The Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey’s (JCRC) Raab/Goodwin Center held their third screening of the center’s Holocaust Survivor Testimony Series at the Moorestown Library earlier this month.
Participants heard the testimony of survivor and late Moorestown resident Shelley Zeiger and heard from Zeiger’s son Jeff, who took questions from the audience.
“This story has so many implications for today’s students,” he said. “From bullying to doing good because it’s the right thing to do, and because if you believe in something or you’re a morally good person, you can achieve what you need to achieve. And it is possible.”
According to the testimony, the elder Zeiger was born in western Ukraine, then known as Poland. His father was a businessman who supplied steel to the Polish government. Zeiger was 6 when the German invasion of Zborow took place in 1941, and in a matter of months, the Zborow ghetto was formed. Zeiger and his family lived for a year.
The family escaped from the ghetto on Zeiger’s birthday – May 12, 1941 – and were taken in by Anton Suchinski, who was known to people as the town fool. Zeiger’s father and Suchinski dug a shelter underneath a cellar, while Zeiger, his brother, mother and two girls hid in Suchinski’s brother’s farmhouse for 18 days.
Zeiger described the shelter as a rectangular hole that was long but very narrow and had two holes. One led to the cellar and the other went through the house and chimney, where Suchinski created a pulley with rope. Every day, he supplied the Zeigers and the girls with water, bread and potatoes. They lived there for about 15 to 22 months, until the Soviet Union’s 1944 liberation.
Zeiger and his family were taken to a field hospital for a few weeks and in 1949, they moved to Newark. Zeiger eventually joined the U.S. Army and would go on to become a highly successful businessman and entrepreneur.
He traveled back to Zborow with his mother and brother, where they reconnected with Suchinski, whose name is inscribed in Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem) next to Oskar Schindler, the real-life hero of the film Schindler’s List.
Until he passed away in 2013, Zeiger and other survivors spoke to students all over South Jersey. Jeff now keeps his father’s legacy going; for him, the family’s story encompasses three messages: Don’t make fun of people, if you do good, good will come back to you and recognize that one person can do a lot.
“To know that I’m accomplishing so many things on so many levels by taking the time to tell the story … Number one, I’ve made a commitment to my father,” Jeff explained.
“To see the impact on the kids … It’s very rewarding to me to know that I got to one (student), to two (students).”
Jeff was 13 when he discovered more information about his family’s story, but he didn’t fully grasp what they endured at the time. Now, he sees things differently.
“ … There’s a lot of honesty, there’s a lot of sharing your feelings, there’s a lot of positive character traits that were developed along the way that began to take shape and began to shape the way that I tried to do things,” Jeff recalled.
“To be able to tell a true story and to see the recognition and reward … It’s a pretty good feeling.”
For the Zeigers, Suchinski is a real-life hero and someone with whom Jeff will always have a connection.
“For us, he is a saint, he is a miracle,” Jeff remarked. “People say, ‘I wouldn’t be here but for … ’ Well I can really say that. I wouldn’t be here, and that’s the least of it.”
To view Zeiger’s testimony, visit https://www.jlink-snj.org/videos/shelley-zeiger.