Rouben Sami (1921-2019)
Born in Bronx, New York in 1921, Rouben Sami grew up in a Jewish family with Hebrew as its native language. Fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage, he would later look back on his time as a Monuments Officer and say, “I loved the job because I was helping my own people.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Sami and his family moved to Palestine (Israel). He attended the American University of Beirut in Lebanon with the intention of becoming a doctor, but later switched from medicine to civil engineering. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Sami was stationed in Benghazi, Libya building bridges and airports for the army. It was here in Libya that a chance encounter would open the door to Sami’s involvement with the MFAA. While visiting a temple on Rosh Hashanah, Capt. Seymour Pomrenze overheard Sami speaking perfect Hebrew. As a Monuments Officer, Pomrenze recognized the integral need for Hebrew translators amid a sea of displaced Jewish-owned property. Pomrenze immediately began making arrangements for Sami’s transfer to Frankfurt, Germany.
Within two weeks, Sami’s orders had arrived. He reported for duty at the Offenbach Archival Depot on May 4, 1946 as Deputy Director under its director, Monuments Man Capt. Isaac Bencowitz. Established in July 1945, the five-floor depot was home to approximately 2.5 million looted books and manuscripts from over sixty libraries across Europe and Russia. With more than six hundred Torah scrolls and the contents of the Rothschild Library, it was the largest collection of Jewish cultural property in the world. Sami and his workers were devoted to the herculean monumental task of receiving, sorting, restoring, and eventually restituting the many items placed within their care.
Upon Sami’s redeployment in late August 1946, his commanding officer referenced Sami’s incredible value to the depot in an official report: “By far the most difficult and most odious job of operating the Depot has been the procurement of supplies. This function Corporal Sami fulfilled to perfection.”
Despite working amid the debris of the attempted destruction of his own people, Sami remained committed to working toward the greater good. When he noticed that a rabbi visiting the depot was going hungry due to the lack of kosher food, Sami personally tracked down some cans of kosher sardines. He was also known to share food and blankets with local German refugees.
After returning home to the U.S., Sami worked as an engineer for the NYC Parks Department before starting a successful Long Island-based garbage business with his brothers. He and Seymour Pomrenze remained close friends until Pomrenze’s death in 2011. Pomrenze left Sami two photo albums relating to their work at the Offenbach Archival Depot, one of which remains today as a testament to their joint accomplishments.
In October 2014, the Monuments Men Foundation was privileged to present Sami with a gold-leaf copy of the Congressional Resolution honoring the service of Sami and his fellow Monuments Men.
Rouben Sami, age 97, passed away on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.
Photo courtesy of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.