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Holocaust Survivor: Michael Zeiger MAG
Would you tell me about your family and occupation?
I live with my wife in Randolph Township, New Jersey, and have three children and several grandchildren. I am 63 years old, president of a wine importing company and president of the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, where you found my name as a Holocaust survivor. Recently I was appointed to the Holocaust Educational Commission by Governor Whitman.
Where did you live before World War II?
I belonged to a family of four who lived in a small village called Ternopol, in Poland. My father, Irving, was a wealthy scrap metal dealer, so I had a pretty secure childhood. When the war started, though, we knew we were in danger from the Nazis. My father took my mother, Sonya, me and my brother, Shelley, to the village of Zborov where we had a summer home.
When did you realize you had to go into hiding?
In1941, two years after the Nazis invaded Poland, we realized we were in danger, even in Zborov. My family has only one man to thank for saving our lives and warning us to go into hiding.
His name is Antosh Suchinsky. He was a poor farmer living in a shack in Zborov. Suchinsky was always thinking of others - he even used to put out a bowl of sugar water for the flies. He always said, 'Do to others what you would like them to do to you. We have the choice to be good or bad. ' He was a vegetarian and an outcast because of his beliefs. He always talked to plants and animals, and meditated by staring at a black circle on the wall. But he was our neighbor and my family was always kind to him; we would always give him food and clothing.
How did Mr. Suchinsky help you?
He had been sent to a German labor camp, but escaped and came to warn us. He knocked on our door offering help. My family was hesitant at first. My mother told us to trust him, though. In fact, just before he came, she had a dream where her deceased mother told her to put her faith in Suchinsky. So we accepted his offer.
Was it Mr. Suchinsky who took you into hiding?
Yes. He made plans to temporarily hide us in his barn. He and my father dug a hole in the middle of the night using cups, spoons and their bare hands because they had no shovels. Every night, they spread the dirt from the hole in different areas far from the barn so no one would get suspicious. After six weeks, they were done; the hole was four feet deep.
What was it like living in the hole?
I can't tell you how horrible the conditions were. There was no air, no food, no light. We were just like animals. All we had were the will to survive and a positive attitude that we would eventually get out. We were always sick, but there was nothing we could do. There were no doctors, no medicine. The will to survive was more critical than anything else. Our top priority was to stay alive.
How long were you in the hole?
Could you ever come out, even at night?
Never. We didn't want to be caught.
What did you do to pass the time?
All we had were the stories my parents told. We couldn't even light a candle, so we just listened. My father told us story after story of what our lives would be like after the war. He described a world in which Jews were no longer the object of persecution.
What did you eat?
There was very little food. We would sometimes go for days without eating or drinking. Suchinsky lowered food in a pail every few days, sometimes just once a week. We ate raw potatoes, raw beets and, once in a while, had a little water. Water was a luxury.
Suchinsky didn't want to look suspicious because everyone was watching him. They knew something was going on, but couldn't find out what. He knew they were watching him so he tried to be very careful. In the middle of the night he would say, "I'm here" and lower a pail of whatever he could find. He was poor himself, and didn't have much food.
Did the Nazis ever come close to finding you?
Yes. The Nazis were looking for us. There was one incident when we saw the light from their flashlights. Can you imagine that? They were poking with bayonets in the straw, but couldn't find the hole. Another time we couldn't speak or even move for two days because the German soldiers were keeping vigil in the barn above us.
What about Mr. Suchinsky? Did they ever capture him?
No, they did could not figure out who he was or what he was doing. He did everything he could to prevent the Nazis from discovering us. He burned his mouth with sulfuric acid once so the soldiers could not question him. He used the acid, herbs and human excrement to cover our scent so the dogs could not smell us. He made false hiding places, too. He scattered papers and other things in them to make it seem like we had lived there but just left. Right before we were saved, Suchinsky was forced to leave the village and we could not get news of the war.
How were you saved?
In 1943, after two years in the hole, the Russians liberated Poland. We heard the shooting, a tremendous amount of shooting. We heard the Germans talking and then, for about a day, it was completely quiet. We did not hear any talking, just a lot of artillery and bombing. Then we heard Russian. The soldiers were searching for prisoners. Somehow my father made contact, and they pulled us out.
We were completely incapacitated; we couldn't move. We were crippled. We were crawling on our knees. Being in a hole for two years and not moving - the dampness of the earth got into our bones. And even more frightening was that two days after we were rescued the hole we had lived in for two years collapsed.
What did you do then? Where do you go in a world that does not know you anymore?
Well, it took us eight months to recover physically; emotionally ... well, that is another story. Our house had been demolished during the war, so we left Poland for Austria, then Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bavaria. We wanted to move to Israel where we would not be persecuted but were denied entrance. That was when my family decided to move to America, where my aunt was living.
What happened to Mr. Suchinsky?
We lost contact with Suchinsky, and after years of not hearing anything from him assumed he was dead. But years later, we learned he was still alive.
We planned a reunion, and my father offered to buy him an apartment in Israel or America, but he declined, preferring to remain where he was. He told me, 'Every dog has his own home. ' Since then I have visited him as often as I can, and send him clothes, food and a little money. If we sent him a lot of money all at once, he would just give it away. At 94 he still cares about others more than himself.
What have you learned that you want teenagers to know?
I want them to know that a terrible thing happened, and is still happening in parts of the world. It's up to you young people to make sure it doesn't continue. There are a lot of books out there that say the Holocaust never happened, but it's not true. I am a living example.
So, we have to educate people. We have to make sure we erase bigotry, and we have to try to live together. Race and religion don't matter; we are all human beings. I wish you could interview Suchinsky - he would tell you. He would tell you how to live and how everyone is created equal.
You are the future. You have to learn. Talk to your friends and enlighten them so they know. Spread the word so everybody knows it did happen. We must stop hate.