstance do I consider your color, your nationality, your religion," he said. "If you are a good person, to me you are religious. If I go to the synagogue twice a day but I'm a jerk, in the final accounting — it won't count."
Many people in central Connecticut knew Luftglas as the owner of the Camera Bar in Hartford, and others see him and Goldie, his wife of more than 60 years, as just typical senior citizens residing in West Hartford.
But Luftglas' life has been remarkable, and in his retirement he is a frequent speaker for community groups and schools. His core message is that despite what hardships people go through, they can endure and come back stronger.
"We have some lessons we can learn from him," Kiwanis President Dan Henry told the audience Monday. "I heard a guy at work say 'You ever have one of those months? I'm glad this month is over.' Whatever month that guy went through is nothing compared to this."
Luftglas was 14 when the Nazis marched into his hometown in Poland. He recalled that the army ordered the population to turn over all valuables within 24 hours, and began killing people when it suspected they were holding back.
"This was the first time I saw innocent people being hung on trees," he said. "At one time, all Jews were ordered to show up at the train station at 6 o'clock. They put us in cattle wagons."
On arriving at Auschwitz, the line of prisoners was split in two. Luftglas' parents were ordered to walk to the right, Luftglas to the left.
"I was whipped when I tried to go right. My parents went — that was the last time I saw my family," he said.
Luftglas was put to work at a series of jobs, surviving until the Allies liberated concentration camp prisoners in May 1945. A church group in South Carolina sponsored him to relocate to the United States, where he worked until he was drafted early in the Korean War. He served three years and survived the battles of Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill, he recalled.
He later held jobs as a mechanic, sheetmetal worker and welder, ran the Camera Bar for years, and raised a family with Goldie. He told the audience that he's come to a conclusion about late life: "The only thing you can take with you is your reputation and your good name."