Sitting in the comfortable living room of Leo Winokur Winn’s red-and-white ranch house, it is hard to imagine the atrocities the 90-year-old Jew lived through as a young man.
On a recent Tuesday, he spoke of a life at complete odds with his present suburban existence, one his three children never knew much about while growing up, one that still gives him nightmares.
His bright smile did its best to hide the memory of the ghetto where he watched family members die during World War II and the horror of the death camps he survived.
In an effort to ease his mind and to offer his children a look at his past, Winn began in the early 1990s to put his story on paper. He published “Cry … If You Can: A True Story” in February.
The story begins in 1939, when Winn was 15. Keenly aware that war was on the horizon, he possessed only a child’s sense of what that might mean.
Before World War II, he lived a modest, Depression-tempered life in Poland. Home was an apartment shared with his mother, father and sister. Extended family was nearby.
But in early 1940, German troops ordered all the Jews in his town into a ghetto, and home became a tiny flat.
“We were really living under horrible conditions,” Winn recalled. “And it was meant for us to live that way because they wanted us to starve.”
Both of his parents died in the ghetto and, when it was finally closed, Winn and his sister were separated during deportation.
He described killing camps, where many from his town met their fate: “They had the people dig their graves and they put them into vans and put in the carbon monoxide until they died. Then they moved the vans onto the grave and they dropped [the bodies] down and that was it. They became very efficient.”
Winn said he nearly faced a similar demise but was saved when Russian troops entered the region.
“The Germans were afraid that the Russians would discover all of these things, you know, so they needed time in order to clean up, cover up, and they stopped the transports and I was saved that way — saved only to go to another camp,” he said.
Winn survived Auschwitz and Dachau, took refuge at a Benedictine monastery-turned-hospital in Germany, and in 1949 was able to immigrate to the United States. Taken in by cousins in New York City, he attended high school and college there.
In 1956, he was introduced to his wife, Monica, by a mutual friend.
“I can give you an exact location,” Winn said. “I met my wife at the cafeteria on 96th Street and Broadway.”
A native of France, Monica Winn came to America looking for a better life, Winn said. The couple married in 1957.
Winn worked as an engineer for General Electric and MTI. He and his family have lived in the Capital Region since 1966.
When Winn retired in 1991, he decided it was time to tell his story. His autobiography was years in the making.
“I thought that when I retired that the time had come to get it off my chest to leave it for [my children] so they know where they came from, who they are and who their grandparents were. They were kids who grew up without any cousins or aunts or real close family. I’m sure that thing went through their mind, but they never asked and I never told them, so eventually I figured the time had come,” he said.
Winn’s son, Michael, said he was told parts of his father’s story when he was younger, but never knew the details until he read “Cry ... If You Can.” As a child, he said the Holocaust was like a cloud hanging over him.
“Growing up with this dark history in the back, the less I knew about it probably the scarier it felt,” the Saratoga Springs resident said.
Now in his 50s, Michael Winn said the book made him realize what a strong man his father is, but he said he was also struck by the lack of emotion he found in the autobiography.
“He didn’t have pages about when his mom died. At first it bothered me, to be honest,” he admitted.
Since then, he said, he has come to understand his father could not allow himself the luxury of emotions during those times.
“Basically he had to go to his animal instincts and just turn off the emotion center. You don’t have the energy or the nutrition to cry. All he could think about was one thing — surviving,” he said.
Michael Winn said learning his father’s history has given him a greater appreciation for life.
“What my father went through taught me that basically you live in the moment and make every moment count with your family and friends.”
Looking back on his life, the elder Winn said the trials he has experienced have made him strong, persistent and appreciative.
“Even my own existence I never take for granted,” he said.