Life and Survival: The Testimony of Sidney Zoltak

Photo by Ben Ravid.

Zikaron Basalon is an international organization that connects thousands of Holocaust survivors with communities that want to hear their stories. The organization employs individuals willing to provide their living rooms as a platform where survivors can provide their testimonies, hence the name Zikaron Basalon, which means ‘Remembrance in the Living Room’.

The event was hosted by Hillel Montreal, a Jewish organization which seeks to enrich Jewish life on the campuses of McGill, Concordia and University of Montreal. Sidney Zoltak, prolific author, educator and Holocaust survivor gave a first-hand testimony of his experiences. The Bull and Bear sat down with Zoltak and other community members to engage with his gripping testimony.

 

Life Before the War

When asked about how to engage in Holocaust education during a time when first-hand testimony is nearly extinct, Zoltak focused on the importance of primary source recognition. He stated “some are written better than others. But what you find in these memoirs is the case of individuals living a normal life, sometimes luxurious, and then having to gradually settle into the realm of the Holocaust.” To access first-hand testimony is, for Zoltak, the only way in which “those lost will be remembered.”

At 88 years of age, Zoltak began his testimony by painting a clear picture of the seemingly peaceful existence endured by Jews in the East Polish town of Siemiatycze before the war. Siemiatycze’s population of fifteen thousand was described by Zoltak as comprised of “Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics, living all together but culturally separate,” which Zoltak attributed to the leadership style of East Polish leader Józef Piłsudski. According to Zoltak, Piłsudski was a liberal, and a “friend of the Jews,” however in 1935, when Zoltak was only four, Piłsudski died. Four years after Pilsudski’s death in 1939, Zoltak recalled a political shift which reached East Germany with the Soviet occupation of Siemiatycze.

Zoltak recalled that life under Soviet occupation was non-oppressive. When asked by his Soviet-run school to pledge allegiance to the USSR, he remembers singing The Hope or “Hatikvah” (the current Israeli national anthem) instead.  He felt free to act out against the administration to such an extent because joking around never resulted in extreme punishment. He elaborated, saying that his “parents definitely did not have as much freedom as before [the occupation], but they still had their home, and their belongings were kept.”

By 1941, German forces reached and occupied Siemiatyzce. This resulted in a very different reality than he had known under Soviet occupation. By 1942, stripped of property and material belongings, Zoltak recalls his family was forced into a ghettoized, closed-off portion of the town where Jews were segregated from the rest of the town’s population. They were forced to reside there at all times, and had daily curfews and tightly restricted food rations.

Zoltak and his parents were eventually able to escape during the ghetto’s liquidation process, which he later found out brought the vast majority of the Jewish community in Siemiatyzce to the death camp of Treblinka. Sitting in the living room, Zoltak stated solemnly that “there was one destiny for those brought to Treblinka; to be gassed and then put in an oven.”

 

Survival in Hiding

After escaping through an unwatched region of the ghetto’s barbed wire enclosing, Zoltak recalls seeking refuge alongside his family, notably in the homes of local non-Jews who willingly and illegally housed them. Zoltak recalled that “some families made my parents pay for each night we stayed, and then one day, they would just kick us out.” He referenced one of the first houses his family stayed at, recalling that “one women who, after we had paid her and been forced to leave her house, asked for my mother’s sheepskin coat. She said to my mother ‘why should you have that coat, you and your family are going to die. Instead, you should give it to me.’ My mother replied ‘this is my coat and we will survive.’”

Eventually, Zoltak and his family came across a barn belonging to a poor family, where a young shepherd boy greeted Zoltak’s father. The shepherd boy informed his mother of the Jews that had arrived on their property, and when she came out to greet them, recognized Zoltak’s mother. He explained to the listeners that before the German occupation, his mother had been a clothing store retailer and had sold a shirt to this same woman for a reduced price when she could not afford it. After recalling this small act of kindness, the poor family “gratefully opened up their home to [Zoltak’s] family,” and they ended up staying for fourteen months.

During the final seven months of hiding, their family lived in a bunker attached to the barn property with no access to sunlight. It was at this time that a group of men called The Polish Underground, who Zoltak described as “a group of men searching for Jewish people to murder,” inspected the farmhouse to see if the family was hiding any Jews. After 24 hours of inspection, the band of murderers left shortly after, and in 1944 the town of Siemiatyzce was liberated.


Liberation and the Aftermath

Following liberation, Zoltak and his family returned to the house they had inhabited before the war. They were met by locals who “were not happy to see their Jewish neighbours alive” and requested that Zoltak’s family leave the town for good. They spent the next four years in displaced persons’ camps after being rejected from their former home, during which period, Zoltak’s father passed away. Afterward, they moved to Montreal where his mother’s family lived, where Zoltak resides to this day and continues to educate others about his experience through the mediums of literature, film, and discussion.

In 1997, Zoltak received an invitation from the shepherd boy to meet again for the first time since they had parted. Zoltak brought his wife and children to reunite with the shepherd boy and his family in an experience that would become tradition. Almost every year since 1997, Zoltak would continue to revisit the same property that shielded him from violence during the war.

He ended the living room conversation by insisting that he and others who share their testimonies of enduring the Holocaust are not educators, but instead, he stated: “We are survivors. Simply stating the facts of our childhood.”

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