It was 1945, and Allied forces were zeroing in on Nazi Germany.
Sam Bankhalter was only 19 when he, along with 60,000 fellow Auschwitz prisoners, were forced to walk in the now infamous "death marches."
In April of that year, Bankhalter was at the Buchenwald concentration camp, regularly hearing bombs in the distance, and sensed the end was near. As the Nazis began to evacuate the camp, Bankhalter also knew that the only way he could survive was to hide.
For three days, Bankhalter and two other young men hid in a septic tank with only a piece of bread among them. On that third day, in the same camp where author Elie Wiesel found freedom, American forces liberated Bankhalter and the other survivors.
His survival of a genocide that would leave 6 million Jews dead and countless others orphaned influenced how Bankhalter lived the rest of his life, family members said.
Bankhalter, of Aventura, Fla., and formerly of St. Paul, died Sept. 29 of pancreatic cancer. He was 82.
"It monumentally influenced his life," said daughter Rita Kieffer of Mendota Heights. "When one lives for five consecutive years in an environment of torture and one believes that death is a luxury ... every day beyond that is a gift."
Bankhalter was born in January 1926 in Lodz, Poland. He was the youngest of four children born to a Hebrew scholar father and a mother who was a homemaker.
In 1939, while out on an errand for his father, Bankhalter was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Being young and male, he was spared the gas chambers and instead forced to work at 11 concentration camps for the next five years.
"If they told you to do something, you went to do it. There was no yes or no, no choices. I worked in the crematorium for about 11 months. I saw Dr. [Josef] Mengele's experiments on children, I knew the kids that became vegetables," Sam Bankhalter is quoted in the book, "Sources of the West: Readings in Western Civilization, Volume 2: From 1600 to the Present."
Bankhalter's father, mother, two brothers and other relatives did not survive the Holocaust. His sister, Bluma Dafner, lives in Israel, Kieffer said.
In July 1945, Bankhalter met 17-year-old Gerda Kaiser and married her 72 hours later. They remained married for 63 years.
The Bankhalters stayed in Germany for the next five years, where Sam went to school to become a mechanic and later an engineer, then moved to Israel for six years.
In 1956, the family, which by then included two daughters, emigrated to the United States and settled in St. Paul.
A year after taking various odd jobs to support his family, Bankhalter found part-time work cleaning machines for G&K Services, which was then a family-owned commercial laundry company. He worked his way up and stayed with the company for 34 years. He retired in 1991 as its director of engineering.
Kieffer said her father was an extraordinary man who rarely complained. He reacted to news of his terminal illness the same way he lived his life.
"He was realistic. He was pragmatic. He was concerned for his family, and he had humor as always," she said. "At that moment, knowing he was going to die, he was grateful for every moment he had."
In addition to his wife, sister and daughters, Bankhalter is survived by his son-in-laws, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A funeral service was held Friday in St. Paul. Shiva is at 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday at 1830 Rolling Green Curve, Mendota Heights.
Although Kieffer said her father is most remembered for how he lived his life after the Holocaust, the experience nevertheless provided a perspective that Bankhalter would impart to his children:
"As long as you have choices, there are no problems in life. You may not like your choices, but you have them. That's how he lived. Those are the philosophies we grew up with."
Jeannine Aquino • 952-882-9056